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Hard to be a God is set on the planet dubbed Arkanar, which is actually the name of one of the planet's kingdoms. This is a planet in transition, moving from days of high feudalism slowly into their version of the renaissance. Reactive elements, like the nobility and church, are executing their anti-noblesse oblige by doing their best to repress all possible elements of innovation and renewal.
But what if I tell you this feudal period has stretched over millennia on this planet?
What's more, what if I tell you all of the above is clocked in at earth year 2156 AD? And not any 2156 AD, but 2156 AD in an alternative timeline earth in which the communist system in the Soviet Union continued to develop into the ideal communist society as Marx had so vaguely pictured it, taking over the entire earth with its idyllic ways. (To be fair, it wasn't really an (alternative) timeline yet in the span from 1961 to 1985, when the Strugatsky brothers wrote their 10 books set in this universe, dubbed the Noon Universe.)
That's starting to sound more like it. But of course, we're not discussing the entire Noon Universe. As said, we're looking at the planet of Arkanar, in the 4th Noon book by the Strugatsky brothers, Hard to be a God. The communist citizens of earth in the 22nd century in their infinite wisdom, kindness and goodness did not, as in so many capitalist SF stories, colonize the entire universe. Instead, earth establishes contact with other races, populates uninhabited planets and, in the case of Arkanar, sends teams of expert historians to subtly watch and guide the course of history on the budding planet.
Naturally, in a good Leninist-Marxian sense, the Strugasky brothers sketched history as a rather dull, mono-linear event. There's gentilism, there's slavery, there's feudalism, there's capitalism, there's communism in its perfect form. Of course, capitalism has been a long time coming on the planet Arkanar (especially in the Kingdom Arkanar), and this is worrying the titular (God) Anton Konstantinovich Malyshev, know on Arkanar as Don Rumata.
The gods that it is so hard to be are in fact the earth observers, historians from the Institute of Experimental History that live amongst the populace of the planet, often as high-ranked citizens. Their godlike status comes from their superior knowledge, training and vastly superior technology, which technically enables them to act without discretion or restraints.
However, two things make their existence particularly unbearable. One is that they live as highly-evolved human beings amongst a sort of protozoan form of the high culture they're used to. This is graphically expressed in Don Rumata's disgust at the high-born ladies of the planet, smelly disgusting females all of them. The Don himself feels his humanity slip away from him bit by bit as the book progresses, reverting back to the more primitive form of humanity feudalism represents.
Hard to be a God is more an allegorical tale and introspective journey than anything else. If you search for the crux of the book you bump into the second problem, expressed by the conversation in chapter 8 between Don Rumata representing a (theoretical) diety and the enlightened Budach, a medical man Rumata was able to rescue. They discuss the society of Arkanar, and Rumata asks Budach what he would do if he theoretically could advise a god how to solve all of the people's problems. Budach proposes a number of solutions, but they are all flawed in some way. This short conversation serves to illustrate that when the Marxian model fails or is (too slow) there are no easy solutions to fix everything, even for the Gods.
But of course, it tells a story too. I won't get into it very far, in case you want to read the book (like with many Russian classics, there's a decent translation available online). It tells the story of Don Rumata, who is concerned about the recent developments in Arkanar. The kingdom was starting to develop the buds of an intellectual enlightenment of sorts, with their own Copernicus in Bagir Kissenski, their own Louis Pasteur in Tata to the alchemist Synda discovering the first law of thermodynamics mostly by accident.
Out of nowhere, the ruthless Don Reba became the minister of security (of the crown), becoming the de facto ruler over the somewhat useless King Pits VI. Don Reba is seemingly incompetent, many of his larger political machinations coming to naught. But beneath this veneer, he and his troops of Grey militia are methodically searching out and destroying all intellectuals, right down to people who can read and write period, having marked them as dangerous to the state. This suppression, frequently compared by the communist Rumata to Nazism (for instance by drawing comparisons the Night of the Long Knives), is effective, breeding a fearful populace and killing all intellectual progress.
Except for Rumata, the earth observers on Arkanar realise too late that this society is not stable, and some upheavals and revolutions later we reach the end of the book, when the story is told in retrospect as Rumata is back on earth (it's not clear how long after the book this is). According to popular Noon fan opinion, the Arkanar Massacre threw the kingdom back in its development by several aeons, which would also lead to the decline of the earth progressor school of thought as represented by the Institute of Experimental History.
