I never thought I’d be saying ‘Knights of the round table’ and ‘Multiverse of Madness’ in the same sentence. In this new take on the Arthurian legend, Merlin is an all powerful wizard that exists in multiple universes – he’s basically Scarlet Witch! – who then calls upon you, the player, to assemble a team of heroes and save the multiverse from a dark cataclysm.
Let’s break out all the buzzwords. The Hand of Merlin is a roguelike turn-based RPG akin to a simplified Fire Emblem or XCOM (without the shooty guns and aliens). Hideous creatures roam the land, threatening Camelot and its inhabitants and it’s up to you to stop them.
You start the game by choosing three characters from a roster of heroes that you will use for your entire run. At the start, you only have three characters to choose from, but you unlock more by meeting various conditions throughout the campaign. The starter characters are your typical Dungeons and Dragons adventure types, being a warrior, a ranger, and a wizard. Once you’ve selected your squad, your mission starts, having you journey to Jerusalem to save the world as we know it.
You start off by picking from two grails which you take on your journey, lovingly handed to you by King Arthur’s replacement. Each grail has a random ability which is different in each run. When you fail a run, you are put back to the beginning and have to start again, the explainer being that you are now in a different universe because, you know, Merlin and the Multiverse of Madness. For all my joking, it’s a neat idea. It’s nice to have some context to failed runs in a roguelike. Merlin is basically searching the multiverse looking for victory like he’s Doctor Strange or something.
On the main map, the goal is to get to the other side, starting at Camelot and making your way to a boat that’s going to get you to Jerusalem. The map from start to finish consists of nodes, some with battles and others with ‘choose your own adventure’ style story beats. From here, the game plays out in one of a few ways: you can avoid fighting entirely and just run through the nodes for the RPG bits, you can fight your way through available battles, or you can do a mix of both.
The better rewards come from fights, of course, so it really depends how you want to play. You can take the safer route and keep your guys alive till the end, but have a tougher time when you get there, or you can risk death along the way, making the final fight a little easier, with your guys having gained some battle experience. There’s pros and cons for both styles and it’s really down to personal preference.
On my first run, I stuck it on normal difficulty and ventured out. I went straight for the combat and ended up getting my ass handed to me – the combat is utterly brutal! On my second attempt I took my time and didn’t rush in. Doing some of the story nodes afforded me the necessary XP to level up and make my guys stronger. That, combined with my more relaxed approach to combat made the fighting parts a lot easier.
Combat takes place on a grid based battlefield, akin to XCOM, with action points determining what you can do during turns. You get two action points to use for abilities or movement so your choices per round are limited. Abilities are class specific, but you can add extra abilities by equipping items, which add a little customisation into the mix. Classes play out in typical fashion with the warrior being all about getting up close and hitting hard, while the wizard type is able to sit back, throw firebombs at enemies and restore party members armour. It’s pretty straightforward but with a fair amount of depth. A simple miscalculation, however, can cost you a run.
So far, Hand of Merlin is quite enjoyable. It’s definitely not quite as polished as XCOM or Fire Emblem, feeling like a simplified version of the turn-based battle system, but it’s nice to have a different take on this style of game. The story seems quite deep and the ability to unlock new characters making future runs different is also nice. It’s still in early access so it remains to be seen what the final product brings, but right now, things are looking up for Merlin and co.