Review: Guardian Heroes (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Guardian Heroes
Genre: Beat-em-up
Developer: Treasure
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 10/12/11

The Sega Saturn, despite its poor performance in the console wars of its generation, has managed to retain a surprisingly loyal following in its wake, due in large part to an extensive roster of niche titles of excellent quality. Ask anyone who loved the console what was so great about it, and you’ll get a long list, featuring games like Panzer Dragoon Saga, Fighters Megamix, Burning Rangers, Radiant Silvergun, and Guardian Heroes, among others, because these games were, for their time, generally pretty awesome. Well, Sega and Treasure have teamed up once again to bring back some of those classics to the modern market, with the release of the previously prohibitively expensive shooter Radiant Silvergun a month ago and classic and beloved beat-em-up Guardian Heroes now, and bless them for that. Guardian Heroes was heavily praised at the time it came out for its innovative concepts, such as an in-depth combat system, an assortment of RPG elements, and some very fun multiplayer elements, which is retains some fifteen years after its initial release. However, given that there have been more than a few very solid beat-em-ups released on the XBLA service since its release, including Castle Crashers, Turtles in Time: Reshelled and more, does Guardian Heroes still hold up?

As it turns out, yes, it definitely does.

For its time, Guardian Heroes had a surprisingly strong plot, and that carries over to its release. You join the story shortly after the group of adventurers the plot is based around have found a supposedly powerful sword, though, amusingly enough, not the one they were looking for. The one the group found, however, is the same one the kingdom is looking for, and after a sudden interruption and warning from Serena, a former knight of the kingdom, your group is suddenly set upon by the king’s army en masse. The reason, it turns out, is because said sword ends up summoning a massively powerful undead knight back to life who apparently has a grudge against the kingdom, and since you’ve now been branded traitors and are more or less going to be hunted down yourselves, now you’re all buddies! Theoretically, anyway. While the core concept of Guardian Heroes is fine enough, and the writing manages to carry along the game fine as well, the best part of the game is that there are branching plot pathways that allow the player to see multiple different endings before they’re done. There are five different “main” endings, though two of those can vary based on other factors, based on the answers you provide to questions and the pathways you take through the game, and each gives you different plot elements each time, giving you plenty of depth to the plotline of what is, on its face, a game where you smack the crap out of dudes for an hour. This was absolutely amazing at the time the game came out, and time has astonishingly not dulled this fact any, both because most games in the genre have not adopted this thing and because the dialogue has been cleaned up a little here and there in the transition, to a level where it’s mostly improved all around, making for a plot you’ll likely want to see through to completion multiple times.

Guardian Heroes has been visually optimized for HD play, and the 2D sprites the game uses have been cleaned up noticeably to support this, though you’re also offered the option of playing with the original graphics if you wish. The new visuals feature cleaned up character models with an interesting watercolor sort of style that does wonders for the presentation of the game, along with a similar treatment to the backgrounds and some bright and colorful special effects. You can also play with the original visuals intact if you’re a purist, and while they’re jagged and blocky by comparison, the animation quality and volume is still fantastic overall. However, the clean look of the updated visuals is the ideal way to play, both because it looks better in high definition and because little details, like the tiny animated versions of each character that appears near their life bar on-screen, are easier to pick out in the HD format than in the original visuals. Aurally, the game basically reuses the same audio from the original game, but that’s by no means a bad thing. The soundtrack of Guardian Heroes is easily one of the better soundtracks ever produced, and features some incredible pieces in nearly every stage that are great to listen and brutalize enemies to. The sound effects hold up perfectly fine as well, as do the Japanese vocal bits that pop up from the characters and enemies you’ll face, and none of them sound poor or out of place in the least. There are also no notable technical issues with the visuals or audio, as can sometimes happen with ports, so you won’t see or hear any significant hiccups as you play from the conversion.

At its core, Guardian Heroes is a beat-em-up, and as such, the controls are actually pretty simple to grasp. The X, Y and B buttons are mapped to a light, medium and strong attack for your character, A allows you to backstep from enemy attacks, and the right trigger allows you a block against enemy attacks. In an interesting twist, however, the game works on a multi-tiered 2D plane instead of a full 3D one, so if you’ve played one of the several Fatal Fury games that employed this tactic you’ll be right at home. Basically, pressing Up on the D-pad allows you to jump, not move to a new plane; to accomplish that, you’ll want to press the left trigger or bumper to switch from one plane to the next. This allows you to shift away from a heavily mobbed plane to regroup or to an occupied plane to take the fight to an enemy as needed, making for some different strategic options when compared to your more traditional beat-em-ups. Additionally, since you have multiple different power levels for your attacks, as you’d guess, you’re not stuck spamming a button to make combos, but can rather transition through the attack power levels to generate combination attacks or just start from the heaviest attack in more tense situations. At a base mechanical level, Guardian Heroes is more involved than most beat-em-ups, past and present, but astonishingly enough, there’s even more to the game than that.

