I don’t often find myself playing hard RPGs. I just don’t. The fact that I could power level myself until I could just steamroll the strongest enemies was something that drew me to the genre, as I didn’t have much skill at games starting out. Boot Hill Heroes: Part One is having none of that. The amount of work required to power level your way through any one area is astronomical, so the only viable solution is to get good at its clever, intricate battle system. If you aren’t willing to put in a good amount of time, thought, and planning into every one of the game’s many fights, you will not make it far in Kid’s Wild West adventures.
I love the combat. Let’s just get that out there. For starters, it’s a fast battle system. Boot Hill Heroes uses a charging bar for each playable character, with each of the available attacks using a different-sized chunk of the bar depending on how powerful it is. If you just need a fast dodging technique, you only need a little chunk of charge, but haymakers and powerful attacks mean a lot of waiting. There’s no MP for special attacks in this game, but rather just huge casting times. It streamlines the experience, making combat commands quick to execute.
While I’m on the subject of RPG battles, I don’t mean like attack bars while everyone waits to take their turns, either. I hate those points in RPG fights where everyone is just waiting to take their turn and no one is doing anything. It’s stupid and pointless. In this game, if you have attacks set up for everyone in your party, the game speeds up, filling the bars until the next person gets their attack to land. It speeds up combat when there could have been needless waiting while everyone sat watching their attack bars for who would get to hit who next.
The charging attacks system would have been interesting in and of itself, but letting me know when the enemy is going to attack added another level of strategy to the game. Normally, I would be paranoid about when the enemy was going to attack, choosing what attacks I did with no real reason beyond that they did a lot of damage. With this system, I can see how long I have before the enemy gets a turn and can change what I want to do accordingly. Not only that, but it shows how much of the bar needs to fill before the enemy gets to attack. More powerful hits require more charge, just like you, so if the enemy is charging for a long time, you don’t want to get hit by what’s coming. All of the various interrupts and defensive abilities, which is stuff I typically don’t even bother with in RPGs, became so much more useful because of this. Knowing the timing of enemy attacks encouraged me to play around with different attacks, using ones that messed with enemy timing, forced them to choose different attacks, or just outright dodge.
I also learned to use those abilities because everything in this game hits like a truck. The first hour or so can be pretty softball, but a couple of missed attacks on basic enemies often leads to the game over screen. You can continue in a hurry, but otherwise, every fight is a complex dance of attack and defense. Knowing when to use interrupts and to play defensively is key, and I never, ever play defensively in most games. In Boot Hill Heroes, you have to. HAVE TO. If you don’t, your people will be dropping in minutes, especially against bosses. There are attacks that regular enemies use all the time that you never, ever want to get hit by. If you just feel like being lazy and hitting attack without paying attention, don’t buy this game. You will get stomped.
Not only that, but this system is unbelievably frantic for one person to play. There is a pause button you can hit during combat to assess things and make a plan, but screw that. It felt like cheating and I didn’t want to use it. I really do like that it’s there for players who want the option, though. Bouncing around between two characters, picking attacks quickly while checking out what the enemies are doing just made for this involved push during combat that creeps closer to the pace of an action game than an RPG. It’s very fast-paced, and goes well beyond just picking ATTACK over and over again like I do in most turn-based RPGs. This was especially true once I got Moon Dancer, as the gloves were definitely off once I could heal in battle.
Did I mention that, beyond waiting to naturally heal while walking around outside of battle, that there’s almost no healing? That was another awesome but terrifying surprise, too. I liked not being able to heal in battle, even if I only picked up on it during my first frantic fight with Monty Spaids. I was pretty scared at that point, and found myself wondering if I could eat one of those apples that I’d picked up, only then seeing that there was no item command anywhere. I felt pretty dumb for not having picked up on it, and luckily one of my character’s attacks finally fired off in time to keep poor Kid alive. Every hit felt very frightening and meaningful when you only have one healer, and gets lot worse should she drop from a big hit.
