Upcoming RPG The Hand of Merlin will blend the characters and storylines of Arthurian myth with XCOM-style gameplay about fighting alien invasions.
There is no shortage of stories and video games inspired by Arthurian mythology, but not quite as many like The Hand of Merlin, an upcoming roguelite tactical RPG infused with science-fiction themes and invading alien horrors. Blending together gameplay mechanics from Into The Breach, Shadowrun Returns, and the XCOM franchise, The Hand of Merlin players will take on the role of a hero straight out of medieval romance, teaming up with the legendary wizard Merlin to claim ancient relics like the Holy Grail and fight off extra-dimensional demonic hordes across different Earths in different universes.
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Currently, it’s unclear whether King Arthur and Camelot actually existed in real life; if he was real, he was probably a Romano-British warlord or general who, in the wake of the Western Roman Empire’s withdrawal from Britain, defended his lands from the Anglo-Saxon incursions and raids. More important than King Arthur’s historicity are the ideals he stood for: honor, generosity towards his followers, valor in battle, and the governance of a peaceful, just kingdom.
Merlin, the inscrutable sorcerer and prophet core to the plot of The Hand of Merlin, has origins just as mysterious and murky as King Arthur’s. In early chronicles of British history, Merlin’s character seems to be a hybridization of Myrddin Wyllt, a Welsh prophet and madman of the woods, and Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Romano-British King who defeated the Saxons in battle and, in some accounts, was said to have supernatural powers. The story of The Hand of Merlin, made by the developers of The Talos Principle and the writers of sci-fi horror game Phoenix Point, seems to cast Merlin in his classic role of powerful wizard and prophet – as well as a dimension-traveling sentinel against horrors from beyond reality.
The Hand Of Merlin’s Story Draws Inspiration From Medieval Romances
Back in the Middle Ages, many poets and storytellers put their own spin on Arthurian legend, taking protagonists (or artifacts, like the Holy Grail) from other medieval romances and transplanting them into Arthur’s kingdom. Particularly creative bards, with all the zest of fanfiction writers, even created their own chivalrous heroes to interact with and even upstage older Arthurian heroes – a concept not dissimilar to the process of creating characters in RPGs. The unlockable characters in The Hand Of Merlin‘s exclusive Steam demo, ranging from “Safir the Warrior” to “Morgan the Mystic,” are original characters created by the game’s developers, members of a retinue of Camelot who did not achieve the renown of heroes like Lancelot but still answer Merlin’s call to save the world. As players journey from the land of Albion across Europe, they effectively create their own myth to add to the legends, albeit one with more alien bug monsters, corrupting slime, and extra-dimensional wormholes.
There is a danger that, by paying homage to the plotlines of old medieval romances, the developers of The Hand Of Merlin may wind up replicating the prejudices baked into these Christian, European, and Pro-Crusader narratives, particularly when it comes to the people, cultures and religious beliefs of the 8th century Islamic kingdoms, like Al-Andalus in Spain or the Abbāsid Caliphate ruling over North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Minor. The ideal way to avoid stereotyping and Orientalism is to hire game designers and sensitivity testers of Middle Eastern heritage, who can not only double-check the authenticity of the Islamic countries portrayed in The Hand Of Merlin but also ensure the game accurately depicts the architecture, artwork, scholarship, and “courtly love” narratives generated by the Islamic “Golden Age.”
The Hand Of Merlin Uses XCOM & Shadowrun-Like Turn-Based Combat
During each playthrough of The Hand of Merlin, players try to retrieve the Holy Grail from Camelot, then embark on a long journey to fight off invading aliens, claim forgotten relics, and locate and seal off the dimensional tear through which the alien horrors are invading. This long journey across Europe and the Mediterranean is broken up by branching story paths, trading sequences, narrative segments where new followers can be recruited, and numerous battles – some against human enemies, others against insectile aliens and the creeping biomass that follows them through tears in space and time.
The actual combat gameplay of The Hand of Merlin is built around turn-based tactics against alien foes with bizarre abilities, similar to the combat seen in XCOM, Phoenix Point, Wasteland 3, and the Shadowrun computer RPGs. Each player character has a certain amount of Action Points they can spend to move around, attack, and use special abilities. Taking cover to avoid ranged attacks is a core part of this combat system, while magical spells and Grail blessings supplement the mundane military skills of warriors and rangers. If a character falls in battle, their death is permanent, but players will be able to recruit those characters again in future game cycles.
The Hand Of Merlin Makes Each New Game A Different Universe
The Hand Of Merlin’s new game cycle is remarkably similar in form to other roguelite games, like Hades; if a player falls in battle, they must start over from the very beginning, but they retain upgrades and tools to help them in future playthroughs. The narrative premise of The Hand Of Merlin, though, is far more similar to the new game cycle of the mecha vs. kaiju tactics game Into The Breach; both games take place in a multiverse filled with alternate Earths, each of which is threatened by an invading alien scourge. The actions of The Hand Of Merlin‘s protagonists determine whether the Earth they fight to protect is saved or doomed. But regardless of the outcome, they must leave their old Earth behind in order to save the next one in peril. The heroes of Into The Breach and The Hand Of Merlin both fights wars that can be won multiple times but never end – an eternal struggle both tragic and heroic in equal measure.
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