One final note on setting: the kingdom Arkanar is in the midst of its feudal age at the end of the Arkanar Massacre, whereas other areas on the planet Arkanar are more developed. You start Hard to be a God as a trainee agent of the imperial intelligence organization, which places you square in the mainland empire of Estor. This means you're moving from a more advanced society into a more backwards one. What's more, there is some 22nd century earth technology on Arkanar. Hard to be a God features only a helicopter, a mini-camera and some wonderful curative drugs, but the game promises to feature more, with highly advanced weaponry taking the traditional role of magic.
Enough of the book, on to the demo, and on to a more lyrical storytelling style... Note that the following text is more of an outline than an accurate reproduction. None of the dialogue or combat events are described exactly as they happened. If you'd rather jump directly to my text about the game, click here.
Flushed with anxiety, I rushed into the small fort on the outskirts of the Imperial Capital. Don Mayshi had summoned me post haste. With the hints my language master had been dropping, I felt assured this was it. My final exam! Finally my days of beating straw men with clubs and sleeping in on droning, annoying classes on the value of diplomacy would be at an end.
(Ah, Vasilii, good of you to come.) Don Mayshi intoned, clearly displeased with my tardiness. They do not call me Vasilii the Unlucky for nothing. (It is time for your final exam. A few of the robbers here got cheeky, Bald Magoo's men. They broke the thieves' rules by stealing from the city. Normally we would let the thieves handle this themselves, but the robbers stole from one of the higher nobles, and he's been haunting me ever since to recover his priceless necklace. Before I tell you more, I want to see if you really studied your lessons. Go and pick up some equipment from storage, show me you can run the routes and then we'll talk.)
Oh, Holy Mickey, is this really necessary? Fine. Pick up sword and gear. Go to straw men, slash slash slash, victory over straw men, mount horse, trample straw man. This is what I had been doing for years now, I was hoping I had finished.
Why thank you.
(Here's what you must do. Go to the Barefooted Irukan tavern, you will find a man waiting for you, known as Red Chuba. He knows where Bald Magoo's men are holed up. We have paid him good silver to get him to co-operate, so don't take any lip. And don't mess up.)
(But how will I know who it is? The tavern is bound to be full,) I swaggered, to show off my worldly knowledge.
(Ha-ha, novinki. Do not worry about that, Vasilii, he will know you when he sees you. Anyone could pick out who you are if he keeps his eyes open.)
I didn't understand what he meant, but accepted his instructions to choose a horse and ride to the tavern. In the corner of my eye I could see Mayshi's assistant, the chief of Imperial Reconaissance, beckoning me. Oh, Faith, I hate that man. He demands all to grovel before him. Never you mind, best put on a brave face.
(Vasilii, I have an assignment that needs urgent handling. Are you interested?)
(Yes, I'm very interested,) I could already see myself scaling the career ladder. (What would you have me do, noble don?)
(The miller who lives directly to the north of here is having some problems with periodic raids from robbers who are hiding in the swamp. We can't use this kind of unrest, go there and deal with it. However, I warn you up ahead that I know these men, and I don't think you'll be able to force them out by violence. Here, take this get-up we took off one of the robbers. You may be able to pass as one of them, with luck. Try to work it out with diplomacy.) And he turned on his heel and walked away. Typical.
The (stables) only had two horses on offer. A well-bred, sleek horse, meant for fast riding but not very durable if I ran into a bit of trouble. And a cart horse, stocky, slower, but sturdy. While I was sure to be in for an uncomfortable ride, I mounted the cart horse, and patted his ears.
(I will call you.Carthago. Sounds like a good name to me. Hi-yah!)
Hah, what freedom, what responsibility! I was given a practical carte blanche to act. Armed with the empire's finest weapons to fit the finest training, nothing would stop me or my trusty steed. I was like unto the Go
(Damn blast your eyes, man, where did you pop up from, you lout?)
The peasant, having barely escaped being run down by Carthago, slowly unfroze from his cold terror, took of his cap and spoke, (oh woe is me, for I have lost my cows!)
(Fine. How can I help?)
(I was tending the cows and now they're all gone! It happens all the time these days, these forests are thick with bandits. But my master won't understand, will never forgive me, he will kill me or sell me into slavery. Oh woe is me!)
(Nonsense. Just stay here, I will find your cows.) As if I didn't have enough to do. What am I, a herder's errant boy?
Carthago trod along as I chewed a piece of grass, thinking. Suddenly the old beast whinnied and reared up, tossing me right out of my saddle. I had little time to be angry at the horse, as I soon discovered what had scared him so. Wolves!
Grinning like a labourer being served his yearly portion of meat, I drew my sword and without missing a heartbeat carved a path into the pack of snarling fur, claw and teeth. Somewhat worse for wear, I soon reappeared victorious, breathing heavily in the middle of a pile of corpses.
