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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (437)

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Door Kickers: Action Sq... 4.5/5
Biomutant 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 2 4.5/5
Journey to the Savage P... 4.5/5
Wasteland 3 4.5/5
Daemon X Machina 3.5/5
Earthlock 2.5/5
Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5
ActRaiser 4.5/5
ActRaiser Renaissance 4/5
The Outer Worlds 3.5/5
Cris Tales 3/5
Warframe 3.5/5
Immortals: Fenyx Rising 4.5/5
Boot Hill Bounties 4/5
Pathfinder: Kingmaker 2/5
Borderlands 3 4/5
Horizon: Zero Dawn 3.5/5
World of Final Fantasy 4/5
ReCore 3/5
I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5

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Boot Hill Heroes   PC (Steam) 

It’s Episodic…    3.5/5 stars

“Boot Hill Heroes” (“BHH”) is the inaugural development effort by Experimental Gamer, an almost-one-man Indie studio made up of Dave Welch, someone simply known as ‘Ben,’ plus freelancers. It was initially an April 2012 Kickstarter project, which was fully funded, bringing in more than triple the original funding goal… of… $5000. So with $18K and change, Experimental Gamer set out to create a new classic in the much-loved, but sorely unfashionable 16-bit RPG. As someone who doesn’t follow Kickstarter and its salesmanship of vaporware, I didn’t actually hear about “BHH” until sometime in 2018, after the sequel had been released and the Steam Curator known as ‘Co-Op Cowboys’ gave it their stamp of approval.

Upon seeing a brand new, Wild West themed, 16-bit styled RPG with couch coop, how could the MeltedJoystick Crew pass it up? I grabbed both games in the series during the next Steam sale, with plans to get to them immediately. But the best-laid plans of mice and men always go awry, or something. Thus between coop interruptions in 2019, a pandemic in 2020, and MORE pandemic and even worse interruptions in 2021, we’re lucky that any of us managed to get any couch coop time in. Fortunately, Chris and I are more dedicated to the cause than other flakes, so we managed to squeeze this game into the Summer after we both got our COVID vaccines and could be in the same room again.

Unfortunately, in my haste and excitement about getting to play a good old 16-bit RPG with couch coop, I may have missed some fine print somewhere that states that “BHH” and its sequel aren’t really stand-alone games, but individual episodes in a longer epic narrative. Yes, sadly “BHH” is an ‘episodic’ game… which leads directly to all of its problems.

Presentation
“BHH” is one of those nostalgic retro games that’s inspired by, and tries to emulate the Things that Came Before. Fortunately, it’s not trying to ape hideous Atari or 8-bit Nintendo sprites, but the glory days of the Golden Age when colorful, detailed 16-bit sprites were the pinnacle of gaming visuals. Unfortunately, the specific game “BHH” tries to emulate more than any other is “Earthbound,” a game widely renowned for its use of intentionally-hideous sprites for the purpose of parody and satire. Thus, the visuals are something of a low point in the game, whether it’s the freakishly weird-looking character sprites or the vaguely ugly character portraits that pop-up during dialog. Enemy designs are likewise somewhat off, though at least the main cadre of villains have unique looks and plenty of visual personality. In spite of the… let’s say, ‘quirkiness’ of the character designs, they obviously had a lot of effort put into them, since no two NPCs look exactly alike.

Animation is smooth when it needs to be, such as during cutscenes or when riding a horse. In battle, however, the game embraces its quirkiness even further, representing all enemies as static cardboard cutouts – such as one might see in a county faire shooting gallery – which pivot and spin to show that they’re doing something, and which rock back and forth in response to taking damage, or even spin on their axis when taking a critical hit, before flopping flat on the ground upon defeat. It’s a cute idea that both takes some of the grim and grit out of the Western genre and embraces the game’s ‘gaminess’ in the process.

The game’s soundtrack was composed by a fairly big name in retro game music, Jake Kaufman – who also scored games like “Shovel Knight” and the more recent ‘Shantae’ titles. Kaufman’s knack for building great melodies that capture a game’s theme can’t be overstated – the guy’s good – and “BHH” benefits greatly from the addition of his talent to its contractor pool. The tunes in “BHH” are immediately reminiscent of the greats like “Earthbound” (natch) and “Final Fantasy 6,” but also with a hint of ‘Wild ARMs’ in there.

Technically, “BHH” is adequate. It features Xinput support out of the box and, indeed, allows up to four players with four different input devices to be given control of 1-4 of the game’s playable party members. Controls are responsive enough – it’s an RPG so there’s no need for pixel-perfect twitching. However, there are a number of small glitches that pop-up occasionally, mostly dealing with achievements not triggering or weird bits of collision detection. We ran into one of these in our playthrough where I managed to get the party stuck behind a fat man who dresses like Colonel Sanders and had to reload a previous save. It’s nothing game breaking, since the player can’t save anywhere and must use save points that take the form of a beagle, but any game hoping to be compared favorably to the Golden Age Classics really needs to be as polished as a brass doorknob… and “BHH” isn’t. Of course, this isn’t for lack of trying, as Dave is extremely responsive to bug reports on the Steam forum and continues to push out quick fixes… quick fixes that wouldn’t have been possible in the SNES era the game idolizes.

Story
“BHH” is a fairly typical Western, spinning a tale about a terrible gang of ne’er-do-wells known as the Saints-Little Gang, who, in the past, held the isolated Bronco County in the grip of terror, committing every crime imaginable. It wasn’t until the brave Sherriff Howl defeated the leader of this gang in a duel that the rest of the gang scattered to the four winds, and weren’t heard nor seen for a decade.

