Release Date: December 15, 2020 for Nintendo Switch (2013 on other platforms)
Rating: Everyone 10+
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch
A code for this game was provided by Experimental Gamer Studios.
A Comfortable Game for an Uncomfortable Time
I started up Boot Hill Heroes just before the holidays, and I finished it up mid-January. This game took me through the stress of seeing my family (under carefully controlled conditions) during a pandemic and an insurrection attempt against the United States Capitol building.
None of that really has much to do with the game, but I feel like it’s worth mentioning. Because this charming, retro, western-themed JRPG was a warm blanket to wrap myself in every single time I turned it on. I will forever cherish my time with it for that.
Getting absorbed in the Wild West.
From the jump, Boot Hill Heroes does an incredible job of building a world full of western tropes layered with the lighthearted, surrealist humor of Earthbound. The game kicks off with a deadly shootout, then throughout its ~13 hour story you'll play poker in a gun-filled bar, befriend a Native American tribe, get lost in a desert, join a circus, and round up a posse. It's everything you'd want from the Wild West.
Each of these set pieces is full of bright, colorful characters, snappy dialogue, and wonderful music that makes it easy to sink into the world.
The only place where the atmosphere ever let me down was in some of the cutscenes, where the music sometimes cut out entirely during dialogue, waiting for me to get to a certain point in the conversation before it kicked back in with dramatic gusto. That moment when the music swelled was great, but the bits of silence beforehand were weirdly off-putting.
More than once I found myself getting distracted by something outside of the game in the middle of a cutscene, and then, like, forgetting to shift my attention back to the TV, since it was sitting there absolutely silent.
Wandering, Fighting, and Growing
Like most RPGs, there’s two distinct types of gameplay in Boot Hill Heroes: Combat and everything else. When you aren’t fighting outlaws or bears or mischievous children, you spend most of your time exploring towns or small wilderness themed “dungeons.”
The towns all have a good amount of NPCs to interact with, while the dungeons are full of wild animals that you’ll jump into combat with as soon as you touch them. I liked finding items scattered around these environments. Unfortunately, I hardly ever felt like I needed to use those items as I played.
Each region you visit is pretty straightforward and linear. The different areas feel loosely connected by the straight line your character follows, rather than being part of an open world. Think more Final Fantasy X and less Final Fantasy VII. While I love open world games, this more straightforward approach really felt appropriate to the style of Boot Hill Heroes. I actually appreciated that the game held my hand as it took me from plot point to plot point.
The battles in this game all play out using an Active Time Bar based system, where each ability takes a different amount of time to pull off. This leads to a fair bit of strategizing, in that you have to consider whether you time your abilities to go off before or after an enemies ability. There’s a built in functionality to be able to pause the ATBs any time that you’d like in order to consider your options, and also a menu setting to switch the game to automatically pause any time you can input a new command.
I found that more contemplative battle of method way more satisfying than the frantic, active version. At its highest points, the combat almost feels like a puzzle game, as you try to time out coordinated attacks to go off just when the enemy is exposed.
Each of your characters (up to four, depending on where you are at in the story) have four different “vantages” they can choose from to attack the enemy, defend themselves or their companions, or heal. There’s a pretty nice variety to choose from, with new Vantages getting unlocked throughout the game depending on what hat you are wearing. This is one of the silliest and most fun implementations of a job system I’ve seen in an RPG.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really ever feel motivated to spend much time experimenting with the different abilities for most of the characters. Throughout the game, you have one main character that is always around, and then three others who drift in and out of the narrative and your party as the story goes along. This device works well for the plot, but from a gameplay perspective it was a bit disheartening to never know how long a character would be with me.
A Short Tale
Before I get deep into spoiler territory here, let me summarize my thoughts on the story. The plot feels fairly generic, but is told with enough charm that it kept me engaged right up the end. Which when reached, felt frustratingly abrupt.
This game is the first part of a trilogy, but does not have a satisfying ending in it’s own right. It’d be like if the original Star Wars movie ended at the scene where Luke is waving around his lightsaber with a blindfold on while Han talks about hokey religions and ancient weapons.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s hit some spoilerific details.
Warning: Spoilers Below
Boot Hill Heroes starts off with you controlling a Sheriff as he walks up to a duel that ends with him dying. The story jumps forward after that, and you play the rest of the game as that Sheriff’s son, Kid, who sets off from his family ranch to make some honest money in the big city. Almost immediately, you get swept up in trying to prove that a nearby town was ransacked by the gang your father was trying to stop when he died, and not by the local Native American tribe that was framed for the attack.
Uncovering this plot and then working to try to expose and stop it is pretty fun, but not all encompassing. Near the end of the game, you end up getting sidetracked for quite a while when some of the party is recruited into a travelling circus. The main plot does end up resurfacing in this sequence in a pretty significant way, but for a while I was just wondering around finding costume pieces and recaging escaped lions without really understanding why.
The end of the game, though, is the biggest disappointment for me. It takes a long time to get the party of four characters all together at once, and when I did I felt like I’d just finally gotten past a long introduction and was ready to set off on a grand adventure with this party of four. I mean, the trailer shows all four characters riding on horseback together, so I was sure there was plenty of game left.
Instead, you go into a series of flashbacks where the surviving members of the Sheriff's posse from years ago tell your group, the new posse, their memories of the day your father died. You play each of these little vignettes as those old characters, complete with their own vantages and equipment that you have no control over, and then when you finish learning all the details about the day your father died…
The game just ends.
You don’t actually get to go off on an adventure with your full party. It’s just over. That promotional shot of the four characters all riding together? It’s from the end credits of the game.
There’s some extra stuff to do once the game ends, but it’s clear that the main plot continues in the sequel, Boot Hill Bounties, which ends up leaving the ending of Boot Hill Heroes pretty unsatisfying.
Boot Hill Heroes is a game that fans of old-school RPGs should definitely check out. It’s got a wonderfully realized world that oozes charm from the character design, dialog, and music. The combat ranges from fairly routine against weak enemies to a tricky puzzle against stronger ones, but always feels fair.
The story is probably the weakest part of the game because of how it abruptly ends, but I’m hoping that the way it continues into Boot Hill Bounties and the eventual third episode makes for a satisfying story overall.
This game isn’t perfect, but if you’re looking for a relaxed, goofy, retro world to slip into for a while, it is perfect for that.
Overall score: 4/5
Oh my gosh, I almost forgot to mention that you save your game by talking to your dog who gives you advice on where to go next and is the best dog in the whole world!