Over the last decade, turn-based battlers seemed to fall out of style. RPG developers moved further and further from their roots, adding in layers of complexity; paradigm shifts, action-combat, dynamic combos – answers to questions many gamers had never asked. Things have changed. Amazing games like Bravely Default have arisen, even outselling titles in the mainline Final Fantasy series, prompting Square Enix to “go back to their roots.”. Boot Hill Heroes couldn’t have come along at a better time. Its Wild West setting, excellent storytelling, and obvious inspiration from genre legends like Earthbound make it an easy recommendation for players even remotely interested its Cowboys and Outlaws storyline.
Aesthetics – 8
If you were around during the Super Nintendo era, Boot Hill Heroes will feel more than a little familiar. When I first booted the game, the swells of nostalgia I experienced were like waves in rising tide. Everything, from the game’s menu to its sprites to its game world is rendered in the 16-bit style of the mid-90s. That may seem unremarkable when every indie game and their uncle seems to be doing the same, but developer Experimental Gamer has so woven in classic gameplay elements that Boot Hill Heroes feels like an honorific rather than an imitator of that classic generation.
Animation, however, is an area I found myself becoming distracted by. The world itself is incredibly detailed. It’s obvious that the developer pored over his environments, injecting minute details and loving touches. Some animations, though, feels a bit stilted, like they’re missing frames. With so much to enjoy in the game’s aesthetic, this is a small criticism but one that needs to be made given how it stood out when I did notice it.
Gameplay – 9
Thankfully, gameplay makes up for this small rough edge. In many ways, it is like stepping into a time machine. My time with Earthbound was fleeting, but even then I was immediately reminded of it, alongside the same-era Final Fantasy games I spent so much time with. In classic Nintendo RPG style, the first time you control your character, he’s getting out of bed in the morning.
And to that, gameplay opens quaintly. Following a sequence where lawdog Templeton Howl rids his town of the Saints-Little gang, you awake as his now fatherless son, Kid, to help your mother tend the farm. Later, when it’s clear that you must take up a job to save your home from foreclosure, you experience the first dialogue options. Though they lack impact, they do add roleplay to the game. It all feels modest, but before long the adventure picks up when a card swindler leads Kid to uncover the mystery of a nearby town burned to cinders. Some would believe the Chepakwik Indians were behind the travesty but it’s not spoiling anything to say there is more than meets the eye in this mystery.
Throughout, the game stays true to its western inspirations and takes its storytelling with an uncharacteristic seriousness. It never concedes to its colorful cartoon-like aesthetic, though it does know when to have fun – such as making your first save point a talking dog. This choice doesn’t detract from the storyline but instead adds levity that I found wholly enjoyable.
Even with a quality story, an RPG depends on its combat system for great gameplay. Here Experimental Gamer opts for some of the most well-known and well-received systems in RPG history. Boot Hill Heroes uses an Active Time Battle system where each ability can only be fired once its timer is full, with more powerful abilities requiring more time. Enemy timers are invisible, making strategic and often defensive play important. It is a system which I loved in the 90s and continue to love today, and with all four allies and sixteen abilities at your disposal, there is a lot of room for experimentation.
That isn’t to say there are only 16 abilities. In fact, there are substantially more but players can only slot four at any given time. This system is also limited by the hat they’re wearing. Think of hats likes jobs in Final Fantasy. Unlocked through gameplay, hats widen the possibilities but also force you to make choices in how you would like to play.
Innovation – 8
In many ways, Boot Hill Heroes is a love letter to the games that inspired it. The downside to that, of course, is that much of the game already feels familiar. Skills may be called Vantages and jobs may be hats, but there is precious little that feels truly new. Yet, at the same time, the combination of these elements is fresh, making that familiarity a mere entry point.
The story also pushes the innovative boundaries of Boot Hill Heroes. When was the last time you played a well-written Wild West drama that wasn’t named Red Dead Redemption? Now we have a quality Western RPG and thank goodness.
Polish – 7
In general, Boot Hill Heroes is a well-polished game; exceptionally so if you consider that Experimental Gamer is composed of a single developer. Still, I came across several typos in the game’s text. The menu system also feels unrefined. Likewise, it would have been nice to see some alternative resolution options on hand for different monitor types.
Longevity & Value – 8
Boot Hill Heroes offers a special experience to RPG gamers found nowhere else. Its uncommon setting allows for a story that we see all too infrequently, not just in the RPG genre but in video games as a whole. The value proposition here is clear. Boot Hill Heroes is both deep and rich, combining its familiar systems to create something unique that allows for both customization and strategy. On that same token, its familiarity is an inviting gateway, beckoning players to return to their turn-based roots after too long spent away. As part one in a story, there is more to come, but as a stand-alone entry, this is well-worth the purchase.
Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMO player since the days of MUDs. His great RPG love was the Final Fantasy series on PlayStation One and he’s been hooked ever since. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight.
| Earthbound & Final Fantasy inspirations
Serious, yet knows when to have fun
Strategic and defensive combat
Wild West setting with a quality story
| Few typos
Kid's face is odd
Some animations could use improvement