“Like casting pearls before swine” is often an appropriate phrase to use when talking about the general games-buying public, with Beautiful but Unusual One-Off frequently outsold a thousand to one by Drivey Dude Shoots Again IX: Drive Dude-ier. These people are entirely to blame when magical voyages of pure wonder go unbought – if only they were a little more willing to try something new and buy games outside of their comfort zone then less mainstream releases would surely succeed and we’d all be much better off.
…That’s the theory, anyway. Truth be told I wouldn’t blame anyone for checking the back of Hard Luck‘s European box (known around those parts of the world – on the rare occasions it surfaces – as Fire Heroes) and putting it straight back on the shelf. Released sometime around 2004 by 505 Games back when their publishing strategy seemed to be “Whatever we can get our hands on cheap without a fight”, their feeble attempt at exciting potential customers exudes pure “Cheap thing left to die at a supermarket checkout” energy, the sort of game a dear granny would blindly buy a young child fond of those new-fangled Nindy Box-Stations. There’s not even a single exclamation mark on there: for comparison, the Japanese version of this disaster-action game that plays out like the developers got some Die Hard in their Disaster Report has a far more appropriate five!!!!!
Die Hard? Disaster Report? Together? Yep, that’s right! It’s Christmas Eve in St. Alberta and the extremely fancy Clayton Tower’s got fires, vents, bombs, briefcases stuffed with money, at least one gun, and some very interesting people trapped inside…
This roughly movie-length tale (it took me two-and-something hours to play through one character’s scenario) is experienced as one of three protagonists: Max, the wisecracking cop with a loose tie and a questionable haircut. Douglas, the dedicated firefighter, and Scott, a cravat wearer who’s smart enough to wonder why the sprinkler system’s not activating when a fire breaks out. Their stories are separate (once you’ve picked one you’re locked into their route until you either finish the game or start a new save) but run parallel to each other, with all three bumping into their heroic alternatives and sundry sub-characters of varying degrees of relevance to themselves at various points along the way. This relatively underused form of storytelling makes the first play through feel like you’re viewing just one slice of a larger mystery, and on subsequent New Game+ runs as someone else there’s a fascination not only with witnessing all-new events that tie in to the overall drama (each character’s events are as unique an experience as is reasonable within this enclosed environment, rather than a slightly reshuffled run of a more generic tale) but also in seeing how unfortunate victims end up where another lead character finds them, or in navigating through a previously seen area in a new pre/post collapse state. These intertwined adventures play out across a prologue, seven main chapters, and a finale, with a final finale reserved for players better than I am (you’re given a rank after clearing the game – I scraped by with a paltry D on my first go), after which point you’re awarded one of six possible conclusions – meaning their are a whopping eighteen endings in total. Hard Luck’s definitely one of those games that’s intended to be played through several times, each fresh attempt shedding further light on the overarching narrative and revealing alternative outcomes, rather than treated as something to be played through perfectly on a first go and then left to gather dust on a shelf.
To keep this spaghetti of a story – spread across three lives and thirty floors – from becoming an unpalatable mess each chapter is designed as a largely self-contained episode that conveniently dumps the leading man exactly where they need to be to get the ball rolling and frequently fades to black before teleporting them elsewhere if the plot needs them to be elsewhere, saving you – and the pace of the game – from drowning under a sea of tedious mood-breaking elevator sequences, excessive backtracking, and tiring stair-climbing. You soon learn that if you’re in control then something exciting’s about to happen and wherever you end up is going to play a key role in the unpredictable upcoming action even if the always-available map screen makes it appear like you’ve wandered in to nowhere more exciting than the parking level or a generic set of offices, shops, or guest rooms. Slicing the plot up into these neat and tidy little morsels also gave Spike the chance to do something really special without completely blowing their slender budget-bank: When a dialogue box pops up, when two people need saving now but you can’t work out how to reach them both in time, when someone’s lying on the floor and the fire’s creeping ever closer… Hard Luck allows players to make decisions that actually stick. If the game shows someone in danger and you’re told that you must rush to save them (some of them aren’t necessarily the sort of person you’d want to rush into danger to save, and the game knows it), then nine times out of ten not getting there in time will mean they really do die. At this point most games would reset the encounter until you finally got it right but Hard Luck will instead make a note of your actions and then adjust to this new thread, sometimes cutting a chapter short in the process – you can’t go on to rescue someone else if an NPC isn’t alive to tell you where they are, after all. While there’s nothing to stop you reloading an earlier save and taking another shot at it if you really can’t stand losing there are no official retries on offer – you’re expected to live with the consequences of your [in]actions for the remainder of the story. This applies equally to any screw-ups that may happen to your chosen main character as well: You’re free to die as many times as you like but each error knocks three precious minutes off a game-long five hour countdown timer. It turns out this isn’t a huge problem because much like Sonic’s “clear the Act in less than ten minutes or die” restriction it’s unlikely you’ll ever even come close to running it down to zero – but it’s always there in the corner of the screen, constantly ticking down as you try pick a path through the rubble…
And all of this is before we even get to the game’s biggest threat: Humanity’s oldest frenemy, fire.
