Video games are often made by committee these days, with a lot of different hands touching each part. That can make reading a game via authorial intent tough, if not impossible at times. ButHero Must Die is a rare example of a passion project that has endured for well over a decade due to its strong authorial voice. This is the first time we’ve seen Hero Must Die localized, but creator Shoji Masuda has made his inspiration documented knowledge. Underneath its bright and dopey JRPG aesthetic, Hero Must Die. Again is a story fueled by personal grief. But while grief is a sad and difficult emotional process, Masuda’s scenario is colored with a refreshing sense of optimism.
Hero Must Die. Again, or simply Hero Must Die for the sake of making my word processor less angry, is a JRPG with a unique structure. It starts with the final boss, which our hero has decided to challenge alone. He wins, but at the cost of his own life. In exchange for his selfless act, the hero is resurrected, but can only stick around for a limited time. As the player, you have five days to see the fruits of your sacrifice, tie up loose ends, and perhaps do a little bit more good in the world before you pass on for good.
Masuda, who has a history of out of the box scenarios and game design (Linda Cubed, yo), thought of this framework after losing his father. After undergoing surgery for cirrhosis, Masuda’s father was given roughly ten years to live. In an interview, Masuda stated how he noticed his father’s changes over time, how his hobbies and sometimes temperament shifted as he knew he was officially on borrowed time. After the funeral, Masuda was stricken by stories he heard about his father from people he had never met. After spending time with Hero Must Die, and reading the game’s history, it’s so easy to draw a straight line between the game and Masuda’s personal experience.
At times, there is an underlying sadness to Hero Must Die. I found myself emotionally affected when the hero, still trying to help people despite his time limit, grew tired and needed to rest. Or, after finishing a scenario and gaining a new party member, the hero’s stats dropped and he was no longer able to wear his legendary, end game-tier armor. The metaphor is most intense in these moments, when you realize that despite this divine gift, the hero’s five days of extra time aren’t without complications and hardship. But despite that, I still felt an overall theme of optimism.
While the hero gets weaker, he still strives to make the most of his five days. He doesn’t just hang out and feel sorry for himself, or move to profit from his reputation. He uses his own limited time to travel, to get rid of leftover evil from his battles, to help people and make new friends. There are even romance threads, in which you can choose to say final goodbyes to love interests. Most importantly, when the hero loses the strength to wear his final boss-murdering equipment, you can pass it onto new characters. You’re solving problems, and passing equipment and knowledge to people who will take care of things in your stead.
Earlier I noted Masuda noticing changes in his father as his health declined. He said his father talked more about being grateful, moved from golfing to making art, and seemed to be concerned or afraid of not making the most of his remaining time. I can see that mentality in Hero Must Die. Again, or the way Masuda perceived it.
Despite the gloomy premise, this is not a gloomy game or story. It’s sad, but that sadness motivates the hero to make the most of his time. The grief is clear in the text, but that grief feels channeled directly into positivity. And in this remake, you can make permanent changes across multiple “runs.” So as Masuda revisits this game once again, he chose to ensure that while the hero must die, he can leave the world doing the most good he possibly could.
Hero Must Die. Again is currently available for the Nintendo Switch, the PlayStation 4, and the PC.