Boot Hill Heroes from Experimental Gamer is stuck in the past in all the right ways. The artwork is straight out of the golden age of SNES RPGs, the sense of humor makes you want to watch Adventures of Brisco County Jr. all over again (yes, you do remember that show), and the story and setting are about as old west as you can get. All good things as far as we're concerned!
Boot Hill Heroes begins with a quick scene depicting Sheriff Templeton's showdown with the Saints-Little gang. Backstory is a good thing, just wait and see! Jump ahead a few years and you're in control of the late sheriff's kid, aptly named... Kid. The family has fallen on hard times, so Kid gets a job at the livery in the nearby Swellsville. Because how else are you supposed to buy Dr. Reginald Kendall's Pectoral Elixir for coughs, colds and all lung ailments?
Kid's troubles are small potatoes compared to what's going on in the rest of Bronco County. A town was recently attacked and burned to the ground, and all signs point to Swellsville as the next place to get the torch. Most people believe the fires are the work of the Chepakwik Indians, but the evidence just doesn't add up. Something foul is afoot, and Kid's going to find himself in the middle of it all very, very soon.
As with most retro-style RPGs, Boot Hill Heroes is one part exploration, one part combat. When you're out and about you'll chat with NPCs, buy new equipment, poke your nose into every house and barrel, etc. You know the drill. One strangely compelling portion of exploration is the game's vast number of materials to collect. Plates, apples, mushrooms, feathers, wiggly tails, and all manner of knickknacks are strewn about just waiting for your sticky paws to grab. Enemies don't drop cash, so to earn money you'll pick up all of these doodads and sell them. Think of it as advocated kleptomania.
On the battle side of things Boot Hill Heroes really shines. Fighting takes place in real-time, with a series of meters showing you when enemies are about to attack and when you can pull off your moves. Each ability takes a different amount of time to unleash, forcing you to pick attacks that are acutely appropriate to the situation. Winning isn't always a matter of doing a ton of damage, it's about activating defensive moves, unleashing status attacks, and going for the big guns only when you've got a solid opening. Battles fall into this nice rhythm that's one part button mashing and two parts strategy. You don't have to agonize over every move, but at the same time, you can't just keep hitting the action button and expect everything to turn out all right.
Learning and managing battle abilities is also an extremely enjoyable part of Boot Hill Heroes. Combat moves are called Vantages, and like most important things in life, they're learned by wearing hats. Vantages are more than just basic punches and kicks (although to be fair, there are punches and kicks). They include tactical options like dodging, blocking and flirting, status-inducing abilities, multi-hit attacks, and so on. You can only have four Vantages active at a time, so choose wisely.
Now let's get to the good stuff: co-op. Boot Hill Heroes supports up to four local players, each one controlling a single party member. One player leads the party out in the field, eliminating the problem of everybody trying to dash off in separate directions at once. While the leader is exploring, the others aren't forced to sit and stare at the screen. The game's tidy menu system allows each person to manage Vantages, check materials, work with equipment and check stats without interrupting gameplay. It's simple, unobtrusive, and surprisingly handy.
Co-op works even better in combat. The active battle system utilizes the same menu system as above, allowing each player to choose Vantages and targets on their own. Since things happen in real-time, players can work together to build up useful combo patterns to keep enemies stunned, off-balance, or just plain dead. It's perfectly orchestrated chaos, and it's easily the high point of the game.
There's a lot of dialogue and flavor text in Boot Hill Heroes, but it's all well-written and fun to read. If you're a fast reader you'll probably wish the text printing speed was about twice as fast. The font, too, seems a little blurry when stretched out on a large monitor. Minor quirks, really.
Old west themed games are a rare thing these days, so it's nice to see an RPG explore some less-trodden territory. Come for the nostalgia, but stay for the fantastic co-op experience!
(Note: The PlayStation Vita version of Boot Hill Heroes does not include co-op. It does, however, feature exclusive content not available in the PC release.)