Boot Hill Heroes: Part One

"Although it's called Part One, it behaves like a Part Two of Three, and it takes a long time to do so."

It's funny — we talk about "western RPGs" all the time, but how many of them are actually set in the days of cowboys roping steer and sheriffs wearing tin stars and meting out frontier justice? There are almost certainly others in existence, but if you ask most RPG players, it's likely that the only cowboy RPGs they'll be able to think of are those of the Wild Arms series... which was, perhaps ironically, made by Japanese developers. However, a new cowboy has entered the rodeo, in the form of Boot Hill Heroes Part One. (Developed, definitely not ironically, here in the US.) With a name like that, it's clear from the outset that more entries in the series are planned, but will they be as loved as the Wild Arms games? It's too early to tell, but I can at least fill you in on whether Part One is worth your time.

The game begins with the final showdown between a sheriff and the head of a gang of outlaws. The outlaw is badly injured, but the lawman is killed outright and leaves behind a wife and a young son, so it's not much of a victory. We then jump forward about 10 years and rejoin the son as a young man leaving his mother's home to take a job in a nearby town. Of course, as generally happens to protagonists, he quickly finds himself in a larger conflict that will ultimately pit him against the same gang whose leader killed his father. By the end of the game, he's gathered a posse of his own and started down the road to vengeance and/or justice, but there's still plenty more story to tell in future games.

Boot Hill Heroes is billed as a retro RPG, although that label applies mostly to its aesthetics. The pixelated graphics look quite good, although I frequently ran into collision issues. That is, places where the characters get stuck on the invisible edge of a table or in a space where it looks like there's enough room to pass between two objects. This is particularly true after your team obtains horses, as the horses' size makes them virtual edge magnets. This issue is very unfortunate, given that the horses are intended to let you travel more quickly. However, the horses' extremely slow acceleration means that every time you bump into something, you're stopped, then stuck at a walking pace for a while before you actually start traveling quickly. Thus, I rarely used the horses; even putting aside the hope of moving quickly, that's a shame, because their galloping animation is the best visual in the game. Someone clearly put a lot of work into it, but it's just not worth the hassle to see. (The good news is that you get plenty of it during the closing credits. The bad news is that the reason you get plenty of it during the credits is that they seem to last forever while the developers apparently thank every single one of their Kickstarter backers.)

The sound design also follows the retro theme, with music by veteran Jake 'virt' Kaufman (composer for DuckTales Remastered and Double Dragon Neon among many others). Gaining the involvement of such a composer was apparently the main goal of the developers' Kickstarter campaign, and I'd say it paid off. The music is consistently good, and it fits the game's settings as well as its retro design.

Where the game deviates from that retro design somewhat is in its surprisingly complex combat. Boot Hill Heroes uses an active-time battle system in which your characters and their enemies all have power meters that are constantly charging. Each action you (or the baddies) can take costs a certain number of power points, and as you'd expect, the more powerful an action, the more points it costs. You can pause the action at any point to issue commands — I did so often, particularly in boss battles, where strategy is crucial to success — but the developers have done a nice job of balancing the speed of the combat when it's unpaused as well. The power meters all fill at a slow-ish rate unless you've issued commands to all of your characters and they're just waiting for their meters to fill enough to carry out those commands. When that happens, the meters move much more quickly, saving you from a fair amount of boredom and waiting over the course of the game.

Multi-player is also available, and when playing that way, each player takes control of one party member to walk around and issue battle commands. The problem is that the number of characters in your party is not consistent over time, nor are the identities of those characters. So unless players' friends are willing to drop out of the game for long stretches when the main character is by himself and then simply play the character of "whoever is with the main character at the moment," this may not be an option many take. I never did.

Similar to Pokémon, each of your characters can only use four actions in battle at any time, but unlike Pokémon, you can switch between any of the actions they know at any time outside of battle. Very nice for when a newly-learned action turns out to not be as useful as you might have thought. Actions are learned through battling, based on the hat you have equipped at the time, much like the system used in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2. Surprisingly, of the two, I actually prefer the system in Boot Hill Heroes, because hats have no other function. This means that once you've learned all of the skills a particular hat has to offer, you can just move on to the next one rather than deal with the frustration of wanting to keep it equipped for its stats but feeling like you have to give it up in order to learn more skills.

Like many RPGs, combat in Boot Hill Heroes involves a number of positive and negative statuses. Some of these last a certain number of battles, such as those gained by talking to NPCs. A quick pep-talk may make you feel Gumption, for example, while a paranoid rant may leave you Alert. In-battle statuses can be inflicted by certain actions, and getting knocked out in battle leaves effects that remain until healed. Unfortunately, while these statuses are an interesting concept, they're often a bit too much to keep track of. For example, there's no way to tell what different status icons mean while you're in battle, and some of them are quite similar to one another. And although you can find out what quite a few of them mean by talking to certain NPCs outside of battle, there are some icons that I never learned the meaning of. This was specifically an issue with weapons, which meant that I didn't always know if a new weapon would be a good choice based on its effect icons, even if its attack stat was a little lower than what I was using.

Another unfortunate aspect of the game is its controls. I started out using my keyboard, but gave up quickly and hunted down a gamepad, as the keyboard controls are not intuitive in the slightest and can't be remapped. A gamepad works much better, although I still wished I could choose the button mappings. This, combined with the collision issues I mentioned earlier, was the source of a large percentage of my frustration with Boot Hill Heroes.

The remaining percentage of that frustration came from occasional difficulty spikes in boss battles, several of which come after long scenes of dialogue and don't allow for any backtracking to grind for levels to improve stats. The final section of the game is mostly a string of boss fights, many of which do not involve the characters you've been playing for the rest of the game, so my frustration built up quite a bit as the game drew to a close. By rethinking my strategies and pausing the game every time one of my characters performed an action so that I could carefully choose what to do next, I was able to make it through, but I have to admit that for much of the last few hours of the game, my constant thought was "when will this game end?!" (That said, I must compliment the developers on the final boss, who kicked my butt thoroughly two or three times before I realized what I was supposed to do, which was a logical thing to do based on what I'd already done in the rest of the game. It felt good to take him down after that.)

Sadly, those anticlimactic final hours cemented in me a feeling that had been growing all along: that this game is somehow less than the sum of its parts. You've seen what I have to say about it, and most of it seems pretty positive... and yet, I didn't really have much fun with Boot Hill Heroes: Part One. In fact, nearly the whole time I was playing it, I wanted to be playing something else, even though there are so many things that it does right.

It's difficult for me to say why I felt that way, but I think the most likely reason is this: although it's called Part One, it behaves like a Part Two of Three, and it takes a long time to do so. That is, it feels like simply a bridge between the end of the story of the sheriff and the start of his son taking up the same quest — the middle of the story rather than its beginning or end. The story elements that will matter in the actual Part Two could have been resolved much more quickly than they are, and those that won't matter could probably have been cut.

So, returning to the answer I offered to give at the beginning of this review, is Boot Hill Heroes: Part One worth your time? It depends heavily on how much you've been looking for a new Wild West-themed RPG. If you love that setting, then I'd definitely recommend it, since you'll probably be able to overlook the pacing issues that stopped it from really excelling for me. If you're not really into Westerns, I might recommend that you pass on this game and instead pick up Part Two when it's released, because the underlying game has a lot going for it. Of course, as with any game, the existence of a Part Two will certainly be predicated on sales of Part One...

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