Developer: Treasure / Publisher: Sega / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: 800 MSP ($10) / ESRB: Teen (Violence, Blood)
Treasure has the right idea: rereleasing critically-acclaimed and hard-to-find classic games for a new generation of gamers with updated HD visuals and a much friendlier price tag. Last month saw the release of side-scrolling shooter classic Radiant Silvergun, and Treasure once again delivers sweet nostalgia in the form of Guardian Heroes. A beat ‘em up in the same vein as Double Dragon or Final Fight, Guardian Heroes first met praise on the Sega Saturn for its satisfying action and multiple branching paths. Fifteen years after its initial release, Guardian Heroes still retains some of that charm although the shine is starting to tarnish.
Long ago, measly humans were caught up in a war between the Earth Spirits and the Sky Spirits. In a hope to gain an advantage, the Sky Spirits bestowed magical powers to the humans, and they collectively banished the Earth Spirits. Fearing the newfound power of the humans, the Sky Spirits also banished the magical humans, leaving only a sparse population to live in peace. Many generations later the bitter human wizard Kanon seeks revenge upon the Sky Spirits, and that’s where our heroes come in. The fighter Han, ninja Ginjirou, and the magically inclined Randy and Nicole stumble across a powerful sword used during the ancient war wielded by a zombified warrior. The heroes must journey to stop Kanon and his evil plans. Or not. You actually have many choices to make on how to advance the story. Head directly to the castle or hide out in the woods? It’s your decision, and each decision leads to many different outcomes and overall endings. The story sounds decent enough but it can be hard to follow: you aren’t prepped with any information from the beginning and have to piece the oftentimes convoluted plot together on your own. The ability to choose your own path does make you want to replay the game to see where said path will take you. The narrative is a mixture of intrigue and confusion.
Guardian Heroes is a beat ‘em up with a fighting game’s heart. You’ll go through levels mashing buttons to punch and slash the life out of countless foes as you would in any game in the genre, but each character also has a handful of special combos and abilities to execute. Specific button combinations like you’d see in a fighting game allow your character to cast spells, charge forward and pummel your opponents, or even juggle enemies high into the air. These special attacks make playing each character different from the others, and add much needed variety to the otherwise repetitive beat ‘em up gameplay.
Instead of being able to freely move around the screen, Guardian Heroes has three distinct planes you move between to fight. Similar to early Fatal Fury games, enemies in higher or lower planes cannot be hit until you are on the same plane, and switching between planes is a viable defensive strategy. Much like Castle Crashers, you earn experience points from killing enemies and at the end of each stage you can increase your stats to customize your character. Unlike Castle Crashers these stats don’t remain between game sessions: after you beat the game or get a game over you start your next game back at level one. At first this seems like a problem, but you’ll earn levels quickly and won’t miss your stats not carrying over. One complaint is that the game is rather difficult while playing alone and on the normal difficulty. You only receive nine continues to beat the game and that can be quite challenging.
Outside of Story mode there’s the all new Arcade mode, which pits you against an onslaught of enemies in a one-man survival fest. Versus mode allows you and up to eleven other players via Xbox live fight against one another for supremacy. Also new to the Xbox release is the option to play with updated HD graphics, or to play “remixed” mode which makes tweaks to the controls and attacks of each character. Both methods work fine and traditionalists will enjoy the retention of the classic graphics and gameplay.
Playing with others is good. Guardian Heroes is at its best when you’ve got a friend to play through the game with you, whether online or offline. You have the option of joining a game already in session or hosting your own game. Local multiplayer is seamless, but I experienced some trouble trying to play games online. First I wasn’t able to find a game, and when I finally did the game was incredibly laggy. A future game wasn’t too bad, but when a player joined me in the middle of a playthrough our connection was slow and choppy. Finding 12 players with decent connections to play Arcade mode together will be quite a feat as well. With the faults, Guardian Heroes is a great multiplayer game but poor execution of online play hurts the game in the long run.
There is so much disparity in the visuals. The original graphics from the Sega Saturn look expectedly pixilated while the updated HD graphics smooth out the rough edges. Character portraits, however, look absurd, apparently combining Japanese anime styling with the skills of a middle school art class. I actually had to pause the game to stop laughing from how ridiculous some character’s portraits look. Outside of that the visuals are decent, with a variety of backgrounds and stages to play through.
If a game’s quality is based solely on its replay value, then Guardian Heroes for the Xbox 360 is as good a game as Gears of War 3 or Call of Duty: Black Ops. While Guardian Heroes has plenty, unfortunately games aren’t rated entirely on replay value. Branching paths do their best to help an overly confusing storyline, while finicky online play drags down an otherwise above average multiplayer experience. Overall Guardian Heroes is a good beat ‘em up title with a few blemishes but is still one of the better games available in the genre.