In Depth Review: Guardian Heroes [SATURN]
It's easy to dismiss any beat-em-up as a second-rate Double Dragon or Final Fight. But Guardian Heroes sets itself apart from the mold. Most noticable is the sheer veracity with which enemies crowd the screen and engage in combat. Forget the slow moving, periodically rushing enemies of Final Fight -- these enemies come after you and immediately start pummeling you if you don't act fast. Your hero can guard, jump, crouch, and cast spells in addition to just attack. So can your enemies, and they'll guard often and then look to smash your face in. Treasure fills the screen with fast-moving sprites, looking to take advantage of the 2D powerhouse that was the Saturn. You'll be faced with soldiers of your size to big cyclops monsters one-and-a-half times bigger than you, and strangely anachronistic robots that fill up a quarter of the screen. I've been assaulted by as many as ten enemies on screen at a time, if not more. And if this sounds trite to you, you have to see the game in motion: it's fast and smooth, and enemies almost pile up on you. It's your job to either avoid this or get yourself out from between the rock, the hard place and the kitchen sink by guarding, attacking and moving. Compare that with a typical Final Fight scenario, where many enemies are content to just stand around, and you'll see why I find this game more than just an average beat-em-up.
Guardian Heroes mitigates the severity of enemy attacks with a wide variety of actions, and controls that never fail you. Every movement responds to your command; spells take only a slight amount of practice to cast; you're able to jump, crouch, hop back and command comrades while in battle; and I could go on and on and on about the different attacks each character can pull off. Not content to just let you punch and kick, each fighter performs a different attack depending on whether you press B (light attack) or C (heavy attack), are pressing down, towards, or down-towards as you're attacking, if you perform a special motion like down-down or quarter circle towards and attack, or performing said attacks in mid-air. All of these moves in conjunction with the different magical spells each character can cast provides for a hefty arsenal and several possibilities for combos. In fact it practically controls like a lightweight 2D one-on-one fighting game, with up as jump.
This is possible because Treasure divided the playing field into three "planes." For a rudimentary example, think of Fatal Fury. A character can occupy a plane far into the screen; far out from the screen towards you; or in between. In addition to providing a unique control scheme, this simplifies the game in that you can focus less on moving towards your enemy on a vertical basis and more on just pounding the sh1t out of them. But it also complicates things when every single enemy on the screen is on your plane and they all bunch around you. Fortunately, escape is a single L or R press away... if you can break free from the onslaught long enough to press them. I mostly liked the ability to skip around, because of being able to focus on fighting, but it also took a bit getting used to as I missed the ability to freely walk precisely where I wanted to go. Still, it sped up the gameplay, and once I understood how to work it, the game worked fine. I will say though that I have no preference one way or the other between this method and the traditional method.
I suppose the 3-plane approach was also used to make the execution of special motions less awkward, so that your character doesn't start moving up or down when all you really wanted to do was execute a certain special attack. It's not just the attacks that you'll use the motions for, but also instant spellcasting. Normally, spells are cast by pressing Z and scrolling through a list that appears via a thought-bubble next to your character's head. But if you know what the special motions are -- quarter-circle towards + Z a fireball spell, for example -- you wouldn't have to cycle through a menu and potentially waste an opportunity by getting hit. It's a good thing, too, because it can become highly frustrating to find the right spell when all the enemies close in or a laser beam is headed for your chest.
I don't know if this is due to the planes, but unfortunately one of Guardian Heroes' weaknesses is that the level design comes off as uninspired. This is my main gripe with the entire beat-em-up genre, and one reason why I hold Double Dragon II so near and dear to my heart. Instead of sections requiring dexterity like moving platforms and precarious leaps, the only thing on every stage besides enemies and flat ground are barrels and weapon racks that you can destroy. No hint of environmental hazards save for the very first introductory stage, no different vertical levels of action. It's always flat ground, from left to right, with a bevy of enemies. The game is great as it is, but I feel it would have been even better with some interesting levels.