In need of some rest, I turned my horse to the old mill to talk to the miller. He had little to say to me, except to explain where he knew the robbers to be. Any questions about why he knew this were soon fended off. Odd fellow.
No time to think on it, as my keen sense saw from a distance that the next junction was held down by two robbers. Unsheathing my sword, I spurred on Carthago and stormed towards the two, sword a-waving. A somewhat lucky swing nearly sliced off the face of the first, and the unlucky fellow tumbled to the ground. But an all-too-familiar twang behind me reminded me I just made a rookie mistake, as an archer was hiding in the bushes waiting in ambush. A microsecond later, an arrow was sticking painfully out of my shoulder.
Enraged, I wheeled Carthago around in a dangerous U-turn and stormed at the archer, who soon thought better of it and tried to turn his heels and run. A blind blow caught him in his neck, and as he tumbled forward he smashed his face into a tree with a resounding crack. I halted Carthago and turned to greet the approaching final robber. A few quick slashes from up high soon removed his cap. And more!
Damn blast their eyes, these fights were starting to hurt. I rested and ate to recover some strength, which suddenly made me aware the first robber was still alive and, amazingly, crawling towards me.
(Cows. I will give you all the cows you need!)
(Really?) The man was clearly delirious. What would I need cows for?
(Yes, just over the bridge,) he mumbled. And it clicked. What an uncommon stroke off luck, I thought, as I absentmindedly sliced his head off with a lazy stroke of my sword. That's Empire quality steel, right there!
I could hear the wolves on the other side of the river, so I tied my horse down at the spot. Cautiously crossing the bridge I could spot the clearing in the distance. My training in moving quietly was really good but, so it seems, not good enough, as all of a sudden those howls appeared to be right next to my ear. Kicking one unfortunately positioned wolf straight into the river, I used the hesitation of the other two to hack clean through both of them in one fell swoop. Mickey, I was getting good at this!
Storming on with the courage of the foolish, I again ran right into a trap, as two archers shot at me from one end of the clearing while two club-wielding maniacs managed to catch me from behind. Thinking fast on my feet (finally), I ducked low into the shrubbery, sweeping the robbers' feet out from under them in a full-body tackle. As they were dazed, I unarmed and sliced the throats of both of them in seconds. Victory is mine!
An arrow sticking out of my rear end reminded me of the reality of the case. No matter, they were just archers. A bow will never be a match for a sword!
The cows would not budge, though. Shame, so I rode back to the herder to inform him where his cows were, and that he could pick them up if he hurried. And miracle upon miracles, he actually gave me a reward: a handshake and a thank you. Mickey if I don't feel good about myself now.
Deciding to leave the miller's problems for the long term, I dressed up as a thief in the hopes that this would give me save passages through these robber-invested roads. And I lucked out, as I reached the tavern without further problems. And as Don Mayshi had predicted, the moment I entered, one man looked up and immediately beckoned me over.
(How did you know it was me?) I said, and it didn't take me long to realise that is a weird way to start a conversation.
(Ah, novinki. I could pick you out of a crowd, no problems. On the other hand, we do have some others problems.)
(Problems, what problems? You were paid good gold to direct me where I need to go and you will do so!)
(I was paid in silver, but yes, Chuba came out alright. That's not the problem. The problem is those three men lounging outside. They're Bald Magoo's men. I can't risk my hide by undertaking anything. You take care of them, I'm staying right here.)
I angrily stomped out of the tavern, hand on my sword. Then I spotted one of Bald Magoo's men. Easily a half-leg taller than me, he was a heavy-set, brawny man. And he had a club about as big as my torso. I swallowed hard and decided that perhaps the miller should take priority after all.
Moving safely past a number of now-friendly thieves, I moved into the swamp, spotting three men huddling around some loot. From their conversation, I soon gathered they weren't the brightest candles in the alcove.
(Friends!) I walked up to them.
Hands on their weapons, they turned to me, but soon recognised me as one of them. (What is it you want?)
(I come to warn you! You have done well lately. Too well. The law men are angry and planning to comb this area. Better hurry up, pack up and leave, they'll be here soon.)
Oh, c'mon, no way that'd work.
(Thanks friend, it seems it's time to move on.)
Oh, come now. Such a simple ruse. I guess they were as thick as they looked. But speaking of thick, I heard the nearby braying of the crested crocodiles that called this swamp home. A fight with those beasts would be the last thing I need, so I quickly said my goodbyes and headed back to tavern.
