After spending some time in early access developers Room-C Games and Croteam along with publisher Versus Evil have launched the 1.0 version of their Arthurian rogue-lite RPG The Hand of Merlin. While I didn’t play it during early access on PC, I got to dive into it for the first time on PlayStation 5 (also available on all current major platforms) and see what this one was all about.
The story in The Hand of Merlin isn’t the driving force behind this game. The basic set up is that the ghost of Merlin has to travel through the multiverse to help various heroes save their world from a cataclysmic event. The rogue-lite nature of the game serves this story well as when you die Merlin starts over with another band of heroes to attempt to save the world again. Over the course of the game you’ll navigate a map and run into all kinds of different story events. Every run will have different rulers in charge of towns and you can be faced with different quests and altering decisions each time.
As you get into the game, you’ll be given a choice of several different difficulties to play on so that you can tune it to your liking. Each one will alter things like how much health your heroes get a boost of or how much the enemy attributes are reduced by. I went with Normal but if you really want a challenge then bump that up to Hard. You’ll start off with three characters filling in the roles of warrior, archer, and mage and each one has their own stats along with attacks and passive talents. The game has many more characters you can unlock along the way by completing certain objectives and then you’ll have them for future runs should you die. As you win fights in the game, you’ll earn renown that will level your characters up increasing their various stats and gaining new abilities. Gold can also be accumulated and spent on buying new gear for your team members. Relics are other useful tools that can be obtained and will grant you various buffs in battle. Honestly, the game was a bit daunting with everything that it presents to you but I enjoyed my time with it as I learned the various systems.
Actually playing the game involves you being placed on a part of the map and navigating your way across it by following nodes. Each node will feature something different as one could be a town while another will be a fight. You are given a rough idea of what to expect with a difficulty indicator on each node along with possible rewards. This helps to better prepare you for making the right choice as to whether to pick one node to travel to over another. Once you reach the end of the path of nodes you’ll face off against a boss and if you manage to win, you’ll move onto a new map and repeat the process again. A full run is usually only a few hours long but you can get plenty of additional time out of this game due to all the randomized elements making it so no two playthroughs are the same.
Combat is handled with a turn-based system much like that found in the XCOM games. When a fight starts, you’ll transition over to another screen and have your party and the enemies placed around. You are given two action points for each character that you currently have alive and are able to spend them on moving them or attacking with them. It’s really up to you to decide which is the best course of action for each character before the enemy gets their turn to move. Each party member has their own armor and health bar that will deplete as they get attacked. The armor will go down first and then the health after that. You need to be mindful of these bars as while your armor bar will replenish after a fight, your health will not and you’ll have to refill that at a town or through other means. If a character loses all their health then they are gone forever so best to try and avoid that at all costs.
While the gameplay of The Hand of Merlin was enjoyable the game is letdown by an uninspired art style and audio score. The graphics in the game just look generic and boring and also kind of blurry. It does have some nice moments when you are seeing the story parts but I just wasn’t impressed at all while in combat. The same goes for the audio as the music wasn’t very memorable and there isn’t much here for voice acting. I also want to mention that I could tell that this is one of those games that is better experienced on PC as the console controls just felt a bit sluggish when trying to navigate all of the different things that you have to do. If you’re a trophy hunter you’ll find a whopping 55 trophies to earn in this game including a Platinum. It’s a pretty comprehensive list that will ask you to do a lot but if you enjoy the game you’ll likely get most of them along the way.
If you’re a fan of turn-based RPGs, XCOM, and games where you have to make tough choices then The Hand of Merlin will likely be for you. All of the systems at play here can be a bit much to wrap your head around at first but the more you stick with it the more you’ll enjoy it. It isn’t a very pretty game and control wise it is probably best experienced on PC but it is still perfectly playable on console.
*The Hand of Merlin is available now on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. PlayStation 5 version reviewed. Review copy provided by the publisher for this review.