Much like Saturn email ’em up Burning Rangers, Hard Luck has a plethora of distinct blazes to contend with beyond the expected “red and hot”: There are bright “starter” fires that’ll eagerly spread smaller, weaker flames across the floor, up the walls, and even across the ceiling if left to their own devices. “Spitting” fires. Chemical fires. Fires dangerously close to flammable barrels. Fires that manifest as intense burning vortexes reaching up to the roof like deadly fingers of flame. Fires that snake across the ground in set patterns. None of them are strictly realistic but their behaviour still strikes that fine balance between being genuinely dangerous to a pretend polygon man and close enough to real-world logic that they need no explanation. There are three main options when facing this frequently path-blocking hazard: Find an alternative route (unlikely, but not impossible if you’re quick), run straight through (not recommended unless you’re absolutely desperate), or eradicate them with the tower’s array of hoses and scattered extinguishers. Hinging a player’s progress on limited use items they can never store and only carry one of at any given time may sound like a terrible idea but the game is generous enough with their placement that so long as you pick up the one closest to you at the start of a chapter and swap it out for any fresh ones you happen to see along the way then you’ll be fine, even in those tense moments when you really have to sling a survivor over your shoulders or swap to a sturdy scenery-bashing pipe or fire axe for a moment: The purpose of this limitation isn’t to leave players surrounded by flames with no answer other than to drop dead and ask them to vaguely try harder next time, or to artificially make the game longer by making what could have been a quick trip across a room into a hose-hunting nightmare, it’s just meant to be another subtle form of pressure in a game filled with lots of subtle forms of pressure – knowing you should, but might not, be fine makes the world of difference in a game like this.
Your routes through the flames and the chaos are appropriately scrappy for a game set inside a rapidly disintegrating building: There’s nothing quite as satisfying to someone who’s spent too much of her life finding pieces of keys and cogs for elaborate mechanisms in survival horror games as trying a door, finding it locked, and then hoofing it right of its hinges. Honestly, I’ve trained myself so well into splitting third-person games up into the bits I’m “allowed” to interact with and everything else that it took me a while to get used to Hard Luck’s willingness to let me crawl through vents, clamber down lift shafts, and wade through water. There’s a sense that the environment’s… not real but tactile: Your character has presence and weight and influence on their surroundings, just as it does on them. They can go in the swimming pool. They can smash down a weak wall. They can collapse from the extreme heat caused by unchecked fires running riot in enclosed spaces. It’s a game that knows what it’s trying to achieve – and that’s to make anyone playing feel like they’re as up to their eyeballs in crumbling skyscraper as the character they’re playing as. But it’s not enough to concoct a range of scenarios where the lead’s plunged into a do-or-die situation and forced to MacGyver their way out of it – On a time limit. While everything around is literally on fire. And maybe the floor, ceiling, or both, will give way too – the pace the player experiences these things has to match up to the danger on display as well.
And that is why everything’s clearly marked and labelled on the always-accessible map even for characters who realistically would have no way of knowing where a fire axe had been dumped on the floor of a room they’ve never laid eyes on, and why you’ll sometimes see gigantic crosses with “EVENT” written on them blocking off (currently) irrelevant areas, preventing players wandering off or wondering if something they saw four floors and three rooms away is going to help with their most recent problem. Another handy bit of gamification is the “!” that pops up over a character’s head when near a door, item, or other vital point of interest that needs investigating, saving precious time (either in-game or your own) by drawing attention to important rooms and objects you may otherwise miss amongst the darkness and destruction. The suspension of disbelief only works in a cinematic disaster-action experience if the player gets to not just control the hero but act like one for themselves too: Heroes don’t walk into a room they don’t need to be in. Heroes don’t backtrack for one item they should’ve picked up half an hour ago. Heroes don’t fail to notice the one thing that’ll get them out of their latest death-defying encounter. Hard Luck’s conscious decision to be a game first and a straight-to-video movie second only amplifies the fear and excitement of being trapped inside a collapsing building stuffed with time bombs and NPCs that may help, hinder, or even be actively dangerous. It may not be especially original even when measured against nothing more than other Playstation 2 disaster games (there’s more of them than you’d think) and “polished” isn’t a word to be uttered in this game’s presence, but there’s a cohesiveness and malleability to Hard Luck’s design that puts the player right at the heart of the tension and excitement all the time – and the effort, skill, and planning necessary to successfully pull that off can’t be overstated.