Vantages added some more depth to the system when I could switch attacks in and out. Instead of having set battle commands, you learn vantages by wearing certain hats. Think of them like the Espers from Final Fantasy VI if you want an idea on how they work. Certain hats give specific powers if you gain enough Vantage Points from fighting enemies while wearing them. Once learned, you can equip a new vantage in battle, giving you a different attack or defense power to use. You can have four equipped at once, and you have to think very carefully about what you want for each fight. Expect to spend a good time mulling over exactly what you’ll need when facing late-game bosses.
You could always rustle up a couple of friends if you needed some help during combat, though. Up to four people can control one of the game’s characters, each of them controlling whichever character you delegated to them. This takes a lot of pressure off of a single person trying to manage everyone, as each character often has a clear role to play in combat and can warn the others about certain things. The drag is that there’s not a lot for those players to do when outside of combat. Also, characters leave and enter the party at different times since this is the initial chapter, so you rarely have more than two characters at any given time, and sometimes not even that. It’s a cool system, but it almost seems wasted since you don’t have four dedicated party members at all times. That might change in later chapters, but it’s still an issue now.
Combat is a bit interesting in that nothing you fight drops any money. Everything in the game drops items, and since most chickens don’t carry wallets, it makes a lot more sense to pick up a feather instead of ten bucks when you beat one up. The system is more realistic, but when you hit the shops and have to sell things, it bogs the game down a bit. Most items aren’t worth a lot, and while you can sell them fast, you tend to have tons of stuff. Things are lying around everywhere, and I always had to spend a good few minutes selling things at the shop before I could afford anything I wanted. Realism is all well and good, but not when I’m sitting in stores for a long time.
That kind of slow pacing is a plague on most of the game outside of combat. Towns in this chapter are sprawling, huge metropolises even by RPG standards, and that means a lot of people to talk to. Even if you’re ignoring side characters just to get to the main story, sometimes hunting down the character you need to speak with can take a while. Some of what these people say is entertaining in some way, as the Western tone of the game results in some interesting dialogue. Still, you don’t want to be in a big rush in these towns. There’s no map, so you’re in for a bit of a walk around.
Moving around in a hurry isn’t going to happen, either. The leisurely jaunt of the characters just feels too slow in these big cities. You can hop on a horse with the push of a button, increasing your speed a great deal, but it seems like many of the game’s objects are much bigger than their sprites would indicate. When you’re on foot, it can be hard enough to find an actual viable walking path around some spots, but on horseback it becomes practically impossible. I quickly hit a point where I just refused to use the horses anymore and walked. It was easier than having to hit a button and then try to figure out where I could walk.
Other aspects of the game seem a little rough around the edges. The art design, while reminiscent of Earthbound during exploration, is downright haggard during combat. The enemies are all drawn in this gritty style that just didn’t appeal to me, looking a little bit too much like they’d been drawn by someone with little experience. They’re not bad, but given the charming look of the rest of the game, they seem a little out of place, especially when the game is trying to show you a menacing character or enemy. While exploring, the game does manage some scary characters, which is quite a feat using that art style, but the designs in combat look a little too rough, as if they’d been done by someone who was uncomfortable and new at the art style. It’s not bad, but it looks more like someone’s weak RPG Maker game in those moments.
Boot Hill Heroes makes up for the rough artwork with its story, though. It manages to seamlessly shift tones, going from silly to deadly serious with ease. The western movie dialects help ground the game in its era, and provide some interesting moments in the gameplay. This is a sprawling RPG epic storyline we have here, but all told with a Wild West backdrop. It’s something I haven’t seen before, and is told skillfully through the dialogue. It’s quite a bit to digest in the first chapter, though, so expect a lot of storyline coming your way in between fights.
The soundtrack is pretty strong, too, as one would expect from Jake Kaufman. The music is an odd fusion of Western movies and SNES-era RPG sound that has to be heard to be appreciated. The tracks don’t have the infectious nature of some of Kaufman’s more upbeat work, but the happy town music and catchy battle music all strengthen the game’s setting through sound.
While slow and bogged down outside of combat, the game is still something for the RPG fan looking for something truly challenging to play. The combat system is involved, meaning you’ll be watching those attack bars fill with careful attentiveness. One missed move could mean your death, after all, but you’d better get used to it in the harsh, yet sometimes lighthearted world of Experimental Gamer’s Boot Hill Heroes.
Boot Hill Heroes is available for $7.49 from the developer’s site.