Swellsville has been living in peace for the last 10 years, ever since its sheriff, Templeton Howl, sacrificed his life to take down the infamous Saints-Little Gang. But, although their leader is behind bars, the other members have simply been biding their time in the shadows. Now, Templeton’s son, Kid Howl, is about to continue his father’s legacy in Boot Hill Heroes.
The developer, Experimental Gamer, describes it as a throwback to EarthBound with a dash of Final Fantasy mixed in, with a classic spaghetti Western setting. That’s a pretty good way to start talking about it, because anybody can see the connection to EarthBound just by looking at screenshots. It’s not just that distinctive, retro SNES art style either. Notice how everything is slightly angled in a way that lets you see three of the surrounding walls of a house? That’s an idea right out of its inspiration.
The sound and music, arguably, have that EarthBound bent to them, as well, although, needless to say, they go with the Western theme, as well. The former is stronger in the battle theme, while the latter comes out in the title screen overture and some of the bleak desert themes. A good mix of both is in the form of the little piano tune you hear in the saloons, which you’ll swear is out of a real Western movie. At the same, everything you’ll hear is clearly in the capabilities of a real SNES. For further reference, here’s a release of four of the game’s songs (https://soundcloud NULL.com/virtjk/sets/boot-hill-heroes-music-teaser).
You’ll see even more EarthBound in the battles, where character sprites pop up only when they’re attacking, and each enemy group has a unique beginning and ending text. But the combat system itself is totally different, and this is where you might see more of a Final Fantasy comparison. Each character can choose from up to four Vantages in combat, each of which has its own Power cost. Power regenerates at a fixed rate, and the player can store up to ten points at any given time, though each Vantage has a handy meter that shows how close you are to being able to use it once.
Everything your character can do is considered a Vantage. They’re essentially broken into two types — actions and stances. Actions pretty much cover all of your attacks, healing and so on. Stances, on the other hand, stay active until they’re either canceled or run out over time. Most stances are reactions, like dodging, blocking and countering attacks, but there is also one that slowly increases the power of your next attack over time, for example. Enemies have many of the same abilities, but you can always wait out their stance and then clobber them with the Power your party built up in that time. In fact, a few Vantages cost so little that you can use them several times in a row. Enemies don’t have the ability to save up like this, though, and a little line on their Power meter indicates when they’ll act. Another part of strategy, therefore, is learning their patterns and guessing what they’ll do based on these Power costs.
You can mix and match your Vantages from the little character menus on the bottom of the screen. You’ll learn new ones by winning battles in different hats. The hats are unique to each of the game’s four playable characters, and show up on their sprites. There’s only a small handful of hats per character, but each one will teach you a basic Vantage quickly and two or three more advanced ones as you spend more time with it. Unfortunately, you can’t see what Vantages a particular hat has — just the ones that your character is part of the way towards learning.
Other equipment includes weapons, armor and accessories. Each accessory has one powerful special effect, like giving you five Power points at the start of each battle or doubling your critical hit rate. Weapons, meanwhile, often have multiple slots for additions, like status effects or chances at a double attack. While some of these are usually filled, great weapons will still have more slots left so you can go to an enchanter. There, you can hand over piles of items in order to add more effects to these slots. Some of these items are dropped by enemies, while others can actually be spotted lying around on the ground. The latter is surprisingly common in this game — you’ll probably find at least a couple of things on each screen depending on the size, and they reappear on return visits.
Status effects really are a pretty big deal in Boot Hill Heroes. There’s quite a few traditional in-battle effects, like burns, poison, stun, paralysis and disease, and you can combine specific Vantages geared towards this with anything attached to your weapon to increase the chances even further. This comes into play even more when Kid learns Star Shot, a special Vantage that adds massive bonus damage for every status effect on its target, but removes the effects on hit. On the other hand, there are more long-term statuses, called Wounds and Perks. Perks give you a slight boost to a single stat for a few battles. Wounds, meanwhile, push your perks out of the way, and, if you get too many, you won’t be able to revive the character without going to a special doctor. (Normally, your character will slowly edge toward revival during battle and regenerate health by walking around the overworld.)
What really makes Boot Hill Heroes unusual, and arguably more fun, is the fact that it supports multiplayer co-op. Yes, you read that right, and no, I’m not joking. While you can pause the action to input commands in battle, it can still feel overwhelming to keep up with multiple characters’ actions in real-time. To solve this, at any time you can reassign any characters you like to any connected controllers and/or the keyboard. I got to try this with one other person, so we each took two characters. It is weird to see multiple targeting icons moving around the screen at once, but, beyond that, it made it a lot easier to focus on what the enemies were up to and fight them more efficiently.
It’s worth noting that multiplayer also applies to the overworld. The player controlling the party leader moves around the map and interacts with people, but at the press of a button he or she can rotate the party characters. Control assignments stay on the character, not the slot, so anyone can suddenly be in control. Meanwhile, everyone else can access their character menus simultaneously, while the first player continues exploring. It’s cool, and it works in the most easy-to-understand manner possible. This is something I would really like to see in more games.
Whether you’re controlling Kid or passing him off to a friend, you’re still following his story in this game. When his mother finds herself about to lose the farm, he volunteers to work for some extra money, but is swindled out of it by a certain Monty Spaids. Monty, arguably the main villain of this first of three parts to Boot Hill Heroes, is actually one of the lowest-ranking members of the Saints-Little Gang. Despite everyone saying he’s the weakest, you will face him multiple times along with a slew of other bosses while you chase the Gang. Because they framed the local Indian tribe, the Chepakwik, for burning down a nearby town, the only way to stop impending war is to put them all behind bars — and quick. Tracking them down and finding out why they weren’t wiped out 10 years ago is a story that is only beginning when you finish Boot Hill Heroes: Part One. Still, the last sequence offers a clever wrap-up to this part of the plot while teasing many things to come.
This storyline has a good 10-15 hours of gameplay. Afterwards, you will be urged to go on a post-game side quest to get into a secret hat factory. While that adds an hour or two more, they are a distinct shift from the fun you’ve been having to a grueling, frustrating dungeon full of too many annoying battles. The conclusion of the side quest is also a huge letdown. Meanwhile, the PlayStation Mobile version of the game (for Vita, Xperia Play and other devices) has another, slightly bigger side quest. As a PC player, I obviously didn’t get to go through that, but it’s definitely worth noting since it supposedly adds two to three more hours.
With its quirky, distinctive style, Boot Hill Heroes is shaping up to be everything it claimed to be and more. It’s undeniable that, as a tribute to EarthBound and other SNES-era classics, this game really shines. It is true that the game I played, and that is currently released, is only Boot Hill Heroes: Part One, but, unless something drastically changes, we’re going to have a full game on our hands that makes its own history.
Head over to Experimental Gamer’s site (http://www NULL.experimentalgamer NULL.com/boot-hill-heroes/) and get the game for $7.49 USD now, then join me in eagerly awaiting Part Two, reportedly set to release within the year.
Review copy supplied by the publisher.