At least in concept, Hero must die. again is a fascinating game. Conceived as a sort of “anti-RPG”, it starts where most RPGs should end: you, at max level and with the best equipment available, beating the final boss. Unfortunately, you die in the fight, but in recognition of your world-saving sacrifice, God decides to grant you five more days on earth to get your affairs in order.
The catch is that you’re… well, dying. So while you start out at the peak of strength, each passing day sees you grow weaker. On your first day, you’ll be killing most enemies in a single hit, and even bosses rarely take more than three or four—not to mention the powerful magic you know. But each passing day sees your stats fall, and with it, your ability to effectively wield powerful equipment. One by one, you’ll forget all your spells. By the final day, you’ll be barely able to lift anything stronger than a wooden sword, and hitting enemies for next to no damage; you can forget trying to fight any bosses unless you’ve amassed a powerful party, and even then, it’s a risky endeavour.
RPGs are usually built entirely around a loop of getting stronger. By turning that on its head, Hero must die. again becomes a thought-provoking metaphor for the process of dying, in particular dying from a terminal illness. Basic, everyday tasks that you used to be able to just do, without issue—in this case, fight monsters and complete quests—become progressively more troublesome, until there’s no way to do anything without help. (Apparently, designer Masuda Shōji got the idea for Hero must die from witnessing his own father’s struggle with cirrhosis).
The anti-RPG setup also allows Hero must die. again to ask the important question that RPGs rarely ask: what happens after the world-threatening evil is defeated, and life goes back to normal? Hero must die. again takes place in a typical fantasy world, full of different races who are struggle to keep the peace. The threat posed by the dark lord was a united factor that brought all the world’s people together against a common foe; without it, old conflicts boil over again.
As the great hero who saved the world, there’s a lot of expectation on you to continue such heroics. But with only five days left and your weakening form, there’s no way to fix every problem and help every person who asks. In this, Hero must die. again becomes a game about choosing for yourself what really matters in your final days. Do you want to continue trying to be everybody’s hero, knowing you won’t really be able to? Do you pick sides in a conflict where everyone’s at fault, knowing that innocent people on the other side will suffer? Do you leave the world’s problems to the world, and just try to reconnect with your soulmate? Do you just live out your final days fishing in your own little slice of peace?
When everything comes together well, Hero must die. again is very effective at exploring the ideas it does. Unfortunately, these bold ideas are too often held back, by both the limited scope of the game and some lacklustre storytelling.
Hero must die. again is designed with repeat playthroughs in mind, a single venture usually taking only a couple of hours from start to finish. The trade-off from this is that nothing really gets a chance to get properly fleshed out—the characters, the setting, and the conflicts all wind up feeling superficial. For all the efforts the game’s systems make to raise interesting philosophical questions, the writing and world design makes it difficult to really care about the outcome one way or another.
Instead of genuinely engaging with the characters you encounter, they become items on a checklist—”I did Sarah’s quest last time, so I’ll do Naomi’s this time.” The rather mundane nature people’s requests doesn’t help, either; generally speaking, I don’t mind “fetch quests” in an RPG, but here they seem to fundamentally undermine what the game is trying to do.
But perhaps the biggest thing holding Hero must die. again back from its lofty ambition is the way the repeat playthroughs work. In short, once your five days are over, you get to witness your own funeral, with different people saying different things about based on how you chose to spend your last days. That, in itself, is fine—indeed, it’s a fitting way to bring the game to a close, given the concept.
But then you’re given the option—within the context of the story, not just as an abstract game system—to start over. “If you’re not happy with how things ended, you can try again, and do things differently.” Moreover, this is necessary to seeing any of the game’s character stories to their conclusion—it’s not actually possible to wrap up any single character’s story in the span of a single five days, so repeat playing is essential to getting any of the true endings that Hero must die. again has in store.
From a pure game design perspective, that’s fine; it’s something plenty of other games do. But it undermines exactly the ideas that Hero must die. again is trying to explore—that whole idea of the finite quality of life, and the impossibility of trying to see and do everything. Hero must die. again makes seeing and doing everything an explicit goal, precisely through a system that the real-life phenomena it’s commenting on can’t offer.
It’s still an interesting journey, and the fundamental “anti-RPG” things at the game’s core are enjoyable to explore. For the completionists, there’s a strange joy to be found in planning each run, and deciding what particular tasks to tackle this time around and when, while factoring in your character’s growing weakness. It’s a bright and colourful game, too, full of fun character designs and snappy dialogue.
But it’s hard not to feel at least a little disappointed by the way Hero must die. again falls short of its fascinating concept. I only hope the developer gets a chance to develop a follow-up, because there’s a brilliant idea at the core of this game that deserves to be fully explored.
Hero must die. again is developed by Pyramid and published by Degica Games. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.