The Hand of Merlin Interview: Gameplay, Inspirations, Release Date, Future and More

If you are fan of turn-based rogue-lite Tactical RPGs, there is a chance that you must have heard about “The Hand of Merlin” developed by Room C Games, Croteam. While it’s a roguelite Tactical RPG, the primary focus of the game lies in the freedom it offers to the players. The Hand of Merlin has been in Early Access for a year and now, it’s all set to release for everyone.

We had a chance to talk about the game with developers of the game. Robert Sajiko from Room C Games was kind enough to address our questions. Our full interview about The Hand of Merlin is as following:

Q: As a person who hasn’t played the game, how would you describe it and which audience is this game for?
The Hand of Merlin is a fusion of genres. At its core, it is a roguelike: your party of three Heroes explores the world by visiting locations on a map, each offering a random encounter with various risks and rewards. This part of the game is about making tough choices. Do I take this pass and risk a difficult combat encounter, or do I take a safer path but with less chance of getting a cool new item? These choices matter, because as in any true roguelike they’re all permanent throughout a run, as is death!

But the game is also a turn-based, tactical RPG. To resolve those dangerous combat encounters, you’ll have to come up with successful strategies. You’ll have to carefully position your squad on a grid, make use of cover to protect your Heroes from enemy fire, and flank your enemies to overcome their own defenses.

There’s also synergies to be found between your Heroes’ skills, and combos to execute. For example, there’s something very satisfying about setting an area on fire with your alchemist, pushing an enemy across several tiles through said fire with your warrior, while also triggering a reaction attack from your ranger. 🙂

And, being a roguelike, the skills you discover are drawn from a random pool, so every run will feel fresh, with new synergies to try out. Oh, yes, you probably will have to die a few times, learn the mechanics, what the enemies do, how your skills work… But that’s what roguelikes are about: feeling good about yourself when you finally master the game and beat it.

I also have to mention the setting, since it’s sort of unique. The game is based on Arthurian mythology, and you, the player, are the titular Merlin. You are on a quest to gather what knights you can, and take the Holy Grail from Camelot, across Marca Hispanica and al-Andalus to Jerusalem… in order to seal a celestial doorway through which ancient beings from the deep cosmos seep into our world.

Oh, and Merlin is in fact a powerful alien being too, who travels across stars and dimensions in his vessel, Avalon. So, a bit of a twist on the classic Knights of the Round Table tales. 🙂 But the narrative fits our roguelike mechanics like a six-fingered glove. The dimension-hopping aspect allows us to make the world slightly different for each run you attempt. A different King may rule in Albion. Landmarks like Stonehenge will be there, but new events may occur. So while there isn’t a set story to follow, the events that happen and the choices you make will create your own story.

And speaking of story, we actually had some players drawn to the game for that aspect alone, who struggled with the game’s intended difficulty but wanted to explore our strange, off-kilter Arthurian world nonetheless. We actually added Story Mode at one point, just for folks like that!

Q: While developing The Hand of Merlin, what were your prime inspirations for this project?
In terms of game design, a big influence was a little indie gem called FTL. I was amazed by the freedom the game offered: you could explore the vast galaxy in your starship, chart any course you wanted, but could never be quite sure what lurks behind the next moon or the next nebula.

It was exciting seeing your ship gradually get stronger as you collect or trade for upgrades. It felt great learning how to avoid unnecessary danger and grab loot when it’s opportune. I believe that we’ve managed to capture some of that feeling in The Hand of Merlin as well.

Another influence was also Dungeons & Dragons. Again, what drew me to tabletop RPGs as opposed to most video games, is the freedom of choice. Your Dungeon Master describes a situation (e.g. “There is a rickety bridge over a chasm ahead.”) with the implicit question: “What do you do?”. You can then try anything you can think of to solve the challenge – you’ll just have to roll dice to see if you succeed or not. We looked to D&D’s approach when designing encounters, right down to rolling for success on some actions you can take.

And of course, a huge influence was X-COM, but also games like Divinity: Original Sin or Banner Saga. We took plenty of notes from their cookbook, but adjusted everything to fit our roguelike format. We didn’t want to have any single combat encounter take more than 10 minutes of playtime, in order to keep the total run length manageable. So instead of long, sprawling and exhausting combat, we have these shorter but intense morsels of fun.

