Imagine starting a video game right at the end of your character’s life. You’ve defeated the big bad and saved the world, but the next thing you know, you’re listening to an angel after dying a hero’s death. That’s how Hero Must Die. Again begins. Originally released on mobile in Japan in 2007 and created by Shoji Masuda (known for other genre-defying RPGs such as Linda3 and Oreshika), Hero Must Die. Again pushes away levels and grinding for an experience that, while novel, doesn’t do much to stick in the mind.
At the beginning of the game, you are revived and given five days to settle your affairs and find the love of your life, whom you were trying to rescue before you died. You’re armed with the best weapons, the best armour, and maximum health, but you’re quickly told that over the course of those five days, you will get weaker. That means you will lose access to magic spells, and your strength will decrease over time. Enemies that you can walk into and kill without even engaging in battle (think EarthBound) will eventually become a threat. With this in mind, you need to plan out what you’re going to do before you die again. But there are a lot of problems in the world and a lot of people who need help.
Hero Must Die. Again actively encourages multiple playthroughs in order to achieve everything and reach the true ending. There are eight characters who need help, and most of them have two quests: completing the first one unlocks their second quest the next time you’re brought back to life. Completing five sets of quests unlocks the true ending route, and you don’t need to do them all in one playthrough. Luckily, one five-day period will only take between half an hour to two hours to get through. Your first couple of playthroughs will be spent figuring out what to do, mapping out where everything is, and learning what each of the characters require to complete their quests. Then you can plan the most effective route to get to the end once you feel confident about the world. Managing your time is surprisingly easy. You can buy items to warp out of dungeons instantly, or warp between towns, and you even have access to spells that allow you to teleport anywhere on the map. I really appreciate that the game doesn’t put any pressure on you as you approach the end of each five-day period.
In contrast to this unusual concept, combat is a pretty standard turn-based affair, and it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s not too demanding either, even when you’re on your very last day and your resources are limited. Early on in a run, I engaged nearly every enemy and collected new weapons, armour, and money; but the further along I got, the more I relied on my teammates to help protect me, and I even tried to avoid enemy encounters.
And here’s where my issues with Hero Must Die. Again creep in: everything works, and everything is okay, but aside from the concept, I found nothing memorable about the game. I first noticed it during combat, where I used the same tactics for nearly every fight or adapted the same way every playthrough as I got weaker. Even with all of the different party members you can recruit, they always fulfill the same kind of role regardless of who they are: support the main character, heal the main character, etcetera.
Then there’s the dungeons. You crawl through the same four or five dungeons multiple times, and they’re all very similar, apart from setting, colour palette, or enemy types. Everything looks drab too. This release is based on the 2016 Japanese Vita port, and though it’s bright and colourful, it looks fairly basic even for that console. Character models in particular look choppy up close, and there’s nothing inspiring or unique about the dungeon designs. And while Kenji Ito’s music is a bit of a bright spot, there’s such a small amount of tracks that after a while, they begin to feel repetitive, just like most of the rest of the game.
This feeling isn’t helped by the fact that some quests require the same few items, and sometimes the rewards can change or vary slightly. For example, completing Naomi’s quest gives you a choice between the Fire Orb and the Jade Pillar — both are needed for different quests, but sometimes you don’t get a choice and are given one by default. At the same time, Princess Flora can offer you a number of different items in exchange for her hand in marriage, but these aren’t necessarily items you’re missing. If you run out of options, some of the quest items can be dropped by enemies, but their drop rates are incredibly low. If this happens during the second part of someone’s quest, you either need to start the five-day period over again and hope for better RNG, or die, move on to the next five-day period, and go through that character’s first quest all over again.
I think I’d be more tolerant of the game’s issues if the world or characters were interesting, but they just aren’t. Each of the main characters are based in a different city or location and come with their own backstory, and some even give you a peek at the history of the world, but it all feels like an afterthought. They don’t contribute anything to the hero’s overall story of trying to find his beloved, nor do they change the overall plot. Characters do get unique dialogue depending on who you take on the main quest, or how many of their personal quests you’ve done, but it’s nothing that makes them stand out as individuals.
This all might be a consequence of Hero Must Die. Again being a remake of a mobile game. I think it lends itself to handheld play (which the Switch version is perfect for) because you can pick it up, do one character quest or five-day period, and put it down. But it’s designed without an interesting hook, outside of this main concept. It’s simple and easy to pick up, but to a fault.
I really like what Hero Must Die. Again is trying to do. The idea of playing as a character with endgame stats who gradually weakens over time is really interesting, and I think the game as a whole works, but my issue is that it really doesn’t do much with that concept. There’s no emotional weight to the story, and by the third or fourth playthrough, everything gets very repetitive. I think with a bit more polish, the ideas behind Hero Must Die. Again will make for a great video game, but this initial step just doesn’t do enough to excite or interest me.