Hard To Be A God (2007)

Hard To Be A God (2007), based on a novel by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, developed by Akella, Burut Creative Team, published by Akella

It's hard to believe that I actually sunk about 20 hours playing a game that isn't, at least technically, very good. Yet still, against all odds, I completed Hard To Be A God, despite all odds, just to see how the game ends. I can't really claim it was worth it, but now I know.

Hard To Be A God is an RPG, based on a Soviet sci-fi novel of the same name, originally written by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky. I don't know how it goes in the novel, but in the game, the sci-fi aspects are very toned down, as the story itself takes place on a planet going stuck in medieval society. Your character is a spy for the empire, who discovers some hidden truths about travellers from a different world, Earth, that have been for years been observing the good people of Arkanar and their apparent lack of progression out from the medieval stage.

The story itself goes through several twists and turns of medieval Arkanar politics as well as the politics of the earthmen, but there's very little high technology visible in the game. Only after several hours of playing you get some equipment that has been made with Earth tech, thus being superior on what the local tech can produce. And in the end, you can even put on a sci-fi armour, but that's about it. This lack of utilizing the high tech is a shame, as it could have brought in some more intrigue on the dull combat system of the game in terms of introducing technology as some sort of magic in a world that doesn't know what high tech is.

As I haven't read the book, I have no idea if technology makes a bigger appearance there. In the game, this all is left on the back burner. It is there, but it's a pretty simple thing to forget that it even exists.

Before I rip the rest of the game apart, I do have to note the only successful feature in it, the disguise system. At times, which is very often considering the clumsiness of the combat system, it is advisable to avoid combat altogether by dressing up in different disguises. There are different kinds of clothes ranging from thieves costume to a noble lord clothing, all which allow you to travel a bit more freely, minimizing the combat.

And talking of combat, the system is as simple as it can get: you have a couple of hits, a basic hit and a special move, which you can change according to weapon specialization (heavy/light/medium weapons). during the combat you mainly run around like a headless chicken, hit and run the enemy and rinse and repeat as long as it takes to kill someone. You can jug health potions and stamina drinks in order to keep up the beating. There's also a possibility to buy a horse, which makes for a good hit point boost, as the horse takes in the damage instead of you. Fighting while riding also makes the games hit and run combat system even easier, as then you are hit mostly by the arches whereas the footmen and other walking beasts tend to miss the rider thanks to speed.

Another benefit from the riding is, that you can outrun the enemies, which in turn decreases the amount of fighting you have to endure. The best thing you can do is to get a mount as soon as you can.

The character progression is simple as well. As it often is, you level up after a certain amount of experience points gathered. While you do get experience from fighting, a main bulk of the experience is gathered from completing missions, which is a good thing considering the amount of experience from the fights is abysmal. I can only assume the developers were aware that their combat system was bad, so they did the most sensible thing and made the actual quest experience reward generous enough to make the levelling up more toleratable. 

On level up, you can improve a sparse set of stats. On each level, you get one point you can use to improve weapons skills and two points you can spend on general stats that can give you more hit points, improve stamina or diplomatic skills. These skills and stats are also at times updated with quest rewards. And that's that about the character progression.

This simplistic system isn't what makes Hard To Be A God a bad game, this all stems on two things: technical execution and writing. Now, as the original game was in all likelihood written in Russian, I can only comment on the English translation, which is at best passable. Most of the time, the writing is clunky, rigid and fragmented. This is made worse by the fact that at times the discussions are pretty verbose.

Then there are the clunky camera controls, which make, at times, seeing what is going on difficult, especially if you are fighting next to a tall building, as the camera can then zoom in and out, which can be a bit disorienting, which is a bad thing considering the not so suave combat mechanics.

There's also some pretty hefty bugs in the game, which can lead the character getting stuck in the environment, which means you have to restore a game. Once, after a cutscene, my horse disappeared completely. Then there was a castle in which I couldn't enter without jumping in with my horse, as there was a collision problem between the door and the drawbridge that prevented me from entering. And the most common bug was the disappearance of the voice acting, which in the end was just a good thing considering the low quality of the acting.

Yet, still, I completed the game, as I really wanted to see how it ended. There just was something captivating about the setting, despite it wasn't fully realized as well as it could have been thanks to poor design choices, writing and technical issues.

I can't really recommend it though. Hard To Be A God is a game that doesn't do anything really well. The good it has is drowned by the bad, but if you are desperate for some sci-fi and fantasy mixing, then I guess, it is a choice.