As anyone knows, I’m a huge fan of JRPGs for a variety of reasons. If it isn’t the story-book qualities of Dragon Quest, or the turn-based/pseudo-real time combat of Final Fantasy (depends on your game), I cannot wrest myself from the grip of my initial love – whether nostalgia or the inherent quality of those games causes this remains up for debate. Still, you do not see many JRPGs released in the modern era without finding themselves in the mire of horrible and predictable tropes, both in terms of story, setting, and game. Take White Knight Chronicles, for example: is it enjoyable? Surely! But could any person pick it up and experience something magical and special like the JRPGs of yesteryear? I highly doubt it.
Simply put, JRPGs lost their flair and spark, not in their appeals to a mainstream audience but their constant appeals to security and safety. Rarely do JRPGs try something new; those that do never find release in the States. At best, It’s maddening that I can’t find an original game within fifty miles of the Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest/Square-Enix nucleus! If anything, we wait for fan translation groups to give us something new (see: Bahamut Lagoon) and entertaining. Resorting to piracy, goodness people!
Seeing Boot Hill Heroes at PAX filled me with some hope, and some dread. A JRPG…made by Westerners. Truly, does this sound like the resultant product will impress you? At first, what would be your first thoughts?
Look, if you weren’t thinking of Earthbound, you totally just lied and should be ashamed of yourself. The story, from the demo I played, almost fits into that “chosen child” narrative, affectionately here using the name “The Kid” for the main character. I’m fine with the adoption of those story tropes – nor will I judge the story from a short demo, as I would be unfair to a game that requires more than a short playthrough in a giant expo hall. I can give you a rather full glimpse of the game itself, though.
Like Earthbound, the game does not force random encounters; every enemy appears on the map, and subsequently chases you. Unlike in Earthbound, both you and the enemy move at speeds where you could avoid said encounters (I remember Earthbound’s incredibly fast enemies – you may as well have random encounters if they move faster than the human eye perceives them). I appreciate having the choice! Boot Hill Heroes doesn’t rely much on recovery items much, either; the game will refill your health automatically whenever you walk around for a period of time. Take note, Experimental Gamer, that you may want items/abilities that increase the rate of regen (and walk speed, definitely that too).
However, what really impresses me comes from the battle system. Fully integrated with the heretofore mentioned mechanics, battles require reflex, strategy, and knowing what you’re doing. Imagine Dragon Quest or Phantasy Star with the Active Time Battle from earlier Final Fantasy games, and you’ll begin to get an idea of the mechanics. First, your character only equips four abilities at a time – called Vantages – and cannot change them in battle. They all have a specific cost – I’m not sure what the denomination is, but it recovers as you attack. Each combat situation and environment, then, requires some forethought and strategy. Second, each ability takes a set time to perform – weaker attacks go fast, stronger attacks go slow. However, unlike most RPGs of this type, healing items and spells don’t appear at the ready to cover you mistakes – magic doesn’t exist in the Wild West theme (at least to my knowledge!). Thus, you need to actively evade attacks using Dodge, Block, and other abilities. Unlike offensive abilities, you can “queue” defensive abilities in advance, which will appear on your handy time bar (the blue one; red one is health).
To force players to use these abilities to the fullest, enemies hit hard. Very hard. Hard enough to force you into tinkering and playing around with the mechanics in order to survive. This really delights me in more ways than one; not only does the game NOT blast you through a useless and perfunctory tutorial, it also teaches the player the essential ideas and moves through the combat as much as the dialogue. The game breaks the forth wall to teach you, but it doesn’t spell out successful strategies outright; that you will need to figure out on your own. Once you understand the flow of the system, everything falls into place pretty quickly; it’s especially helpful to note how long your enemy takes to charge his attack (indicating its strength and/or usefulness, as those tend to take longer to execute) and switch up tactics on the fly.
If the game simply felt that throwing that brain-pleasing challenge at me, I’d be satisfied – but Boot Hill Heroes takes the system one step further by introducing cooperative multiplayer. Although I could call it a cash-in on the co-op craze of the past few years, or maybe an opportunity to ride on Dragon Quest IX’s coattails, Boot Hill Heroes designs the combat around this, rather than forcing multiplayer into the game (see: Dragon Quest IX – hey, I’m entitled to an opinion). In the single-player game, you still control all the character using a nifty pausing feature – this a game less about frantic menu scrolling and more about plotting your next moves. In multiplayer, however, you’ll need to play well with others and collaborate on each individual battle. I’m not sure whether I’d call it a party game, or that finding three other people interested in something similar strikes me as an easy task, but I anticipate lots of fun, lots of unique bosses taking advantage of that collaboration, and some interesting design to accommodate it. It’s unfortunately that there’s no online play, but I imagine some intrepid Internet wanderer will see this and program it into the game in the near future.
Honestly, I am just happy to see a game of this type with so much care put into the mechanics. It’s obvious that Dave Welch and Ben Rubach thought long and hard about the design of the game and how they could improve their predecessors. It shows a willingness to go beyond the tropes of JRPGs and – gasp! – actually improve the smaller elements. It adds to the holistic feel of the mechanics while still retaining those elements of games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III, and other such SNES/GEN classics that charmed gamers in the past. A willingness to change means taking off the old man and putting on the new (Ephesians 4:22-32), and I appreciate that aspect of the project.
Furthermore, anyone judging the game by its exterior appearance surely judges too harshly. It is meant to look that way, and I like it. The lines clearly, and simply, give the impression of the setting without forcing us with GRAPHICS to know what they mean. I’d rather use my imagination a little and return to a time when that was necessary to play games. Too little seems left to the player anymore, but Boot Hill Heroes strikes against that trend. When Samuel looks to anoint the next king of Israel, God tells him thus:
6 When they entered, he looked at Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
And surely, we’d find ourselves without an excellent game because we judge too fast or too harshly. I find that happens a lot nowadays; games get rated solely on one aspect or another, rather than the experience as a whole. I’d like to think Boot Hill Heroes will accomplish this, and I wish Experimental Gamer the best of luck in achieving their goal. In my opinion, they’re on the right track from the half-hour I played the game, and I am definitely looking forward to playing this in the near future. Since it appears close to release (Winter 2013), anticipate this with great interest! ‘Course, you could just pre-order it, and the price sounds better than alright!