A couple years ago, a small Croatian development team called Room-C set out to create a new game set in Arthurian mythology called The Hand of Merlin. Following a roguelite structure and based around high-difficulty, tactical gameplay, the release quickly gained a passionate fanbase that eagerly awaited each new iteration as the title went through Early Access on Steam. Now that the title has finally reached 1.0 status, it’s been ported to consoles, and we’re happy to report that the final product is an enjoyable and intense experience that’s well worth your time.
The narrative in The Hand of Merlin is kept to a minimum, consisting of a larger overarching event that’s filled in by various smaller emergent events which change from run to run. The main thrust of the story here is that there’s a terrible Cataclysm slowly corrupting the land and killing off life, and the spirit of Merlin the Wizard is the last hero of the Round Table who can do something about it. Though he’s, uh, sorta dead, he’s able to travel the multiverse and help various bands of heroes and adventurers in their quest to save their world. If they fail and die, Merlin bails on them and goes to another universe to try again.
The story unfolds in a unique way for each run, as various events fill in and give you the opportunity to make key decisions that alter their outcomes. For example, we ran into one event where the lord of a local town was tasked with determining the sentence of an imprisoned man accused (without evidence) of stealing from another townsperson. The lord asked our band of adventurers for help and we could pick from a few options for how he would be handled, with presumably different rewards given to us depending on our decision. We enjoyed this non-linear and somewhat random approach to storytelling, as it helps to keep each run feeling fresh while giving you an opportunity to insert yourself into the narrative. Your adventurers can be as honorable or as dastardly as you’d like, especially given that the only goal which really matters here is that you manage to survive battles so you can fight off the Cataclysm.
Each run consists of a few maps covered in several event nodes, each of which is linked to a couple of others by one-way lines. Get to the end of a map and you’ll have a boss encounter, and you move on to the next map if you manage to succeed. Every node has a difficulty level attached to it, and some nodes will lead to a combat encounter, a town or merchant, or an NPC encounter. You’re given an idea of the rewards you can get from a node in advance, which helps a bit with planning, and plotting your course to the inevitable boss encounter at the end of the map feels pleasingly difficult. Often, you want or need all the rewards you can see from the upcoming nodes, so making a decision can be tough, especially factoring in what you may have to endure to get to the next node that you really need.
Combat in The Hand of Merlin will be familiar to those of you who have played XCOM or Mario + Rabbids. You control a small team of adventurers on an isometric, grid-based map and have to decide how to get the most utility out of a relatively small pool of available actions. Each character can usually only do two actions per turn (including moving to another spot) and many of their abilities have cooldowns that mean they can only be used every couple of turns. Battles rarely have more than five enemies at most, but much of the challenge and intensity comes from finding the most optimal way of routing them.
For example, most attacks have a hit percentage that decides the odds of if the attack will land. If you have one action left on a character, it may be beneficial to take the 40% chance of hitting that enemy just on the edge of your attack range, or it may be better to cast a damage buff on a nearby ally for usage next turn. Usually, there will be consequences regardless of what you go with, so mitigating negative outcomes becomes a large part of surviving a run.
Every character has two bars—one for armor and one for health—and any incoming damage will hit the armor bar before it starts to eat into your health. Everyone’s armor replenishes after each battle, but their health can only be restored in towns or during limited events. If anyone’s health gets to zero, they die for good and take whatever stats and equipment they had with them. If you’re lucky, you can sometimes recruit new allies later on in the run, but they then need to be properly kitted out to be on par with the rest of the team and you’re not always getting a class that properly replaces the role of your fallen warrior.
In many ways, The Hand of Merlin proves to be a delightfully unforgiving game, as one poor decision made anywhere can bring ruin to a run that had an otherwise solid chance of succeeding. There isn’t much in the way of meta-progression between attempts either, so your success in future runs is largely dependent upon your own ability to learn from your mistakes as you slowly build up knowledge of how various elements and mechanics affect the outcome of a run. Those of you who don’t have the patience or temperament for handling a slow-paced and highly difficult roguelite will want to steer clear then; The Hand of Merlin is manageable once you put in the effort to play the game the way it expects you to, but second chances are often hard to come by.
There is some form of meta-progression, however, and this is largely linked to the in-game achievement system. Attaining feats like restoring a certain amount of armor in a battle or winning a fight with only one character in your party will unlock achievements, and these often will then unlock new adventurers for you to pick at the outset of a new run or upgrade existing ones to give them an edge at the start of the next adventure. You can also play on harder difficulties to get blessings and curses to influence various odds for later runs and to farm a consumable resource for unlocking and bolstering certain combat spells. It’s not quite Rogue Legacy, then, where persistence means you will inevitably win eventually, but there are still some avenues here for you to grease the wheels and tip the odds in your favor as you try yet again.
It’s a fine game, then, but one irritating aspect that we feel bears mentioning is that The Hand of Merlin feels poorly optimized for the Switch controller interface. In terms of performance, everything is aboveboard, but the UI is needlessly busy and odd to navigate with just the buttons. It’s clear that this was designed with keyboard and mouse in mind, as it takes several button presses to access some submenus that obviously would only take one click to reach on a PC. This goofiness with the controls doesn’t ruin The Hand of Merlin on Switch, but it does serve as an annoyance that unfortunately can’t be ignored.
Visuals in The Hand of Merlin are decent, though unremarkable. The storybook-like sequences when you come to new nodes are a cute touch, but there’s a rather distinct lack of personality to the visuals. This is about as straightforward as swords ‘n’ sorcery visuals get; models are simple and dull, environments are darkly lit and unmemorable, and there’s generally just not much flair to speak of. It’s a bit disappointing, too, as the otherwise engaging gameplay feels like it’s let down by this utilitarian and no-frills approach to presentation. We wouldn’t exactly call the graphics ugly, but they’re certainly boring.
The Hand of Merlin may not bring anything new to the table, but fans of tough strategy games like XCOM will still find plenty to love here. The unforgiving roguelite structure and decision-driven gameplay offer up a lot of engaging content, even if these elements are held back a bit by the boring graphics and an interface that’s not very controller friendly. If you can overlook those faults and you’re a strategy game enthusiast looking for your next fix, we’d suggest you grab hold of The Hand of Merlin.