A plan was forming in my clever skull. If this ruse works on these thickheaded louts, why not on Bald Magoo's men? I knocked the heavyset man on his shoulder.
(What do you want?)
(Hey, isn't it time you guys looked for some other tavern to bother?) Wait, that wasn't even a ruse.
(What? Hey, aren't you the guy we saw with Chuba? Hey, guys, we got one!)
I'd rather not describe the following fight in detail. Needless to say, it involved crying, running away, and a few cheap combat moves I'm still not proud of. But a job's a job is a job done. I headed back to Chuba.
(It's done. Had to kill .m, tho'.)
(So I could hear,) Chuba said, with an annoyingly knowing smile. (Alright, follow me.)
It was quite a ways to walk. Should have taken my horse. Still, maybe not, as Chuba led me straight through the swamp, cutting through the forest to a small encampment in the middle of the woods. Several times I felt we passed the crested crocodiles much too close. Damned be your hide, Chuba.
(Here we are then, novinki.)
(Ok, how many men are there?)
(There are as many as I said, that is three. I suggest you keep up your thief act, they won't like you much otherwise.)
(Ok, Chuba. And remember, next time we meet, I will know better than to let you walk, criminal.)
(Now now, novinki, you may have some use for Red Chuba yet.) He chuckled, walking away.
Adjusting my gear, I strolled casually up the encampment. Perhaps I could take them, if they were only three. Or five. Wait, five? Damned be your hide, Chuba!
The ringleader had already spotted me. (Hey, you Bald Magoo's man?)
What an opportunity.
(Yes I am. He came here to tell you the ground has become too hot under his feet, it is time to move on.)
(Fine with us, just pay us what we're due, take the goods, and we're done.)
(Oh yes. And the dues would be.) I prodded.
(100 silver, of course.)
A bargain to get rid of them! I happily shelled over the 100 silver, and the (goods) he mentioned just happened to be the very necklace I was sent out for. Paying no more mind to me, the ringleader instructed his men to pack up and leave. He turned to me one last time.
(Tell Magoo we're done. This is the last time we're doing any dealings with him. There's just not enough coin in it.)
I nodded and left. Hearing wolves all around me, I decide that this time I would take the long way around, over the mainroad, passing some bandits who gave me friendly nods. I had to circle back to Carthago, but it was a small price to pay to avoid those cursed crocodiles. As I mounted Carthago, I noted he was quite badly hurt and definitely on his last legs.
(Don't worry, old boy, just one more trip.)
I circled back to the fort past the miller, removing my disguise on the way. I informed him that he's safe now. To my surprise, he had a reward of 600 coins for me. A small fortune! I could not refuse. Literally, I could not.
Riding triumphantly back into the fort, I walked up to Don Mayshi. He was more happy to see the necklace than to see me again.
(Does that mean I passed my exam?)
(Your exam? Sure, sure, now talk to Don Prani for your next assignment.)
(See you, councillor.) I nodded, weighted down by the 1000 coin cash reward. Finally, a full fledged soldier. On to do great things!
The demo does not end with that, as you're given some final equipment and tasks. I skipped that because it potentially gives away a bit of the rest of the game. All in all, you only have three quests in the demo: a little bit of diplomacy (the miller quest), absent-minded shepherd, exam.
But let's head on to the mechanics. Hard to be a God is a third person RPG with real-time combat and a bit of a tendency to rely on said combat.
The RPG system is simple and straightforward. You have skills: light weapons (one-handed weapons or dual weapons), medium weapons (two-handed light weapons, like fighting staves), heavy weapons (two-handed heavy weapons, like a battle axe, or a one-handed weapon and shield (the best option for the short demo)), ranged weapons, dexterity, diplomacy, stamina, medicine. Upping the melee weapon skills will unlock a number of special attacks, which once activated can be used intermittently with a right click. Kind of action RPG-esque, if a lightweight version of it.
The inventory system is equally uncomplex. You can equip shoes, trousers, cape, armor, shirt, hat, left hand and right hand. Additionally, you will be carrying food and potions to heal, books you can read and some trinkets that do not serve any direct purpose.
Combat offers little new material. You can swing your weapon for up to 3-swing combos, right click will execute a special attack if available, the third mouse button will finish off a stunned character (characters are occasionally stunned by special attacks). On horse-back, it is much the same in theory though it plays differently. On horse, it's a good idea and quite a bit of fun to storm past someone and just hit him as you ride past. Alternatively, right click will make your horse rear up, giving a more powerful attack as you swing your weapon while landing.
