Using a Goblin King's corpse like a giant hamster ball is just a normal day in surreal RPG Hardland

There's a swarm of bees constantly circling the wooden bucket I'm using as a helmet. I've placed a talking pumpkin into an outhouse toilet and it's translating the poop it digests into local gossip. I've killed an enormous, naked goblin king, climbed inside its corpse, and used it like a giant hamster ball to roll around town. I tried feeding a massive birthday cake to a sacrificial altar after meeting some aliens named "Throat" and "Womb" in a well. To level up I need to devour raw goblin hearts, a fact I learned from a dream.

I have no earthly clue what's going on in fantasy RPG Hardland. Really, no idea. It's a weird and beautiful RPG, one I first played in Early Access back in 2015, and it was weird then too. At the time it was so early into Early Access the only thing I found to occupy myself was lifting various items over my head. Hardland finally left Early Access this week, and I dove right back in. 

The full release of Hardland still feels a bit rough around the edges (and you can't lift nearly as much stuff over your head, disappointingly), but it's only gotten weirder and more beautiful over the years. I'm having a great time trying to slowly figure it out.

Hardland's fantasy world is filled with goblins and ghouls and skeletons and wizards and elves. As for me, I'm... human? I'm not even sure. There are other humans much smaller than me, plenty the same size as me, some a bit bigger, and some much, much bigger. Honestly, I don't know what I am. Is 'Moderately Baffled Adventurer' a race?

I can't tell you how many quests I'm on because there's no quest log. People say things sometimes, like that they've lost a fork. An hour later I'll run into someone else who mentions the fork. I've completed a handful of little quests without even knowing they were quests and I'm sure I've forgotten about twice as many in passing. The most straightforward thing that happened was that a wizard told me his hat blew off, I found it in a tree, brought it back, and he offered to pay me for my trouble.

Everything else feels far more convoluted and surreal than that. The most interesting thing I've come across—it has to do with the altar and aliens I mentioned—was in a distant corner of the map I only found by shoving my way through a gap in some trees that barely looked like a passable entryway. You could play Hardland for ages and never see it because no one ever tells you where to go or what to do. One guy asked me to steal something for him from another character, but didn't tell me where to find that character. Hours later, I still haven't found him, and now I've forgotten his name so even if I do find him, I won't know he's the guy I should steal from. If you play Hardland, I'd really suggest taking notes.

Each time you save your game at a campfire, you have a little dream that is expressed in text. "Ten skulls sit in a row. Their skin regrows. You can't strip it fast enough. You rip and rip." Or, "A bell rings. You step forward. You are waiting in a line. Another bell rings. Another bells rings."

Like real dreams, maybe they mean nothing, or maybe they sort of mean something. I'm not sure.

Here's the description of an old sleeping bag I found:

"A long time ago, a knight with a true wish slept under the stars. He realized they were in the sky, but also in his mind. That there was no difference between here and there, me and you, life and death. His true wish still lingers."

When I picked up the sleeping bag it was added to my 'Quest Items' list, so I suppose I need to find a place to use it, at night, under the stars... somewhere. I don't know where to begin looking for the spot. But that's how Hardland is, and I kind of like it that way. My other current quest items are three birds and a giant wooden King's Head that commands: FIND MY OTHER PIECES. MAKE ME WHOLE. WE WILL HUNT TOGETHER.

I'm looking forward to that. I think.

I should say not everything in Hardland is weird and confusing. There's plenty of fun and traditional RPG stuff, too, like exploring, fighting monsters, finding new armor and weapons, buying and selling from vendors, and collecting a simply impressive number of hats. Plus, Hardland wonderfully commits to the hallowed RPG trope that adventurers like to steal and smash up villagers' homes. You can do a lot of that (you can dig up graves, too), and it's gloriously messy and destructive.

There are also masks you can wear that let you blend in with other factions, which is great—I love wearing disguises and I got to loot a goblin tavern without having to kill the dozens of goblins inside it (though the King seemed to know something was up and tried to smoosh me when I got close to him). The masks can be a little confusing, too. There was girl wearing a wolf mask, who wouldn't talk to me until I found (and paid a lot of gold for) a wolf mask of my own. I figured I'd get some sort of quest from her, but no. She just wanted to talk about wolves and her family. 

I mean, it was a nice conversation, but I was hoping it would lead somewhere. Maybe it eventually will. You can't really tell in Hardland.

Combat is pretty messy—it really cries out for a targeting system, and while having a shield equipped does add to your armor score, and you can see projectiles bounce off it, it would be far more satisfying to actually hold your shield up to block. The map can be tough to get around in at times, with little slopes that seem climbable but aren't and gaps in rocks that look like you can pass through them, but you can't. 

But as rough around the edges as Hardland is, its weird beauty, engrossing mysteries, oddball inhabitants, sheer number of wearable hats, and surreal, dreamlike nature makes it a real joy to play. A confusing joy, but a joy nonetheless.

Christopher Livingston
Staff Writer

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.