We took a close look at the book Hard to be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in our preview of the game. In short, Hard to be a God tells of the struggles of Don Rumata of Estor aka Anton, an earth observer sent to the kingdom of Arkanar on a feudal planet to observe and subtly manipulate the progress of the society there. The Kingdom of Arkanar is knee-deep in feudal times, violently religious and harshly oppressing all forms of science and philosophy. Rumata – as a God-like being – struggles with his inability to force society forward.
The Strugatsky brothers never really broke through in the West, but are to this day very popular in Russia. Chances are that most of you reading this article have never read Hard to be a God (though you can here), but suffice to say that even for non-Strugatsky fans there are aspects of making this book into a game that are interesting.
Hard to be a God as a story doesn't lend itself well for a book, so it's clear that the game developers had to focus on the possibilities offered by the setting. The “Noon” universe is pretty interesting; high-technology Earth observers live amongst the less-developed citizens of Arkanar, practically having the powers of gods amongst men but limited in what they can do with this. It offers a good opportunity for a unique game combining science fiction with high fantasy. While not getting a lot of attention in the West, Akella & Burut's attempt to translate this game into a hack 'n slash RPG was closely watched in Russia.
So, how well did they do?
The Graphics & Camera
Like so many localized titles from Eastern Europe, the first things you'll notice about Hard to be a God are its glaring flaws. We're going to get them out of the way first in this review.
The graphics are subpar but have some good sides. The character animations are fairly good and realistic, but the model details are low and annoyingly fuzzy. World art is good but repetitive, and varies a bit in quality.
Painful is the definite overkill of bloom, which is just an eye-sore in certain locations. You can turn bloom off wholesale, which helps, but you can't simply turn it down a notch, which would have been better.
Another thing that's bound to get on your nerves is the bad collision detection. Wearing a cloak can lead to several weird situations, as the cloak bundles up over your head or as your sword sticks straight through the thing.
Other than that, the graphics have a few things going for them. The design of buildings is fairly detailed and well-done. Motion capture, especially for humans, was well done and stands out as a positive. Some of the effects are pretty good, like shadows, rain and water effects – though there's not a lot of water in the game, which might be because your character has such an extreme form of aquaphobia that you can not touch any shallow puddle of it in the game.
Worst than any of this is the annoying camera. The camera is hung at a kind of high over-the-shoulder POV, but tilted at a downwards angle, which means your maximum field of vision will be about 30 yards. You can zoom it out, but if you do it just tilts the camera further downwards, keeping your FOV limited. I guess this was all done for reasons of avoiding rendering far-off objects, but it's still incredibly annoying.
You can circle the camera around the player with the mouse. Now this is where it gets even more annoying: the mouse sensitivity is pretty high for this, and you have to circle around a lot during fights. Couple to this the fact that the camera zooms itself in and out to avoid objects that aren't made transparent (like walls or buildings you can't enter). What that makes is some of the most nauseating combat imaginable, especially in towns, as the camera runs around in circles while zooming in and out. Long story short: this is not for people who easily get motion sickness.
Bugs & Interface
I'll be short about this part: the interface is awkward. Other than the awkward combat described later, the inventory interface is pretty hard to overview and not very easy to use. Simple interaction with the game world (like clicking a chest) works, but is a bit frustrating at times because of the odd camera angle.
There are some bugs, the most dangerous of which can be getting stuck behind scenery. As the character can't jump except on horseback – and the game world is full of invisible walls going criss-cross through the map floating over objects – chances of getting stuck are fairly good, which is bad. Another bug occurs when you start dialogue while on horseback. The PC is supposed to dismount as the dialogue starts, but sometimes instead of that he sinks straight through his horse and into the ground to his waist.
The game crashes sometimes, but fairly infrequently. For some reason my DVD drive occasionally hard problems detecting the DVD and would refuse to start up the game. This game has it bugs and could do with a patch, but it's not so buggy that it'll significantly detract from the gameplay.