Monday 11 July 2022

The Hand of Merlin Review (Steam)

Written by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

Recently, I have re-read a bunch of everyone’s favourite long-faced racist’s stories. Lovecraft doesn’t really do the dark ages as site-specific locations. Odds and sods of lore come from humanity’s past, but there isn’t a bit where you see the Albigensians deploy Bokrug, the Great Water Lizard, to massacre the Cathars at Beziers. Lovecraft kept his stories contemporary. So, it’s good to see some knights having a chop at unspeakable, indescribable horrors. There are other games that have done this, but taking the Arthurian legends and smashing it into cosmic horror is the context for Hand of Merlin.

There are a few working components to Merlin, but at its beating heart is tactical combat. You’ve a squad of heroes knocking about a gridded area with human, and very far from human, enemies. Supporting this is a role-playing system, a resource management slice, rogue-lite running, and an overworld to traverse. All of this is wrapped up in a ludicrous, yet really fun, story of Merlin searching different timelines to destroy the evil that has been unleashed on the world by someone who lost their faith in the goals of Camelot and its circular dining table.

This is a busy, dense game, both visually and informationally. All these moving parts need bits to explain to the player and for the player to operate. As a mild gripe, it doesn’t help that there are a thousand type-faces present, and a few different art styles. Sometimes its hokey and rustic, sometimes it’s clean and crisp. It is at once evocative and ugly, clear and confusing. If you can wade through this, there is a deep game that expands like the fetid iridescence of the Shoggoths.

The overworld map is probably the prettiest part of the game. Nodes trail across the map leading on a world somewhere between Mount and Blade and Dungeon Keeper’s legendary mission intros. Your motley band visit these nodes (different every run) and you have encounters such as straight-up combat, little events with multiple choices to interact, or villages where you can rest, trade or progress the story. The node layout gives it some measurable structure, enabling you to get a sense of how far you’re getting each time.

Hand of Merlin is a hard game. I had to drop it to easy from normal to make decent progress just to see more of the game. It never felt unfair, but there was a lot to learn about how the game works, but also a lot of information to inwardly digest. There is not a great sense of pace, as you spend a lot of time fettling your crew, getting all the bits of the characters in the right place. The combat isn’t as long as other X-Com-a-likes, and also has a more laboured pace. There’s not too much excitement, but I was glad for this as there’s a bit more to track here than the few ‘nades, action points, and positioning systems that are typically present. The result is a less frenetic and more overtly considered feeling. The little characters are nicely made, nothing too flashy happening here, and the environments are sort of grim enough to fulfil the intentions of the setting. Some of the monster horrors are nicely vile, and are by far the most interesting visually.

Outside of combat, progression is made through the map and then explored in a charming book-interface. There’s a choose your own adventure quality to this that really works. I didn’t really miss having a “hub” a-la Darkest Dungeon, nor did I miss wandering about a town looking for the bloody shop in a sparse placeholder location. The book that you interact with is probably the most consistent aesthetic piece of the GUI. The illustrations do the job for keeping the human world in the picture.

There is a robust guide that is well put together, which due to the many aspects the player is juggling, I needed more than I expected. I often find in-game guidebooks to be deeply frustrating (I’m looking at you Factorio), and are sometimes less use than Clippy.

All in all, Hand of Merlin strikes a really unique note. I thought I was going to give this a 3/5, but getting a bit further into it, giving it a little more patience than my darting mind can give things, let it sink in a bit more. It’s depth, especially the RPG systems for the characters, are really satisfying. While not a quick game, it hits a tonne of great notes, which minor foibles about sort of naff visual style choices can’t really muffle. The thoughtful design and unique fusion of gameplay types pulls this up to something to check out if you enjoy tactics, RPGs and enjoy seeing some cousins of Rhan-Tegoth, Nyarlathotep, or even the horror from the hills themselves, Chaugnar Faugn.

 Overall 8/10


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