I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
I love Westerns. No joke. Although I must admit my first foray into the wild, wild world was mainly to impress pretentious film bros I had crushes on, I ended up learning to genuinely admire many elements of the genre for my own reasons. Although many Westerns have long romanticized the United States’ own twisted mythology about some not-so-great things in the country’s history, it’s not hard to see why the genre is so attractive for its identifiable tropes and specific approach to storytelling. Cowboys are also just funny if you slap them on anything.
Because they are defined through a set of rules, Westerns really haven’t evolved much as a genre. Of course, there have been numerous exceptions where things especially get turned on its head, especially in recent film history. (In which I trust you all to know that I am specifically referring to the brilliant Wild Wild West, that starred Kevin Kline and Will Smith and quite frankly, is one of the greatest films of all time.) The monotony of Westerns, unfortunately, reflects how they’re treated in video games, as well. When one thinks of a traditional Western game, what comes to mind first might be a standard action-adventure game in the milieu of Red Dead Redemption or some arcade-style rail shooter with whacky FMV acting.
Boot Hill Bounties tries to change things up by presenting a Western as a turn-based RPG.
Unlike a series like Wild Arms that features tons of fantastical elements, Boot Hill Bounties plays the genre pretty straight. A sequel in what hopes to be a long-running saga, you play an eccentric group of characters trying to tackle a conspiracy aiming to ruin the rep of the local Chepakwik tribe against a group of settlers. (As far as I researched, the Chepakwiks do not actually exist in real life, but I do not know if that makes this any better.)
You travel across places from a top-down perspective while combat shifts to a first-person view similar to a traditional Dragon Quest game or Earthbound. For the most part, the game is an RPG through and through, but with a concept as weird as it’s already working with, it puts a spin on traditional mechanics many RPG players are familiar with. One unique aspect to the game is that the headgear your character has equipped holds specific abilities, called vantages. Headgear essentially takes the place of classes that most RPGs have, so something like a stetson would have access to different abilities compared to a fedora. The cowboy hat is a pretty iconic image and the idea that it is elevated as an important mechanic for this game as something that is pretty funny and endearing. Boot Hill Bounties continues to amp up this silliness through its writing and self-awareness, which is where it mostly shines.
One of your party members is basically a pastiche of Clint Eastwood’s character from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly because I guess literally no other iconic look from a Western has ever existed. The main character also has a dog who serves as a menu hub of sorts for things like saving or tutorials. But what’s actually disturbing is that for some reason it can talk and it’s never explained. (It’s also a smart ass at that and I hope it eventually suffers a terrible fate.) The cast constantly makes side cracks and elaborate, theatrical statements at what they’re doing all the while seamlessly transitioning to the seriousness of everything else going on. The game is goofy and it knows that, which is something I think most AAA games don’t know how to tackle.
Unfortunately, Boot Hill Bounties feels clunky in both its look and feel. I have found myself stuck on the map sometimes while walking because the design is not clear as to what exactly is traversable or not. Navigating honestly does not feel good and the UI especially does not look great on a Nintendo Switch as a port of something that technically released much earlier on the PC. Although it is clear the game has made deliberate, stylistic choices in its elements, the end result just looks crunchy and way too rugged. I have complained many times about indie games that try to be everything at once, which again, we must owe to the success of Stardew Valley and how much it has achieved in innovating the farming sim. Boot Hill Bounties clearly is a symptom of that in trying to be an RPG that has so many other things you can do in it beyond just linear story combat. And yet, a lot of that is forgivable.
Later on, you gain access to a farming sim in order to produce items in addition to the ones you can find on the map for your added benefit. There’s also a plethora of side quests you can tackle instead of the main story, ranging from fulfilling a simple fetch quest to participating in a full-on cooking competition. The game also offers up to four-player local co-op…for some reason.
The game has been pretty much made by a one-person team over the course of several years and that’s impressive alone! There’s a spirit in a game like Boot Hill Bounties in trying to be this big, epic thing from a humble place that I think a lot of higher budget games lose in prioritizing surface over ingenuity. If I were to refer to another Western-themed game, Red Dead Redemption 2’s divisiveness comes from its bizarre over-attention to detail through mindless tasks, horse nads, and all the while that same environment somehow nurtures toxicity in its community. Boot Hill Bounties meanwhile, gives you this medley of stuff you can possibly do, and although it may not fulfill those promises fully, the potential is there—all the while still preserving its intent as a silly game about cowboys without pandering to racists!
It is not surprising that we are seeing much of this ingenuity prospering in the indie development scene, in which constraints force developers to be a little more creative with the limitations that they have. Smaller projects like these are pressured to limit ambition in favor of practicality, and where money or management sometimes say, “No”, it forces developers to be a little more imaginative. Looking at the landscape of all these higher-budget games and media in general, I can tell that some lead directors unfortunately never experienced being told, “No”. Meanwhile, I’m literally scrolling through the featured section of itch.io as I write this, and it’s always a real trip. Like, what in the world is this? I don’t know, but it seems cool!
Boot Hill Bounties is rather unpolished, but I respect it greatly for doing something different. “Cowboy RPG” is the exact, zany combination of things that catches my attention and it definitely succeeded in that regard. I think we need more interesting ideas like this, and it is especially refreshing to see something like Boot Hill Bounties put a new spin on how to play a long-established genre that has been pigeonholed for so long. I definitely will keep playing it with more to look forward to what the developer has in store for the future. It is optimistic that we will always see indie games fuel strange ideas for strange results, while the rest of the video game industry may fail to deliver sometimes.