Guardian Heroes (Xbox Live Arcade) Review

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Date Released: October 12, 2011
Date Reviewed: October 20, 2011
Genre: Side Scrolling Fighting with Role Playing elements
Players: 1-2 Players in story, up to 12 Players in multiplayer battles
Length: 20-40 minutes in each playthrough
Replayability: Excellent

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Introduction

Guardian Heroes is the 1996 side scrolling fighting game developed by the heralded Treasure Co for SEGA’s Saturn game console and recently released with mostly optional upgrades through the ‘Remix Mode’ on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service for Xbox 360. Designed to play as a fast action game in the typically much slower adventure role playing setting, the title succeeds in making a chaotic yet accessible arcade styled game that offers a lot of charm, depth and replay incentives.

Concept

Guardian Heroes is a side scrolling fighter commonly known as the “Beat em’ up” genre and is comparable to titles such as Golden Axe and Streets of Rage with the goal of the game being to fight waves of progressively harder enemies. Fairly unique to the title however is that more focus is on playing skillfully with all of the playable characters in the story having a number of attacking and magic skills that require a series of button presses before they are unleashed.

As Guardian Heroes has no arcade release, a much larger emphasis is on upgrading the character they chose to play as instead of worrying about if there are enough quarters to continue playing. If the player levels up their character poorly or focuses too much on certain statistics, the game can become very challenging quickly. Easier difficulty settings allow the player to ignore much of this however and play without as much thought process if they so choose, but hardcore fans will keep finding new ways to play long after beating the title multiple times.

Story

The plot tells the story of a group of friends whom after finding a mysterious sword are immediately attacked by the king’s soldiers. Splitting up during the chaos, they all meet up at a graveyard only for the sword to be mystically pulled from them and revive the anonymous and invincible Undead Hero whom follows their orders regardless of the cause, not only making them an even larger target than before, but potential saviors of the world. As the tale progresses, players learn of beings known as Skyborn and Earthblood that created their world and plan to change the future in ways that are not the standard good and evil methods.

Progression in Guardian Heroes is decided on which paths are chosen to take after major battles occur. Depending on where players go, they will witness different characters and locations. There are 30 levels in total, but only a handful are ever visited during any one playthrough. Because of this, the majority of events will not have taken place and multiple conclusions to the story are possible, out of a possible 7 endings that all present different emotional themes, with most being positive. Treasure Co fans will also notice the inclusion of a special boss from their first game, Gunstar Heroes.

One would expect the story to be weak with just a quick playthrough, but that is not the case. Guardian Heroes has a surprisingly intriguing narrative and a very memorable cast of characters that all have their own viewpoint that makes multiple play sessions enjoyable in even if the player is not particularly fond of the gameplay. However, if the player does not wish to read the the text or is not interested in the story at all, each story segment can be skipped with the press of the back button.

[Players control how the invincible Undead Hero reacts to all situations, but making him overprotective might make him attack allies]

Gameplay

Attacking and chaining attacks is similar to the standard 1-on-1 2D fighting games such as Street Fighter II where there are the varying types of attacks through different buttons, but also ones where the player must press the correct order of keys fast enough to release a special attack or magic ability. Many of these can be used on the ground or in the air, which gives the player the chance to keep enemies in the air while being attacked with no way to escape. It is also possible for the characters you fight to achieve this, so playing recklessly can make the title harder than intended.

Although the gameplay design is inspired by 1-on-1 fighting games, the title almost always has players fighting numerous enemies with upwards of 10 characters appearing on screen at the same time, even on easier difficulties. This can cause the action to be very chaotic and will appeal to people who enjoy similarly styled games like Super Smash Brothers and the Marvel vs Capcom series, but when this happens the camera pans away to view the entire battle and it can sometimes make viewing your character very hard, which is where most of the frustration behind the game is found.

[In versus mode, there are many variations of colors for each character so that players can customize however they want]

All playable characters in the story portion have special abilities, but require magic points (the bar under the player’s health) to use. This is in place so that the player will balance using normal attacks and magic powers as hitting an enemy multiple times in a row will cause the player to receive more magic points. As the player is given the choice to upgrade the character however they wish, this can pose many balance issues where clever players can learn how to largely break the experience in ways the developers did not intend possible. The Xbox Live Arcade version tries to rectify much of this in the ‘Remix mode’ with new tactics and maneuvers possible, but ultimately fails. Novice players will not always feel left out however, as the game includes instructions for all of the character’s abilities in the pause menu.

Movement is similar to many 2D action games with the exception of the layers of fields. Unless in the air, players can press a button to jump into the foreground or background depending on where they are standing, similar to the arcade fighting game Fatal Fury or the PlayStation 3 platformer Little Big Planet. Each level has the same three layers of play fields with no platforms to jump onto or holes to fall into with only basic level items such as barrels in a town or trees in a forest to differentiate levels from one another. Not only does this make the levels feel more barren and sterile than they actually are, the whole concept of switching paths is almost exclusively useful when dodging projectile attacks — Some of which avoid this rule, making the whole mechanic largely a useless gimmick.

