Boot Hill Heroes Review (Switch)
Release Date: December 15, 2020
File Size: 1.8GB
Publisher: Experimental Gamer Studios
Developer: Experimental Gamer Studios
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
I’ve had an ever-growing interest in the American frontier / Wild West / Weird West setting ever since I first played Wild Arms back in the late ‘90s. It seems that very few games, let alone RPGs, go down this thematic route, which is why I always have my sights set on the select few that do make it through production. Boot Hill Heroes is the latest Switch release from Experimental Gamer Studios, but is actually the first game in a series that includes Boot Hill Bounties (the sequel to Heroes) from earlier this year.
Boot Hill Bounties was reviewed favorably by our very own Mike earlier this year, and the accolades he gave it have only served to kindle my own flame even more. With Boot Hill Heroes technically being the first release in the series, I was curious to see not only how I would feel about the game, but also how it would stack up to the attractive case made by Mike for the sequel earlier in the year.
Boot Hill Heroes opens on the cusp of a shootout between Pendleton Howl, newly crowned sheriff of Bronco County, and Coyote Saint, leader of the Saints-Little gang. Terrorized by the ruthless gang for many moons, Howl’s Boot Hill Posse was the only thing keeping the criminals at bay. After much loss, all the conflict would lead to this single, defining moment, where the outcome would determine the fate of all residents of Bronco County. Justice ultimately prevailed that day, with Coyote Saint being wounded and sentenced to life at Devil’s Hold prison, but at the unfortunate cost of Howl’s life. Peace and prosperity does come over Bronco County as the remaining members of the Saints-Little gang scatter to the winds, never to be seen or heard from again.
10 years later, the son of Pendleton – aptly named “Kid” – is about to set off on his own journey. What begins as only a means to save the family farm from foreclosure soon evolves into a rise of destruction, treachery, and conspiracy, all of which seem to stem from the inevitable and dreaded return of the Saints-Little gang. Along the way, Kid will make friendships and bonds with an assortment of characters, including a bounty hunter and the daughter of the local native tribe chief, each playing their own important role in the overarching narrative. Will Coyote Saint be freed from captivity and live to fight another day, or will the ragtag band of adventurers be able to lasso them all, once and for all?
Boot Hill Heroes takes the unlikely hero approach and runs with it to the finest degree. Outside of a few player-chosen responses, Kid is silent, and his child-like innocence shines throughout the narrative. He didn’t ask to be wrapped up in the mess unfolding around him, but he tries his best to aid those around him anyway, often acting “off the cuff” in potentially dangerous scenarios. Kid is a kid, after all, but you can see bits of his father – the late Pendleton Howl – shining through him during these situations.
The supporting cast, both heroes and villains, are equally interesting and fleshed out, with pretty much the entire group having their own motives and situations to deal with, all of which tie effortlessly back into the main story points. Ultimately, there are little to no cons regardings the narrative in Boot Hill Heroes, save for an occasional omitted word in certain conversations. That being said, the ending, while revealing some interesting tidbits around the fateful shootout 10 years prior, does end rather abruptly, and I was a little disappointed to find that the journey had come to an end when things felt like they were really just getting started. Way to hype up the sequel, though!
As Kid explores Bronco County and beyond, he’ll come across areas to explore, hostile creatures to dispatch, and all sorts of gatherable resources to either sell for a profit or use in weapon imbuing. The combat system in Boot Hill Heroes is probably the most unique aspect of the game besides the unconventional Wild West setting. While quite similar in base function to the ATB formula conceptualized by Final Fantasy IV, where time flows freely and each combatant executes their commands after the appropriate amount of charge (or wait time) has been achieved, the ability to queue attacks in advance, as well as cancel them, adds a layer of complexity not found through more traditional examples of the system. The end result is an ebb and flow that encourages the player to tactfully use defensive measures while working around the opposition’s own defensive stances.
Often, this means that you’ll be cancelling some queued attacks on the fly in order to efficiently react to your opponent’s current hand. Playing defense in many RPGs is somewhat of a meme due to being designed around being optional, but Boot Hill Heroes genuinely encourages active play even on the lower difficulties. On either side of the spectrum lies additional options that can make the journey more difficult (ie. hard mode) or easier (ie. changing active battles to “wait” mode) depending on your tastes. Even on active mode, however, you can pause time in order to deploy better decisions at any time. Whatever you decide, know that there is a bit of a warm-up period associated with this type of battle system, but it gets easier and feels much more satisfying as you grow accustomed to it.
Kid and company can be outfitted with all sorts of equipment, some of which can be further customized through the aforementioned imbuing system. Most characters have access to at least two types of weapons which are then associated with specific vantages (or abilities – more on those later). Weapons can be enchanted through the imbuing system, adorning permanent boons to them that can be flat-out stat increases, status-inducing perks, or other utility bonuses. Though the additional customization via imbuing is appreciated, and powerful, their material requirements can be overwhelming at times, especially when it is unclear where to collect certain components from. This, combined with how expensive base weapons are, means that decisions carry much more weight but unfortunately leave little room for serious experimentation.