Q: How long the game has been in Early Access? Can you share some stats with the fans to show how community support progressed throughout the early access period?
The game has been in Early Access for a little over a year now, and it’s been a wonderful, brutal journey! Originally, we made a plan for about 4-6 months of dev time, but pretty much immediately after going live, we started getting some awesome feedback and some really great ideas started pouring in: both from the players on our Discord server, and also from within the team. Some of the best features in the game came directly from community requests. For example, we added new skills and relics that you can unlock by beating the final boss, and you can track your unlock progress via the in-game Codex. We added difficulty modes at one point: there’s Easy Mode for beginners, and then there’s Hard Mode, and even Hard Mode+ for the tactical masterminds out there. (In Hard Mode+, you can enable various run modifiers – boons and curses – that alter the rules or just make things harder.)

Overall, we’ve had 7 major updates thus far, with the 8th and final one coming up soon. That’s roughly one content update every month and a half. Plus, 27 small updates with bug fixes and gameplay tuning, which is one small update every two weeks on average. We’ve added over 90 new combat maps, 27 new spells, a dozen new skills and relics, 3 new playable Heroes and 3 new enemies, new gameplay modes… That’s -alot- of content added. 🙂

Q: Do the console version of the game have any differences from the PC version?
No, in fact, having a consistent experience across all platforms is one of the things we actively worked towards! We did not want to have the dreaded “console port” syndrome, where the PC version has weird, oversized UI or the graphics are scaled down due to consoles, or anything of the sort. We have a dynamically scaling UI which looks great and crisp on PC, be it on a standard Full HD (1080p) display, or on a 4K monitor. The UI also supports TV mode, so that text is legible when played from the couch and further away from the TV. This works great for consoles but also Steam Big Picture mode.

In terms of graphics, we made sure our engine is scalable enough to deliver smooth and stable framerates on any platform the game can run on. On a high end PC or next-gen console, all the rendering features are enabled and the game looks at its best. But even on low-end PCs or handheld devices, we only scale down things which will have the least visual impact but will improve performance. So the game looks almost as good and runs smoothly even on those devices.

Q: On Average, how long is it going to take to beat The Hand of Merlin?
That really depends on your playstyle, and how you define “beating” the game! If you know exactly what you’re doing, skim through the encounters, and blaze through combat without dying, you can probably finish a single run in about two hours. But, if you do take the time to read and to explore, to think about your choices both in and out of combat, it will probably take you about three to four hours. Also, unless you play on Easy or Story Mode, you’ll likely fail at your first few attempts. But is the game truly “beaten” after winning a run once? There’s skills and relics to unlock, with a chance to gain new ones each time you defeat the final boss (that is, finish a run).

There’s also new spells to learn – Merlin is weakened and has to regain his lost knowledge by visiting Arcane Nodes seeded across the worlds. You can also unlock new Heroes by fulfilling their unlock requirements, usually a specific feat such as dealing enough damage in one turn. And finally, for the PC at least, there’s modding. You can try your hand at using the same Editor that we used to make the whole game. Or you can browse Steam Workshop to find something cool and new. In short, the game has a ton of replayability!

Q: The game will feature some sort of side content, right? Could you share what sort of side content/quests fans can expect from the game?
Of course! We’re adding a whole new game mode called Endless Mode. It’s a special, how-long-can-you-survive type of run. Narratively, it answers the question: what if, just before plugging the hole in Jerusalem from which abominations are pouring out, we actually send our Heroes in there? It’s a one way ticket, there’s no hope of ever coming back. But those brave Heroes can maybe leave a dent at the source of the Cataclysm. Mechanically, it’s a brand new biome, since we’re no longer on Earth, but rather in that strange interdimensional pocket that’s the home of the monsters. That means you will face one combat encounter after the next, each one more difficult.

In between skirmishes, you will find things that were ostensibly left there by other mortals who ventured here. So you will gain items and experience quickly, and be able to test out various party compositions, item / skill builds, etc, to see how far you can get. It’s also a great way to earn some Essence, which is a resource used to unlock new Spells, reroll skill choices when leveling up, buy Boons for Hard Mode+ runs, etc.
In terms of regular runs, we also have Legendary Questlines. These are side quests that pop up on the map as exclamation marks. If you take on a Quest, it will usually span multiple areas and either involve combat or have you manage your resources smartly. But if you do manage to complete it, you can earn a legendary item!