The game begins with the fateful duel between Sherriff Howl and Coyote Saint, before cutting to the present – 10 years later – with the player taking control of Howl’s son, a blond kid named… Kid. Okay. Mrs. Howl is being hounded by the bank, who plan to foreclose on the Howl farm unless they receive a payment of $50. Thus Kid sets out into the wide Western world to earn enough money to save the farm… by working as a stable hand in the nearby town of Swellsville (and due to the game's font, I will always remember it as Smellsville).

As Kid makes his way to town, he learns of the also-nearby town of Ashwood getting burned… to ash… okay. He also makes the acquaintance of a firecracker of a cowgirl, a hardened old gunslinger, and an Indian princess who all join forces in an effort to stop the resurgence of the Saints-Little Gang.

Unfortunately, while the narrative does make sense and features a number of eccentric stops along its route, it ends up being too big of an idea for the game to contain. Only one member of the Saints-Little Gang plays a starring role in “BHH” – the Kefka-esque Monty Spades, a gambler and cheat who comes complete with a signature laugh and variety of silly poses – while the rest loom ominously in the background.

Even worse, just when it seems like the game is going to open up and stop being such a railroad from place to place (no, really, there’s a railroad, and you buy tickets for train rides between locations), it abruptly transforms into “Xenogears” Disc 2. Yes, the notorious second disc of that massive, story-dense RPG in which the hero sits in a rocking chair and tells the player what happened, jumping from event to event, instead of letting the player experience the events first-hand. “BHH” does EXACTLY that, except with three old vigilantes sitting around a campfire leading the player(s) into a boss-rush using completely unfamiliar characters with unfamiliar default skill-sets and equipment.

Up until the abrupt ending, I was really enjoying “BHH” and was prepared to give the entire game a 4.5/5, ignoring the ugly visuals because, hey, art is hard. But with the overly-rushed second act and the crappy cliffhanger ending that reveals the game is, indeed, only ‘part 1’ out of who knows how many, my estimation of it dropped severely. And because the ending just sneaks up on the player and comes out of nowhere, “BHH” ends up being a very short experience overall, clocking in at around 12-15 hours, depending on how much effort the player puts into the minimally-interesting DLC and just-plain-minimal post-game content.

Gameplay
“BHH” is a cooperative RPG with a battle system that splices-together a bunch of ideas from the past. Combat is real-time-with-pause (from ‘Baldur’s Gate’) but takes place in a static first-person view (from ‘Dragon Quest’), with each character possessing a power meter that fills up in real time (from ‘Final Fantasy’), with each skill – known as ‘vantages’ – in a character’s repertoire of 4 requiring a different amount of power to execute (from ‘Pokemon’). Coop works by assigning different characters to each player, thus with two of us playing, we each got to control two characters in battle… when there were that many characters in the party, which was frequently not the case.

Battles are, for the most part, well-balanced and interesting, though they can get repetitive, with the same groupings of enemies attacking over and over. While each character can have 4 different vantages equipped in their skill slots at any given time, they actually learn more than 4 (by wearing different hats and earning ‘vantage points’ from battles – from “Final Fantasy 9”). Vantages range from normal attacks of varying strengths, to debuffs, to healing, to the incredibly important stances. Stance vantages are demarcated by their purple coloring, and allow a character to self-buff for a limited time, granting either evasion, blocking, or some other effect. Correctly timing stances based on when opponents’ attacks will trigger is important, and definitely heightens the game’s strategy element.

Furthermore, when a character is KO’d in battle, they pass out for a few seconds before auto-reviving with a permanent wound. Wounds inflict debuffs that persist beyond the current battle, lasting roughly 9 random battles (or which can be cured by seeing a doctor… or barber). Avoiding these is key, as some of them can make even easy encounters frustrating. The flipside of wounds, however, is perks, which provide passive buffs that last longer than those provided by vantages. While most perks come from eating consumable food items and last a single battle (buff up before the boss, everyone!), others can be picked up from talking to various NPCs, and persist for several encounters.

Outside of combat, “BHH” is a streamlined, modernized, old-school RPG. Enemies are visible in the world and can be engaged or avoided. There’s a mini-map that shows both quest objectives and merchant locations. Save point beagles are placed liberally, meaning they’re never particularly far apart, and really only seem to exist for nostalgia purposes or to prevent unrecoverable situations, such as saving inside Colonel Sanders’ ass. The player can jump onto a mount to increase movement speed at almost any time, though the environments tend to be small enough that this feature isn’t necessary, plus there’s no overworld.

Unfortunately, when outside of combat, the coop gameplay drops off a cliff. Only Player 1 controls the party and their interactions with the environments and NPCs, while other players can, minimally, dink around with their characters’ vantage and equipment loadouts. I did take some small satisfaction in forcing Chris to watch me walk around and talk to NPCs while he could do nothing, as revenge for the time he made me play “Tales of Graces” cooperatively with him… but eh. Players do actually have to communicate and be aware of what’s happening during battle, which makes for some interesting strategizing, but the abject failure that occurs when other random people want to play means that “BHH” is not a ‘drop-in, drop-out’ game, even though it technically includes that functionality, simply because there’s a learning curve, and each character has a specific role to play.

This lack of a large world map and the fact that the game’s narrative includes many points-of-no-return are really the only negatives in an otherwise mechanically-sound RPG that manages to capture the spirit of the Golden Age while also doing its own thing.

Overall
For the first act of “Boot Hill Heroes,” I was thoroughly enjoying myself, as the game took me back to that glorious time when RPGs ruled the earth. Then the second act came and pooped all over my enjoyment, with its change of tone to ‘tell, don’t show,’ rushed pacing, and abrupt cliffhanger ending. I feel like I really only got half a game here, and I sincerely hope the sequel, “Boot Hill Bounties,” provides a proper second act for this story, since both the underlying skeleton of the gameplay and the core narrative are incredibly solid.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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