[Players will visit numerous types of locations, such as cities, forests, caves, volcanoes and temples in the sky and earth]

The new online functions for the Xbox Live Arcade release are standard for the genre, cooperative story, arena battles and leaderboards for the new ‘Arcade’ mode where the player fights an endless amount of enemies. Versus mode sees the player fighting up to 11 other players in a single fight (6 more than possible in the Saturn version) and although it is enjoyable in a friendly environment, anyone who takes the fight seriously will hurt the experience as almost all of the unlockable characters are incredibly unbalanced, with either too many powerful abilities or with no blocking, jumping or special attacks on hand.

Sadly, the story mode does not receive the same treatment and only has the standard two player as an option, a sorely missed opportunity considering how little would have to be changed. Lag is also a constant deterrent in online sessions, but the game constantly resynchronizes every few seconds. If possible, it is recommended that players use the Local Area Network (LAN for short) setup instead for 12 player versus mode with a group of friends.

Sound originalreviews

Guardian Heroes features conceptually identical sound direction to most fighting games. Punch, kicks, slashes and magic attacks are all practically identical to any other similar game, but do not sound as cheap as some titles from the mid 1990s do in comparison. All of the voices are in Japanese but are only used briefly to stress an emotion or special ability, otherwise all of the story is progressed through text and character faces used to inform the player who is talking.

Music on the other hand is outstanding. Using synth, electric guitars and saxophones in rock, easy listening and jazz styles the end result is an incredibly diverse soundtrack that hits every element correctly for the action or story sections. Each track is of a very respectable length and some change instruments halfway in, making some battles seem much more intense than they are.

Although all recorded in CD quality, many tracks give the sensation of late 1980s and early 1990s chiptune songs from what many consider classic games perfectly. I found myself stopping a gameplay session just to sit and listen to numerous tracks on several occasions, even with the sound test option available from the start.

Visuals

The art direction in Guardian Heroes is stylistically over-exaggerated in a way that may turn off many initially. Almost every warrior has a tall thin structure with bulging muscles or armor and half of the characters have colored hair that resembles different kinds of candy or fruit. Many backgrounds in particular look very dark or dull in screenshots, but in motion have a similar pastel coloring feel to games like Valkyria Chronicles or The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. The ‘Remix Mode’ actually drives this point home even further, with new sketchbook-like animation inside the character’s models. Treasure Co went above and beyond the typical smoothing effects for HD re-releases and gives Guardian Heroes a refreshing design without hurting the original style in any way.

The aforementioned ‘Remix Mode’ upgrades the style to look much cleaner and generally run smoother on the Xbox 360 hardware than what was possible on the Saturn console. All of the character art is redrawn multiple times for different uses, too. However, changing to ‘Original Mode’ only alters the character models and backgrounds, the widescreen aspect ratio of the play field is not reverted back to it’s original state. This makes viewing much of the text and some of the battles harder to view than they typically should be on a standard definition television. Although not a major issue, considerations should have been made for this.

[‘Original Mode’ features graphics from the Saturn release]

Special Notes

The sequel, Advance Guardian Heroes is unique for being the very first direct sequel Treasure Co ever developed. Released exclusively on the Nintendo Game Boy Advance, it received mixed reactions, but set the groundwork for the company to create many future sequels, such as Gunstar Super Heroes, Sin & Punishment 2: Star Successor and Bangai-O Spirits. Bleach: The Blade of Fate for the Nintendo DS based on the Bleach graphic novel and animation series also shares many concepts with Guardian Heroes.

In a recent interview with Treasure Co’s Hiroto Matsuura it was revealed that a true sequel is under consideration. SEGA is only willing to greenlight it, but wanted to re-introduce the world to the IP.

Conclusion

The setting, theme and characters are all very similar to a typical Saturday morning action cartoon with the introductory sequence really reflecting this perfectly (which is also viewable in the extras menu on the Xbox Live Arcade version). Like any great cartoon, it is all designed with anyone in mind and not just children. Although the action is intense and the hard difficulty being mind numbingly brutal, Guardian Heroes can appeal to anyone and has a world and cast of characters that grows on you the more you play. With an incredible soundtrack, hours of unlockables, many different gameplay modes and multiplayer features, Guardian Heroes is a great buy for any fan of the genre or someone looking for a great cooperative video game.

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Formats: SEGA Saturn and Xbox Live Arcade via Xbox 360

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One Response to “Guardian Heroes (Xbox Live Arcade) Review”

  1. Donnie Says:

    Was wondering to pick this up but not sure, some of SEGA’s stuff with Backbone was terrible. Glad to hear Treasure did it, love me Gunstar Heroes.

    This seems kind of cool though, might pick it up since it’s been a while since I tried a good beat em up and this sounds just like one.

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