For one thing, the plane mechanics don’t just add strategic value, but also allow for the controls to work in a way that allows for “special moves”, and each character packs several. You can look at your character’s repertoire from the options menu on the pause screen to see what moves they have available, and with some directional motions and a button press you’ll find yourself pulling off all sorts of crazy attack combinations, projectile attacks and more, depending on the technique you use. Further, as you slaughter enemies, you’ll see your character level up frequently as you smear the enemy forces, which allows you to improve their stats at the end of the level. Each character has various different stats, such as Strength to improve their attack damage, Vitality to improve their health, Agility to improve the speed of your attack animations and more. Your chosen character will come equipped with stats that befit their class, so Han the warrior will be a battle tank, Randy and Nicole will come equipped for good spellcasting, and so on. However, you can basically build the characters as you see fit, so if you want to turn Randy into a little heavy-hitting melee damage machine, you’re well within your rights to do so. Also, as noted, the end of most stages feature choices on how to progress the story, allowing you to play the story out in the direction you want, though in a nice touch, the game will also tell you what stage you’ll be visiting if you’ve been there before, as well as allow you to skip dialogue in case you’ve seen it already or just don’t care at all. The game doesn’t seem to have any obvious way of tracking Karma, which is measured by whether you let civilians and enemies escape or juggle dead bodies and break stuff and determines the path of some endings, so you’ll have to try and do that yourself, alas.

You can pretty much blow through one session of the game in an hour, but with three different difficulty levels that may well depend on how good you are at the game to begin with. You’ll want to play the game on Normal whenever possible at least, however, as that’s how you unlock stuff. You can unlock new playable story mode characters, like Selene the red knight for instance, by completing the game this way, but more interestingly, you can unlock characters for versus mode. Now, you can play the game offline in co-op with up to four players, or online in co-op with another person, but the versus mode lets you smack the crap out of friends and strangers in up to twelve person battles with anyone you’ve unlocked. Now, obviously, some characters are obviously absurd to play with, but such was the same with Tobal 2, and as with that game, that’s not the point. The point is that you can unlock over forty characters for twelve person melees that, while not as fun as the original game so to say, are basically on par with what games like Power Stone and Super Smash Brothers offered in terms of sheer chaos and hilarity. Beyond that, of course, there are different endings to see and paths to take through the game, as well as gamer pics and Achievements to unlock that are all entirely feasible to earn, so you’ll easily get a good amount of value for your ten dollars if nothing else.

The only significant issue one can bring against Guardian Heroes, given that the conversion of the game is mostly accurate to the original, which was in and of itself fantastic, is that for all of the hype that has followed the game since its release, well, if you’ve played something like Castle Crashers you may find this wanting. Aesthetically, the characters feature more personality and there’s some interesting elements here that aren’t in some more modern beat-em-ups, and the game is helped by the fact that beat-em-ups in general aren’t the most popular genre these days, but the genre has, in some cases, advanced beyond this game. It’s not that Guardian Heroes is somehow bad now so much as it is that it’s not as innovative as it once was. Also, as this is a port of the original, aside from the expected additions of online play, Achievements and Leaderboards, all you’re getting are updated visuals, twelve person versus play and the ability to skip cutscenes added to the game. Given how Guardian Heroes Advance turned out this isn’t terrible, and considering the inflated prices this game goes for on Ebay ten dollars is a borderline felony pricing-wise, but if you’ve spent an excessive amount of your time with the original, you’ve played this… though it’s unlikely that you’d care in that case.

Basically, though, Guardian Heroes is a heavily hyped game because it’s an exceptionally good game, and time has done nothing to change that fact in the least. The story is still surprisingly good and offers multiple paths to progress, and the updated visuals and intact CD quality soundtrack are both excellent, though purists also have the option to play with the regular graphics intact. The game plays very well and features some excellent ideas many developers haven’t attempted before or since, and there’s an exceptional amount of stuff to do with the game, between the online and offline multiplayer, twelve player online versus play, Leaderboards and Achievements to unlock. The worst thing you can really say about the game is that some games in the genre have advanced the medium since Guardian Heroes game out to a level where it’s no longer as “special” as it used to be, and it’s basically the same game as ever with some mild improvements. Honestly, though, when the worst thing you can say about a port of a classic game is that it’s only mildly impressive instead of very impressive, well, that’s not really much of a condemnation, and Guardian Heroes is basically worth your ten dollars and honestly would have been a steal at twice the price.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: GREAT
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: CLASSIC
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: UNPARALLELED

FINAL SCORE: INCREDIBLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
It’s like this: Guardian Heroes is basically one of the best beat-em-ups ever developed, the end, and unless you actively and passionately hate the entire genre you have no reason whatsoever to buy and love this game as your own. The plot’s still surprisingly good after all these years, the port of the game in general is solid, and the game features updated, clean high definition visuals as well as the original graphics for purists and a soundtrack that is still phenomenal fifteen years after the fact. The game is a joy to play and features gameplay mechanics and ideas developers haven’t done much with before or since, and there’s a great amount of depth to the experience both with the multiple story paths, unlockable characters, online and offline multiplayer modes, Leaderboards and Achievements, so you’ll have plenty to do with the game on top of it all. Some newer games in the genre have advanced the genre to a point where Guardian Heroes isn’t as impressive as it was when it debuted, but for a fifteen year old game, frankly, it’s still an amazing piece of work even now and if you like beat-em-ups even a little bit there’s no reason for you to not drop your cash on the game as soon as you can.

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