Treasure attempts to pretty up these dull levels with different scenery, including a burning pub, a graveyard, spooky forests, something that appears to be a mild version of Hell, et cetera. All the locations are nicely colorful, but they also suffer from a bit of graininess. Worse yet are the character sprites. Sometimes they look clean and crisp, but at other times due to all the scaling that goes on with the plane skipping, the sprites can look awfully blotchy and pixellated. When the action gets frantic, it's honestly hard to care, so it's not that big of a problem. In fact there is beauty in the franticness of the action itself. However, combine all the sprites on screen with some dazzling magic spell special effects (lightning, ice, fire, beam supers, and particles galore), and you'll find yourself running into slowdown more often than you'd like. That zoomy gameplay I mentioned before slows down to almost half the speed. Frankly, there's something to be said about the incredible amount of action bringing the mighty Saturn to its knees, and when the enemies crowd around you it can be a blessing in disguise. But gamers who aren't tolerant of any slowdown won't appreciate this, and I found one or two instances in my experience where it was just downright unplayable. I had to sit there and guard attacks while the omnipresent CPU controlled partner did the dirty work during those times.
The soundtrack suffers a few warts too, but not as many. The music while you're playing is always dynamic and fast-paced, and there are a few tunes that you'll be hard-pressed to forget. The instrument quality is good, and the melodies generally take to a sort of jazzy/rock motif. One thing you'll either love, hate, love to hate or hate to love, is the strange, hyperactive saxophone solos that inject themselves into the soundtrack. AnTiPoDe affectionately refers to them as "Play that crack pipe!" solos. I find them hilarious but at the same time a bit embarrassing to hear. I don't know how else to explain it, so I'll leave it at that. The sound effects, on the other hand, are great fun to listen to. A beefy bevy of biffs, bams, splats, crunches, explosions and voice samples litter the game from beginning to end, and nothing ever sounds tinny and weak.
The overall pacing and structure of the game is mostly what you'd find in a traditional beat-em-up, although the actual action is faster. You'll scroll, then come to a stop as enemies terrorize the screen, then scroll again, then stop, etc. Always left to right, without fail. But Treasure also included a somewhat ambitious story, RPG elements, and branching paths. The RPG elements are present in the form of levelling up. As you demolish foes, you build up experience and at the end of each level are offered the chance to allocate a number of points to your character's stats, including vitality, strength, and agility. You're also given choices at certain points of how to advance -- for example, "Storm the castle via the town" or "Find a place to rest within the forest." However, every choice simply leads to another level of action. This, of course, gives you the opportunity to end the game in several different ways, and happily unlock different characters for each route you uncover. A gripe that I have though is with the story presentation. Told through scrolling-text dialogue that you cannot skip ever, the fighting action gets unceremoniously broken up just when you're itching for more. Stopping to level up or choose your path for 10 seconds is one thing. Sitting through minutes of text at a time is another. At least you have some control over advancing the text faster, rather than being stuck with a long, drawn out FMV. But still, it's something that I would like skip during second and third run-throughs -- I've seen it already, just take me to the fighting.
I don't know if I've forgotten anything, as there's a lot more to this beat-em-up than one would expect. But suffice it to say, Guardian Heroes does a really good job of uniquely presenting a silly, action-packed brawling experience. I really like this game, although I wish more polish was applied to it -- namely the level design, the annoying mandatory text dialogue, and possibly tweaking the slowdown (although sometimes there's only so much optimization you can do to any game). Nevertheless, if you're just now finding your way as a game collector or taking up an interest in somewhat obscure games, Guardian Heroes is not to be missed. Its semi-sequel, Advance Guardian Heroes, is an adequately fun romp, but in my opinion it'd provide you with nowhere near as explosive an experience as the Saturn original. Buy a Saturn (these are cheap on eBay) and find a copy of the game (these are NOT cheap anywhere), find a friend if you have any, and get cracking. At the worst, it's worth a full weekend of your dedicated attention.