In both normal and mounted combat, aiming can be the typical awkward fare. In general, this and a few other elements (like the way you do swing combos) can make combat a bit difficult to play out well, but once you get the hang of swinging and blocking, which shouldn't take incredibly long, it is not a bad combat system. And you'll notice that sometimes clever tactics or combinations of moves can give you the edge, making it a bit more than the standard point and click fare.
What simplifies combat, which can be pretty challenging until you really get it in your fingers, is the pretty bad combat AI of NPCs. Archers will keep sprinting away even if you're chasing them by horse, other robbers will keep running at you on horseback while you run past them, circle back, run past them again and hit them both times without getting a scratch yourself. The fact that you can simply block until your special move powers back up is also a bit too easy, unless you're surrounded.
I never fully got the hang of mounted combat myself, though.
And that might be because of the camera. The camera is hung up at an angle. You can rotate it while standing still, but other than that it's a bit behind and above the back of your head. That means your field of vision is terrible limited as you're not looking ahead, but slightly downwards all the time. There's not much you can do about that, though the camera sometimes jumps around to adapt to passing through buildings or under a tree.
As you're sent on your quests, the mini-map on the screens shows were you need to go with some small arrows and the full maps shows the targets clearly marked. Quests did show a tendency to have multiple solutions, as all three of the quests can be solved either through dialogue or combat. Oddly enough, the a little bit of diplomacy quest can be solved through violence. Your journal will read that the chief of imperial reconnaissance is angry with you for not using diplomacy, but the dialogue will be the same as always. And the choice to just go mad and slaughter people does not seem to be an option, as many non-hostile NPCs are immortal in the demo.
The dialogue branches aren't very good. There was one occasions where I had three options, but most of the times it's limited to one and sometimes to two. And when there are two options, they either don't differ much in consequences or are a simple (fight/convince) choice. When the miller wanted to hand the protagonist 600 coins to reward him, there was no option to refuse this reward (or ask for more). The (Russian) voicing and writing are quite good, barring the sometimes awkward translations in this demo.
The unique (taking a role) system the developers have promised basically consist of putting on disguises and walking around unscathed. It was quite good that not only did robbers not bother me when dressed as a thief, but the shepherd and miller would not talk to me, mistaking me for a bandit. Still, this needs to be pretty in depth having more possibilities of being unmasked and opening different paths to be a selling point.
The setting is quite good and knows pretty complex factionalism as well as a fascinating influence of the SU hi-tech world on Arkanar, even if that doesn't show much in the demo. The atmosphere in the demo is nice and the music is pretty good, but it's your basic late feudal fair, beating up wolves and robbers. The interesting stuff doesn't come until later. The fact that earth technology replaces magic is really a unique selling point.
One issue with the setting might be that they're continuing an old story in their game, kind of like a sequel to the original Hard to be a God book. That's pretty gutsy by definition, but the specific problem here is that Hard to be a God is clearly written with the mind and perspective of Marxist historical determinism. The question becomes how honest you can be in continuing that story from a perspective that might lean more towards cultural and historical relativism, more towards the more post-modern capitalist fare? That's no small challenge facing this game's makers.
The graphics are, well, subpar. Think Gothic 1, but less so. They did include weather effects as well as day/night changes. The collision detection was atrocious in the demo. Once I put on a cloak it'd keep moving through my horse. Errors like those kept happening, including said cloak bundling over the protagonist's head in a weird way. What's worse, the inability of the protagonist to jump can make for frustrating going through forests and, here's the kicker, not only can you not swim, you can't touch water. If you're on a bridge, you can't fall off it.
The general AI, the (living, breathing world) we've come to expect from most RPGs these days is really non-existent. Except for a novice fighting with a strawman, all NPCs just wander about aimlessly all of the time, seemingly not doing anything. Day/night circles leave everyone unaffected as no one, including the PC, ever sleeps. Wolves don't fight anyone except the PC and the border patrol guards at the edge of the map. It's a mystery why they would not attack the various robbers in the forest.
I sound very negative, but I'm not. This was quite an endearing game despite its flaws, and I hope the full game will have a lot to show that the demo couldn't. In the end, the game could neither really impress me nor really disappoint me, which makes me conclude it's a decidedly average game. However, the unique setting and dedication to multiple solutions for quests might pull it higher.
In the meantime, I recommend giving the demo a spin.
This preview based on the Hard to be a God Russian demo switched to English text, knowledge of the setting from the book, and interviews and developer diaries involving the game's designers.
If you'd like to play the demo with English text, open the AWE.ini file in the main game folder of the Russian demo and edit the two lines within to this: