Guardian Heroes Review
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360
You’ve seen those Carlsberg adverts, right? You know the ones, where Carlsberg come up with something fantastically generic and then make it the best thing in the world? A bank full of love, the most wonderful apartment you could ever imagine or a comically awesome team talk. This particular campaign has transcended simple advertising and entered the nation’s cultural zeitgeist and as gamers it would be remiss of us not to imagine what they could create in the world of video games. Whatever it was, it would certainly include zombies with bionic arms and rocket launchers for eyes invading a school full of anime teens able to summon demons. Or something like that.
The thing is, this magical games development company already exists – it’s just that if you’re not a massive fan of schmups or the Japanese games scene in general you probably won’t have heard of them. Treasure have been on the scene since the early 90’s and between some of their commissioned work have managed to pump out the classics that dominated the Sega console era. Renowned for pushing genre boundaries and introducing new concepts to old ideas Treasure once again literally changed the game when they delivered Guardian Heroes. A side scrolling beat ’em up with RPG overtones and a combat system as deep as a fighting game – if you haven’t encountered them yet you’ll soon see that these chaps don’t do anything by halves.
The port quality seen in Guardian Heroes is especially high, a true guide for other developers in how to approach HD conversions for the modern market. Two modes are offered within the story campaign – original and remix, although both have been optimised for widescreen play. There are slight control and AI variations between the two modes (the enemies seem to be more aggressive in remix, for instance) but essentially the feel and the quality of the gameplay has been preserved. The sprite quality in the remix mode has been touched up with an almost line art style making qualitative statements on the looks of the game more of a personal opinion than a pixel vs HD argument. The story campaign and the VS mode can be played online, thus ensuring that this classic finally gets the multiplayer connectivity such a game screams out for.
Kicking off in the main campaign you have the option of playing as any one of four characters (a fifth is unlockable). Rather than simply pandering to basic character stereotypes the options here are genuinely appealing with each choice offering you an entirely different way in which to play through the game. From a character that suits melee button mashing through to one that can heal and is a dream come true for those who prefer playing turtle there is a viable option for everybody. Regardless of whether you initially jump for melee or magic based however this is no Streets of Rage style brawler – Guardian Heroes will quickly demand that you learn the basic move sets for your character and will happily punish anyone foolish enough to think that a simple IWIN button exists here.
Instead of the characters possessing a full vertical movement ability the action is instead restricted to three 2D planes. You can jump between the planes with a button press, and the majority of your move set (and that of most enemies) is restricted to affecting the plane on which you are currently located. If you haven’t played Guardian Heroes before this can initially feel slightly unintuitive, the movement restriction impacting the freedom to zip around the screen at will. What this vertical restriction does do however is foster accuracy; no longer are you swinging lead pipes into thin air or pulling off a sickening combo on your own hands as the enemy sprite you aimed at drifts one pixel down. Instead the location of the action makes it abundantly clear where you are, where your enemies are and who you are going to hit it when you start spamming the amazing jump combo you have been lining up for the last half-minute. Instead of a rolling-screen beat ‘em up Guardian Heroes feels much more like a Street Fighter on three planes, with your ability to dodge incoming danger measured not only by your block/counter reactions but also by how well you can plan your moves ahead.
This sense of planning is expected throughout the main campaign. Fairly soon after the proceedings start you accrue an NPC helper in the form of the Undead Hero. While not quite as powerful as the aforementioned zombie this resurrected helper is essential in a game so full of enemies, all with the ability to block and dodge your own moves. While on the easier settings you can simply button-mash your way through the game allowing the Undead Hero to freestyle through the levels on more difficult settings you will want to start managing his actions. You can do this through a tactics menu controlled in the same fashion as spellcasting, thus allowing you to set your hero to protect you or to run off an attack everything and so forth. These tactic settings can be real game changers, and learning to utilise them correctly is one of the keys for dominating the story campaign.
While your assistant is fairly simple to control (and unleashes undead hell fairly easily) it will take you more time to master the move sets of the various player characters. The depth and complexity of the available moves combined with the ability to level various different character attributes as you level up through the game means that there is never a single move that is overpowered, there is never a good time to spam the same combo over and over again. The lack of a Grand Uppercut move is yet another reason to love Guardian Heroes – the game rewards skill, forward planning and the ability to quickly react to an ever changing set of circumstances. While you may have initially planned to continue on through a set of combos, suddenly it may be better to block an unexpected attack, to retreat after a counter or to simply get the hell out of the action and let the Undead Hero take the heat for a while.
Progressing through the story will quickly see you faced with sets of branching options. Instead of delivering a simple scrolling game with a set number of levels Treasure have instead gifted you the ability to control where how your quest evolves. While the choices themselves are single lines of text (and are often meaningless in and of themselves) the levels they can take you to are all very different, full of unique enemies and end game bosses. While this evidently adds to the replayability of the game as a story campaign if you want to be able to experience some of the greatest fun available in the additional modes you will have to fight through the story multiple times. Always different and short enough to combat in one sitting the game is a joy to behold and the playthroughs never feel like a grind.
What really starts to lift Guardian Heroes from the maddening crowd however is the fact that its additional modes are as compelling and addictive as the main story mode. Arcade mode seems you take control of any of your unlocked characters in an endless survival brawl. Utterly fantastic the action is exhilarating as you begin your inexorable fall from graceful combo-chains down to furious button mashing in an attempt to stay alive for another five seconds, to kill just one more enemy and beat your last record. Evidently some characters are more suited to the mode than others, but ultimately (as in any gaming test pitting your own skill against the computer’s) the kudos belongs to those who can excel with any character, not just the cheesy ones. VS mode sees you face off against up to twelve other players over Live (or four locally against bots/Live). The overlapping sprites, the initial confused melee, the inability to tell which one of the six Sword Hans is actually yours just screams fun, infusing your very pores with adrenaline fuelled action. While you will undoubtedly get your butt kicked by some of the fighting game idiot savants that reside on Live the actual beauty in such skilled movements will have you loading it up all over again, looking forward to watching a master of counters destroy you once more.
Guardian Heroes is unashamedly old school; the game was created in an age where constant replayability was the goal and when no one traded in games after only finishing them once. Modern attempts to recreate this ideal have not been entirely successful (witness Vanquish) but here Treasure almost reaches through the screen, grabs you by the collar and forces your face to the TV screen in an attempt to keep your attention. The wealth of original unlockables has been made even more attractive by the addition of modern hooks (achievements and unlockable avatar items and gamerpics), items that will call you back time and again. The sense of reward from Guardian Heroes, the sense of achievement, comes not from any gamerscore or item and neither from completely unlocking the available characters within the additional modes. Rather, the sense of victory comes from the increase in your own skills, the development of your own awareness of how the game works, on how other games work. Treasure are masters of the industry and Guardian Heroes is one of their finest examples of work; buy it because it is a classic and you should experience it – come back to it time and again because it is sheer joy in a virtual box.