The Hand of Merlin is an interesting cocktail: two parts roguelike, one part strategy, a splash of RPG, a dash of high fantasy narrative, shake and serve in a Dungeons & Dragons mug. I think it’s delicious and the chemical makeup of influences does wonders to alleviate the randomization that can often erode the fun of roguelikes. Developed by Room C, a small team out of Croatia, Hand of Merlin, has been in Early Access for over a year, it is now launching for retail. While it has received mostly positive reviews on steam throughout its early access period, how do Merlin’s Minions fair on the open road now that they’re in the wild.
First and foremost, this is a roguelike that presents in a strategy RPG wrapper. From there, systems are implemented to give it a blended feel and a refreshing experience. I personally almost always suck at roguelikes, but what I lacked as a player is the game fills in with difficult choices and enough freedom to make me feel like I was playing D&D with friends. You play as representatives of an omnipresent Merlin who needs you to carry the Holy Grail to Jerusalem to purge the world of corruption. You’ll make your way across three worlds via nodes that offer a variety of risks and rewards. Even after you’ve competed your quest you can start afresh with new heroes, and a newly shuffled nodes in a “parallel world” to start over in.
At various nodes, throughout the worlds, you’ll battle your way through a grid-based strategy system. Your three characters will have various attacks, items, relics, and spells. This is all relatively straightforward until you start to add in the buffs and debuffs. Like Most role-playing, tabletop, and deck-building games, these conditions deepen the combat allowing for experimentation, but they also complicate it. The game has a useful interface to find out what all the myriad status effects mean. Without this, you’d be combing through the hint menu, and it’s greatly appreciated to be able to look up what systems are influencing the battle at any time.
It can be daunting at first with so many counters and status effects at play. The initial learning curve is a bit of a steep one. There are multiple difficulty settings to get your feet wet. I’d recommend first playing through the campaign on an easier setting and then playing again on a more moderate setting. Especially as you’ll have unlocked new characters and items to try out.
Artistically, the game is very polished and has a vivid color palette to elevate the high fantasy story. The environments are detailed and lush with small set pieces to hide behind, allowing for the cover system to feel natural. While most of the narration is done through text, major cutscenes have voice-over and light animation. Furthermore, the game blends in sci-fi in a way I haven’t seen before with a spaceship view of your world and insect-like enemy types. The only visual gripe I have is how often characters and enemies were occluded from one another or blocked by fancy status indicators. I like the effort of visually representing different buffs, but when there’s a swirling ring of fire, spike indicators, and tiny dancing shields all dancing around multiple characters, it can be pretty hard to notice the flat puddle-looking enemy hiding behind them.
Overzealous visual effects aside, the game looks and runs very well on PC, and I had no crashes or glitches. Furthermore, with the inclusion of controller support, I was able to play through a large chunk of the campaign on the Steam Deck. For those that are curious the game ran great. The smaller form factor did exasperate the occlusion issues I mentioned. That being said, why spend resources overhauling the game’s HUD for a tiny screen? Overall, the game is very enjoyable on a handheld and ran great on desktop.
Moving from Early Access to 1.0 the latest patch adds new characters, enemies, and items. I am always happy when games like these make good on their promises and can use Early Access as a springboard rather than a crutch. Furthermore, the addition of modding for PC will allow the game to be more than a one-shot for those who enjoyed their adventure.
By Merlin’s Beard! It is a pretty darn good game. The Hand of Merlin successfully blends genres in a way that amplifies what you love about them. While it is a steeper learning curve, with complex systems that rival Magic the Gathering, the narrative pulls you along and the promise of getting new loot makes you want to try just one more node in the hope that you’ll get a new piece of equipment that will give you the upper hand. It’s impressive what a small team accomplished. The game is polished and feels feature-complete which is rare these days. While it is on the shorter end, about 5 hours for a completed run, the game has a lot of replay potential, and I would highly recommend this to anyone thirsty for a new blend of strategy game.