Half-Minute Hero Review: A Good Risk

Have you ever had your intelligence insulted or your time wasted by a Japanese role-playing game? This one won't do either.

Half-Minute Hero, XSeed and Marvelous Entertainment's unusual, experimental role-playing game is smart, sharp, surprisingly long — given its title — and sloppy in a way that somehow doesn't break the game but instead makes it all the more charming.

Who knew a game that seemed like a three-note joke could accomplish so much?

Loved
Brave Design: Half-Minute Hero was made by developers with guts. They created an homage to 16-bit top-down Japanese role-playing games, but sped up the pace to force you to rush from the start of an adventure to the defeat of a boss in 30 seconds, daring to fill the script with comedy and automate the battles. The main gameplay is the time management of rushing the hero from town to battle to, maybe, secret hidden cave, leveling up in the blink of an eye and strategically spending quickly-earned money to pray to a money-hungry goddess and buy the time to get the clock back up to 30 seconds.

And that's just Hero 30, the first of the game's three main modes. The three other main modes, Princess 30, Evil Lord 30 and the unlockable Knight 30, offer similarly mad takes on side-scrolling shoot-em-ups, real-time strategy games and whatever you call the genre that involves escorting a sage through a dungeon with the help of carefully laid traps that keep enemies at bay. All of the four modes run on 30-second timers, each offering a different angle on how to extend the clock.

Your Time, Not Wasted: The game is fast, sometimes too fast. Most quests go from title screen to credit-rolling in 90 seconds — if you're slow. You don't have to press buttons during battles because, well, you don't have to think too hard about pressing them even in the many major Japanese role-playing games. So, in Half-Minute Hero, you're spared. Te battle screen switches the view of Hero 30's top-down RPG to a sideways view. Your hero automatically rushes from left to right, mauling or being mauled by his opponents. Conversation in towns — where time is frozen — is brisk and funny. Levels are unlocked fast and furiously. And leveling-up is accelerated in every mission you play. Soon enough, the player is leveling from zero to 20 and upgrading armor five times in just a minute. Makes you wonder why you ever had to spend 50 hours doing that.

Splendid Variety: The JRPG mode, Hero 30, is the game's main attraction. It is a strong entry in its own right, offering more than 30 quests before its conclusion and branching off in different directions depending on decisions you make during the adventure. The other three modes are entirely different, but each retain core values of the game and the JRPG genre. All are funny. All involve characters who don't take themselves too seriously. And all offer different ways to level up, access optional levels and experience that ever-satisfying progression from weakling to superstar that typifies a great role-playing game.

A Progressive Look Back: Half-Minte Hero's graphics may look 16-bit, but so many enlightened touches have been applied to them. For example, the pixelated sprite of the main character in Hero 30 changes depending on which head, chest, foot and hand items he's been equipped with. The music is a bravura tour of RPG emotion, hitting all the beats of triumph and sorrow from track to track, the music rotating for each of the game's quick levels. Even when the developers are pretending to be annoying — like when they roll the credits at the end of every Hero 30 level — they can't help but respect a modern gamer's needs by letting those credits be accelerated.

Wonderful Imbalance: Half-Minute Hero is mostly too easy, which would be a problem if completing it didn't require going through more than 120 separately laid-out levels. It's tempting to criticize how, in the RTS mode, the evil lord that the player controls can get caught in a corner and mauled by enemies even when it seems that the controls should enable some type of escape. He can summon monsters after all, so why can't he be liberated? Some of the fourth mode, Knight 30, seems like it's been made to be broken. A level or two appear to be beatable in normal mode if the player does little more than have the protagonist stand still. But it's hard to object, because those rough edges — that apparent sloppiness — fits the spirit of a game that is having so much fun with its trappings and is so quick to move on to the next quest and crack more jokes in script and gameplay.

Hated
Throwaway Level Design: Despite what I just wrote about the imbalance, the game's shoot-em-up mode, Princess 30, does disappoint. Completion of it, Evil Lord 30 (the RTS) and Hero 30 (the RPG) are required to access Knight 30 and the amazing final two unlockable modes that I will not spoil. The conceit of Princess 30 is that the Princess needs to leave her castle, find some medicine for the king and get back home by curfew. It's funny, especially because she turns from docile to destroyer as soon as she picks up her crossbow — and because of the inane logic of the plot that has her fetching bitter grass to heal dad because everyone knows good medicine is bitter — but the whole thing disappoints because the levels are barely-distinct linear rushes. Zip out of the castle with the shooting button spammed. Zip back in. Not enough changes to keep this mode as strong, so woe to the player who leaves most of Princess 30 to be played on its own. If you get the game, mix the Princess levels in. Don't save them.

I thought the appeal of Half-Minute Hero wouldn't last. And it would be if all of the levels were as quick and sometimes-silly/broken as those of Knight 30, Evil Lord 30 and Princess 30. But Hero 30 takes this one over the top. Level design in Hero 30 is clever, full of hidden secrets, fun gameplay twists and everything else that a good RPG can have — brilliantly packed into quests you can hope to clear in 60 seconds.

If more developers want to mess with conventions like this, please, please do.

(Half-Minute Hero was developed by Marvelous Entertainment and published by XSeed for the PSP on October 13. Retails for $29.95 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all quests to completion, except the bonus, crazy final post-completion one. Took me 12 hours, 15 minutes, 8 seconds.)

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