Half-Minute Hero was a strange and wonderful game.
It did two things extremely well: cram the entire old-school top-down RPG experience -- levelling up, improving equipment, completing quests and beating a final boss -- into short, bite-sized (though, in most cases, not quite "half-minute") segments; and act as a distinctively frantic kind of "puzzle action adventure" that was pretty much unlike anything else around at the time. And then you'd beat the game and all sorts of other weird stuff would unlock, including a real-time strategy game, a shoot 'em up, an action adventure and two more time-limited RPG-style adventures (including one where you start with just three seconds on the clock) for the main hero to challenge.
So how do you follow that? With more of the same? Well, sort of, but also not quite. Half-Minute Hero: The Second Coming will certainly be familiar to those who played the first game, but with a few tweaks to its basic formula it's also made itself into a distinctive experience all of its own.
The main difference is that adventures are no longer self-contained levels that stand by themselves; they're linked together by a fairly traditional old-school RPG world map on which you can wander around, battle enemies, walk into villages and purchase equipment without pressure from the timer. There's a bunch of hidden secrets around the world, and "Global Dungeons" often house powerful treasures, many of which are locked behind gates that require you to fulfil certain conditions before you can open them.
As you explore, you'll earn experience to add to your "Global Level," which in turn becomes your starting level during the 30-second quests that pop up at regular intervals, and gold, which can be freely spent on new equipment for both your hero and the hilarious "Hero Castle," a hulking mechanized beast that you come into possession of partway through the plot.
Yes, plot; The Second Coming has an overarching plot that spans 500 years and three generations of heroes, giving us three distinct heroes with their own personalities to play as. The overall narrative is split into episodes, which in turn are split into individual quests punctuated by the aforementioned wandering around the world map... and dialogue. Lots of dialogue.
Here's where The Second Coming is likely to prove a little divisive: there's a surprising amount of talking for a game whose predecessor was based around running as quickly as possible and barely getting a moment to stop and chat with the locals. In stark contrast with the first game, The Second Coming features numerous sequences where people decide to settle down and have a discussion about how they're feeling and what's going on -- almost like, you know, a real RPG.
The game treads a fine line between pastiche and parody at times. Early in the game, fourth wall-breaking tutorial messages from characters are frequently commented on by the protagonist, but as time goes on and the plot starts to get significantly darker, these moments become less frequent and instead I found myself becoming genuinely invested in these characters and the overall story -- as silly as it is, what with huge monsters or Evil Lords continually popping up and threatening to destroy the world in 30 seconds' time. Every so often the game will remind you that yes, the whole thing is a bit of a joke, however seriously the protagonist might seem to be taking things at that time; either the Time Goddess or her protector knight (whose name, rather wonderfully, is just "Knight") will show up, do something stupid and you'll usually have to deal with the consequences -- in 30 seconds, naturally.
And even those 30-second quests are more varied than the original. Sometimes you'll be running around a world map. Other times you'll be crawling through a dungeon, tagging Goddess Statues along the way to reset your timer. Others still you might be underwater trying to track down a family of mermen, or trapped inside a magic mirror solving symmetry-based puzzles in an attempt to make the boss easier to deal with, or frantically fleeing through a series of labyrinthine corridors as a horrible slobbering tentacle monster starts aiming his wiggly bits at your tender parts. There's sections where you have to use careful strategy; sections where you have to use brute force; sections where you have to grind; sections where you just have to charge through as quickly as possible. The amount of variation throughout the main campaign within the seemingly simple base mechanics is admirable -- and when you're done there's already a wealth of user-generated content available to download, and a map editor for you to try your hand at creating your own.
The Second Coming is a great experience, then -- and I haven't even got started on the soundtrack, which is well worth cranking the volume up for -- albeit one that, despite superficial similarities, unfolds in a significantly different manner to its predecessor. For my money, that's a good thing, though; Half-Minute Hero was already packed with content -- particularly in its PC incarnation, which collected together nearly all of the content from the PSP and Xbox Live Arcade versions -- and thus a sequel just providing more of the same would have perhaps been a little disappointing. What we have in The Second Coming is an enjoyable story with both silly and serious moments, some entertaining characters and some frantic, addictive gameplay that is challenging, fair and just plain fun to play. Remember fun? Of course you do.
I'm yet to finish the game so, as with the last two installments of JPgamer on Demon Gaze and Steins;Gate, this article has been more of a "first impressions" piece than anything else -- watch out for a full review for this and the others here on USgamer very soon. For now, though, if what I've described sounds like your sort of thing, you can grab it from Steam right now.