The Hand of Merlin is a turn-based strategy game published by the team at Versus Evil. If the name “Merlin” sounds familiar, that’s because this title is based on the legend of King Arthur, Merlin being his trusted mage. The game adds a twist to the fabled lore in a multiverse-spanning tale that launched on Steam before making its way to consoles. The only question is, has it been worth the wait? It’s a bit of a “yes and no” situation.
Let’s start with some of the positive aspects. The Hand of Merlin features story-driven gameplay that follows your band of heroes through lands full of danger and intrigue. The narrative literally unfolds via a giant book, with new situations revealed every few page turns.
My favorite part of this is the non-linear, choose-your-own-adventure storytelling style, with choices presented at the end of each page. Are you brave enough to investigate that creepy tombstone? If you spot a child in danger or come across two knights fighting, will you choose to engage or quietly exit stage left? Some choices simply move the story along; others offer rewards, like gold, food, or mana. At times your choices depend on chance, and you’ll be asked to draw a card from a deck to determine the outcome. These could be as serious as an encounter with witches or as frivolous as a game of hide and seek with some local children.
Some situations drag you into an actual battle. These form the second part of The Hand of Merlin, taking place on an isometric field with a turn-based approach akin to Fire Emblem. As expected, you choose and perform your team’s actions before the enemy chooses and performs theirs, and so on, until one entire team is defeated. The battles play quite well and make for a fun distraction from the storybook scenes.
Now to some of the negatives. My initial impression of The Hand of Merlin was one of annoyance. Firstly, the game begins extremely slowly, with a very long loading screen to welcome you. And by “very long,” I mean almost two minutes! These loading screens are a recurring issue, with delays greeting you before each battle, albeit shorter in duration.
Secondly, I was continually frustrated with the user interface. There are a lot of options while you’re playing, which seems great, except that they’re also confusing and poorly explained, despite a dedicated help page. For example, a “handy” pop-up kept reminding me to level up my characters – how, exactly? There are menus everywhere, and none of them make sense at first. It’s extremely cluttered and difficult to navigate. The use of a “+” symbol in several areas is also confusing – it doesn’t mean using the + button, which I’d assumed. In fact, I’m still not sure what it means.
I get the impression this game wasn’t optimized for the Switch, which also explains the poor loading times. For example, one menu asks you to “hover” over certain options for information. However, this is impossible without a mouse. These issues could be forgiven if touchscreen controls were included, but they’re notably absent.
Graphically, The Hand of Merlin fares better, sporting a dark aesthetic during battles that suits the medieval theme. The battles are also well animated, with interesting enemies to encounter, including some beastly beasts. The storybook approach also works well, though the text can be slightly hard to read because of the way it slopes – it’s designed to look like an open book, after all. Each page does include some neat stills to accompany the text, though.
Overall, The Hand of Merlin is a tactical game that plays well if you can look past the long loading times and user interface issues. While it initially put me off with its complicated menus, the decent visuals and engaging battles are fun once you get the hang of them. It’s possibly a tad on the expensive side, but fans of turn-based strategies will likely find some subtle enjoyment here.