Q: What are your post-launch plans for The Hand of Merlin? Do you plan to release more expansions and story content for the game?
We’re certainly going to be updating the game to fix any reported bugs and address any balancing issues. But in terms of content, we believe the game is complete. That does not mean any future DLCs are out of the question. Our plan is to continue listening to the community and figure out our next steps from there.

Q: Any Nintendo Switch specific features for The Hand of Merlin? It’s sometimes hard for the developers to find the relevant audience for their game on Nintendo Switch. Do you think The Hand of Merlin has sufficient audience on the Switch?
I firmly believe that no “special feature” can ever replace the one true king of game features: stable, smooth performance -with- great visuals. We took great pains to heavily optimize the game in order to run well on Switch, even in handheld mode, with the visuals looking almost as good as they do on PC. We leveraged our engine’s ability to prebake global illumination and coupled it with some smart solutions to support destructible environments, and the result is that, even without dynamic lighting and shadows, the game managed to retain its visual identity and overall appearance, while still running well on the Switch. That is quite a technical feat!

As for the audience, I think our game is a great fit for Nintendo Switch. Being turn-based, you can take your time planning your move, and don’t need a desk or a high-precision mouse to do split-second aiming. You can play the game from your couch, or on a train or a bus. Since each run is relatively short, you can definitely enjoy a 20, 30 or 60 minute session. Later on, you can plug your Switch into your TV at home, and continue where you left off.

Q: You guys are promoting “Dynamic Leveling” as a feature in the game. Could you shed more light on it? How does it affect specific classes the players will use?
Dynamic Leveling is another aspect of the game’s roguelike nature. Games like this are all about making do with the tools you find. It’s about variation – to keep things fresh and interesting across multiple runs. So, what we call “Dynamic Leveling” is a system where, at each level up, you draw three random skills for a Hero. Each skill is unique – you can pick one, and discard the others. So, it’s a random selection, but you still have some choice.

You still have to think about which of the new skills can combo well with what the Hero you’re promoting already has, and what the other Heroes have. Teamplay is an important factor, too. For example, the Ranger class has a strong attack ability that lets them shoot thrice, but with a reduced accuracy. The Mystic class has several different skills that can either help the Ranger overcome the accuracy penalty, or have them deal extra damage per attack, which makes the triple-attack super deadly.

What’s fun about this system is that it pushes you to discover new ways to combine these skills. You -can- stay in your comfort zone if you want to, but you can also explore and be surprised.

Q: Most tactical RPGs usually promote one or two formations (usually the most balanced ones) for the players to use. How much freedom does The Hand of Merlin give to players when it comes to party composition?
Oh, we absolutely support “odd” party compositions! Yes, there’s the holy trinity of tank-damage-healer, but since each class has access to both offensive, defensive and mobility skills, you can certainly make some interesting party compositions work – and work well! You can play with three warriors, and have one be the tank, another a heavy hitter, and another a mobile chaser / disabler.

You can play with three rangers, and make use of decoys and slows to divert enemy fire or prevent enemies from reaching you as you burn them down. You can play with three mystics, and throw some powerful area attacks around while sharing damage and healing each other. Or you can combine any of the classes above and still find fun ways to win. There’s relics and spells on top of all this to help you overcome any shortcomings, too.

Q: Have you guys optimized the game for Steam Deck or considered doing it? The Hand of Merlin could be a great choice for Steam Deck!
Yes, we already have the Verified tag for Steam Deck! After going through the gauntlet of optimizations for other consoles, the game pretty much worked great out-of-the-box on Steam Deck, too. There were a few minor tweaks to be done, and voila! It’s actually a great experience to play the game on Steam Deck, for all the same reasons why the game is a great fit for Nintendo Switch, too.

Q: Last, but not the least. What is the full release date for The Hand of Merlin both on PC and consoles?
I’m happy to announce that, after a year of Early Access, we’re finally nearing the full release! The exact date is June 14th, and we’re releasing on the same day on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch and Steam Deck.