Hard to Be a God (PC) review
"In essence, the game's opening moments establish the framework for many a glorious battle to come, while apparently forsaking plot entirely. And the ensuing horse ride to meet your informant are filled with thoughts of future glory. But then, something strange happens. Glimmers of a plot start to surface. Clandestine maneuvers are made. Backstabbing occurs, and it's presented in a way that compels one to care."
Some things in life are easy to start, but hard to finish. Chocolate cake leaps to mind. The first bite is delicious, but by the end you feel sick. Conversely, some things are hard to start, but easy to finish. Exercise. It's a drag to get off the couch, but once the endorphins kick in, it's all good.
Through some bizarre twist, Hard to be a God is both of the above at the same time.
Those who play a game for plot reasons will be distressed to find out that there is no introductory cutscene in the game of any kind. There's no opening scene, no beginning narration, just the sudden nagging of an instructor to stop staring at your boots and get a move on. The important work that awaits seems sort of strange since you're given no background reason to care. But alright, get going to meet a generic informant in a bar and receive vital information about the goings on of the world.
It's a pretty uninspired start. But the requisite opening tutorial segment gives glimpses of gameplay that really has some potential. Combat is simple, attacks deplete your stamina, and stronger attacks take more away from the bar. But that's fine, it's an action RPG. More will come. Besides, the use of horses to increase attack damage and mobility seems like it's got a lot of potential. Your first handful of weapons give you access to an easy and intuative inventory system which divides things into a number of categories and effectively prevents you from losing things even as the loot and quest items start to pile up.
In essence, the game's opening moments establish the framework for many a glorious battle to come, while apparently forsaking plot entirely. And the ensuing horse ride to meet your informant are filled with thoughts of future glory.
But then, something strange happens. Glimmers of a plot start to surface. Clandestine maneuvers are made. Backstabbing occurs, and it's presented in a way that compels one to care.
Here's a small glimmer of that plot, paraphrased from some of the early press releases, and something that should have been in the game's intro...
Earth has a sister planet. One that was identical in history and culture for quite some time. However, there was a falling out, and as is wont to happen in those cases, it led to war. A war that Earth won. Something strange happened, however. While Earth's society advanced, the other's stagnated, halted permanently in the medieval era. Why? Well...after many years of silent relations, someone was sent there to find out...
That would be you. A double agent from the start. Of course, the player has no way of knowing any of this for a time, but it's a fascinating concept...
The downside is that right about the time the plot picks up, playing the game starts to be a drag. Combat never really seems to expand from where it was in the tutorial. It's the same combos with every weapon for the entirety of the game. But the real disappointment is that even if there were an expanding list of things you could do, you would never need to do them. The AI in this game can only be defined as depressingly stupid. Eventually you begin to feel that killing them is doing everyone a favor, because none of them are leading a fulfilling life otherwise.
This is one of those games where if you shoot one guard, the guard next to him won't always join the fight. Most enemies in the game can be killed by snagging them one by one, and kiting them around buildings or trees or some element of the scenery, only turning to attack when your most powerful attacks are safe to use.
Of course, using such an approach wouldn't even be an afterthought if not for a few aggravating deaths at the hands of the aforementioned stamina bar. Predictably, when it runs out, the protagonist can no longer attack. However the real killing blow, as it were, comes from the fact that he can't move either. You're literally reduced to what may as well be a big cardboard sigh that says 'please hit me' for a few seconds while the bar refills.
At least the inventory screen is still slick.
Hard to be a God shattered all of my initial preconceptions about it, just not in a good way. There is a fair amount of fun to be found here, especially if story is important to you. But it's not a game that will go down in history. True, the narrative is good enough to be a book, but the gameplay is forgettable. There's really no compelling reason that this game wouldn't simply be a more enjoyable experience if it was a book instead.
Freelance review by Josh Higley (March 21, 2008)
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