Hats offer no statistical benefits but are key to learning new vantages and have the added bonus of slightly altering the look of the given character’s sprite. Each character has a single armor slot that is more or less used solely to boost defense. Finally, there are trappings, which are the game’s equivalent of accessories and can provide powerful bonuses both inside and outside of combat.
Most party members can fulfill multiple roles thanks to the variety and customizable nature of vantages. Each character can only equip four vantages at a time, but these can easily be swapped between any time outside of combat. Some vantages are tied to specific types of weapons – you can’t very well shoot something with a club – but a few are weapon agnostic, notably most defensive stances. It isn’t uncommon to shuffle around different equipment loadouts and vantages based on the current task, party composition, and available gear, so it is wonderful how easily it can be done.
Buffs and debuffs play a rather significant role in Boot Hill Heroes as they often can persist through multiple encounters. Food is the most consistent way of gaining a variety of buffs, of which you can only have a maximum of three up at a time, but they can also be occasionally received through conversing with NPCs. Although you can pack away food for later use in your journey, buffs received at sit-down restaurants and through conversations, more often than not, last substantially longer than their mobile counterparts. As for debuffs, many will fall off when combat ends but some will remain as “wounds” until you can see (and pay) a local doctor for treatment.
The world of Boot Hill Heroes is an utter joy to explore due to how well it is designed. Treasures abound in seemingly every nook and cranny of each map, and materials used to either make a quick buck or to fuel weapon imbuing can be found all over the place, as well off the corpses of your enemies. The previously mentioned chance at free, potentially potent buffs from NPC conversations further incentivizes a thorough sweep over each and every new location. The only real problem when it comes to exploration is the speed of travel by foot – a snail’s pace, really. This is quickly remedied by acquiring your very own horse – it cannot be used everywhere, though. Either way, Bronco County is a blast to explore, whether you are roaming the countryside for loot, or knee-deep in a hostile encounter.
Many games over the years have adopted the oblique projection look that was popularized by Earthbound (or Mother 2), but very few have taken it to comparable heights in their own works. Boot Hill Heroes brings the Wild West to life from this unique perspective through a criminally underused theme, which includes dusty cities, lush forests, and arid wastelands. Kid will raft down rivers in pursuit of criminals, help out at the local traveling circus, and occasionally catch a ride on the Bronco County train system, all of which adds realism to the American frontier-esque setting.
Boot Hill Heroes features as much variety in terms of sprites and locations that you would expect from its clear inspiration, Earthbound. Very few NPCs look the same, and there are a decent amount of in-combat enemy sprites, as well. All that said, there is a bit of dissonance between the clearly defined pixel art and the hand-drawn, digitized art that accounts for most of the combat graphics, as well as character portraits. While the base quality is there, it feels like some corners were cut during the digitization process that makes much of it feel a bit out of place. The absolute worst example is a Gecko enemy that has clearly been cropped to fit a specific sized window, looking sloppy as a result. Regardless, this is a minor nitpick in an otherwise spectacular presentation.
The soundtrack by Jake Kaufman is equally impressive, featuring a healthy mix of era-appropriate tunes (including a sick ragtime saloon jig) alongside some more unique, one-off pieces that still manage to fit the mood and feel of the atmosphere despite their more unconventional approach. Sound effects have been added to bring further flavor into the world, with a little cowboy jingle every time you loot, appropriate poison and fire effects for their respective debuffs, impactful firearm blasts, sharp whip cracks, and much more. It is clear that a lot of love and care went into the presentation in spite of its shortcomings. There aren’t any performance issues to speak of, but there are a couple of invisible walls and a singular instance where I glitched beyond an intended area for a short time. Neither issue was game breaking, however.
Impressions and Conclusion
Boot Hill Heroes is a pleasure from start to finish, going above and beyond where others have simply tried to do “just enough,” or perhaps have attempted to only ride on the success of their inspiration. This is much more than “Mother in the Wild West” – it is a polished experience that very much does its own thing, combining a refreshing setting, engaging combat system, and intriguing characters with familiar elements that Mother fans may find comforting.
While the game in a way does feel like it ends prematurely, part of this could be due to just how invested I had become in the narrative. Boot Hill Heroes certainly has some minor issues here and there…but that is to be expected in any game, let alone an indie endeavor. The important thing is that none of the quirks take away from the otherwise wonderful experience. Boot Hill Heroes has impressed me so much that I immediately went out and purchased its sequel, Boot Hill Bounties, which is also on Switch. If it’s anywhere close to being as good as this one, then I know I’m in for a real treat.