The concept behind Half-Minute Hero reminds me of the days spent playing RPGs on an emulator. The greatest appeal of playing console RPGs on an emulator is because of the various speed settings. So what would have been hours of grinding exp can be done in minutes and the average dungeon could be completed in seconds if I knew what I was doing. All the while the party power-walks through every encounter at the speed of light.
So with all that in mind we take the core concept, balance it out a bit, and build a storyline entirely around saving the world thirty seconds at a time. The goal of Half-Minute Hero is to travel to various lands, gain exp, find/purchase equipment, and save the day from the evil boss...in thirty second increments. This is all accomplished through the hero's blazing speed and very limited skills. Basically he charges forward and if he's stronger than the monster he wins and moves on. Success in this game does not involve tactics but in choice of equipment, split-second decisions, and refining movement so not a single second is wasted.
Each stage starts off with the basics. A bad-guy has gotten their hands on a world-destruction spell that takes thirty seconds to cast. Half the time these guys aren't even evil but maybe they just had a bad day or somebody insulted them so obviously the best response has to be the most irrational. The Goddess of Time (who happens to be a real jerk) will point out what has to be done (kill the bad-guy) and maybe the hero will get some pointers about what to do next. Sometimes this will involve fixing a bridge, rescuing various townspeople, finding some great weapon, and will eventually involve every console RPG trope.
Since everything takes seconds the pacing is of course pretty excellent. Retrying stages is never an issue since the loss of progress is negligible and it'll be easier the next time around as the player knows what to do. The battles are flawlessly implemented and provide the right amount of feedback to keep the player up to date on what the next move is. This is just an absolutely perfect game for very quick gaming sessions.
Still though the concept does get old after awhile. There's only so many variations for each stage and while there's a constant stream of new bad-guys to conquer and new equipment to snag it all becomes pretty dull after awhile. Rarely are things really changed up so I feel like I'm going through the motions with each new stage. There are additional goals and all sorts of secrets to add extra replay value to the stages but there's no real incentive to go after them. However it's not all bad as the game seems to retain its freshness quite well in five minute spurts.
Outside of the main campaign there are a handful of additional game-modes that use the half-minute concept. It's a nice extra but really they're not fun at all. The half-minute RPG actually pushes the genre a bit by upping the ante and challenge-level properly. These other half-minute games just sort of lull about and don't accomplish much of anything. On the bright side it'll only take less than a minute of playing before you can decide if you like them or not.
The greatest part of this game is the writing which tends to be pretty clever and never takes itself seriously at all. Of course this is also dependent on the player's stomach for dozens of jokes being shoe-horned into every stage at every potential moment. While all of this can be skipped through it does lead to the feeling that something is missing. Sure the story is trivial and irrelevant but the writing adds the necessary flavor to the game that really brings it all together. It does have an effect on the pacing though when there's more text to read than game to play.
All in all I'm not quite sure what I want to say here. Half-Minute Hero is a fresh concept but it may not be for everyone. Part of what I like about RPGs is that they aren't fast-paced and they tend to favor tactics and understanding of various mechanics and design-philosophies in the battle system, things that this game has none of. Sure equipment can be decided on before the stage starts but its all a little simplistic (expecting a lot of bugs? bring a bug-swatter). Still it is different and that's worth checking out on its own.
Game Rating - 3 stars out of 5
The biggest weakness here is the lack of compelling modes outside of the main campaign. That's not to say having no modes at all would be any better. The way I see it extra modes are a good idea as they can offer a nice break from the campaign. Unfortunately these just aren't any fun. The writing is consistently charming at least.
My Rating - 3 stars out of 5
This isn't my strongest recommendation but this game yields some good things. It's not like it takes some massive amount of effort to get into. At least if it turns out you don't like the game you're only out a few minutes and $20. By the way the sequel sounds pretty good, though its unlikely we'll see it in the U.S.