At the dawn of the 32-bit era, Sega and Sony went in two different directions with their hardware. Sega, with its arcade heritage chose to design a console that had strong 2-D performance at the expense of 3-D power. Sony went in the opposite direction, putting all of its eggs in the 3-D basket. History says that Sony made the right business choice, but Sega's last bastion of 2-D glory led to some amazing sprite-based games, not the least of which was Guardian Heroes.
You play as one of five adventurers who have just found a mystical sword. Happy with its discovery, the group retires for the night, only to find the evening of relaxation unexpectedly cut short. Serena, a rebel knight, runs in and tells the group that the palace guards are coming to retrieve the sword at any cost. All five flee to the town graveyard, where they are cornered by a massive robot. When all seems lost, the sword is struck by lighting and reclaimed by a golden zombie warrior. He saves your life and then proceeds to fight at your side for the rest of the game. It doesn't hurt that he's pretty badass.
Which adventurer you choose at the start of the game helps establish what kind of play experience you are going to have. Each adventurer has a stat rating as well as a different set of physical and magical attacks. These attacks vary in range and strength. For example, Han is physically strong and tanks well, but he has limited magic ability. Randy is a mage who has weak melee, but some nicely powered magic abilities. Ginjirou is a ninja with medium attack power, though he has high mobility and can unleash some of the best combos in the game.
Nicole is also a mage, though a clumsy one. She will randomly fall down and is physically weak, both in attack power and in health. However, she is the only character who can restore her own health (a huge help with one of the Achievements), and her defensive shield can double as a devastating attack if used in the right place. Raise Nicole's barrier spell at the edge of an area so an enemy is trapped between the barrier and the wall for a guaranteed kill. Serena is initially locked, but becomes available after you complete the game. She is a balanced, all-around character.
Action in Guardian Heroes is fast and fluid, with responsive controls offering up a multitude of options. Combat generally moves from left to right, though it is not limited to a single plane. You have the ability to move back and forth on the z-axis between three different planes of movement. This allows for a sense of depth as well as opening up some moments of opportunity. For example, if you're getting pummeled by a gaggle of enemies (and you will), one of the best avenues of escape can be plane shifting away and walking around them. It's also useful as a method of flanking a larger enemy that is currently attacking your partner.
Combos flow naturally if you have any experience with fighting games, though button-mashing is viable on the easier difficulty levels. Compared to combat, using magic feels like something of a burden at first with the default system. Pressing the magic button brings up a menu, you pick your spell and then press a button to confirm. Since the action doesn't stop, this can be dangerous. Advanced players will quickly realize that certain commands double as magic shortcuts. For example, a quarter-circle forward plus the magic button sends out an instant fireball. Once you learn the magic shortcuts, spells become infinitely more usable.
The original combat system is preserved along with a new, slightly modified system that adds a medium attack and maps the back step to a button. Both systems work equally well, with the classic scheme catering to hardcore fans and the remixed setup being easier to use for new players. Additionally, remixed mode features a handful of balance changes across the board, making the challenge level a little more consistent. You can view most of the changes by perusing the help files.
If it just had the combat system, Guardian Heroes would be fun, but Treasure pushes things over the top with the RPG-lite stat system and the choose-your-own-adventure stage layout. The stats come into play between stages. Every level you earn in experience grants one stat point. The six different stats define your character's base abilities, allowing for extra customization. There's even a hidden seventh stat, karma, which changes based on your play style and helps determine if you get a light or dark ending.
As far as the stages are concerned, Guardian Heroes has 30 different stages, but only a handful of those are seen in any given playthrough. After the first set of stages, the game almost always gives you a choice as to where to go next. Choices are mutually exclusive, so once you choose a stage, the equivalent stages are locked out for that game. Players move through the stages like a flowchart, with different combinations leading to five different bosses and seven possible endings. It's worth noting that you now have the ability to skip cut scenes. Given the rather lengthy mid-game sequence, this is a big plus.
Story mode supports solo play as well as co-op, which can be played locally or over Xbox Live. The Xbox Live option allows you to filter by your home country if you like, in order to minimize lag. Playing through the story mode in co-op is similar to single player, only now you have someone else lending a hand.
In addition to story mode, Guardian Heroes also offers arcade mode, training mode, versus mode and a gallery. Arcade mode is more or less a score attack, where the goal is simple: survive the onslaught for as long as possible and kill as many opponents as you can. The game drops you into the coliseum and then throws a slew of enemies at you. The more you kill, the more it sends your way. Both time and score are uploaded to the leaderboards.
Versus mode is a competitive free-for-all brawl, supporting four players locally and up to 12 players via Xbox Live. To say that versus mode can be a little crazy is an understatement. It also allows for nearly every character in the game to be used. Basically, if you've encountered someone (or something) in a level and completed it, they should be unlocked for versus mode. This large character roster is both a blessing and a curse because the characters aren't all balanced. Frankly, some of the move sets are completely broken in versus mode. To compensate for this, Treasure has implemented a trove of options, allowing players to customize versus mode matchups to their liking. If all of the individual tweaks are a bit much, you can always enable a selection that locks out the most unbalanced fighters. The gallery features some bonus items, including a stage map of every area you visited, unlocked endings and the original full motion video intro from the Sega Saturn version of the game.
Because Guardian Heroes is a sprite-based game, Treasure couldn't simply blow up the sprites to HD resolution without them looking like a pixelated mess. Instead, the developers opted for a graphics filter that appears to apply a mix of antialiasing and blurring and then adds pencil marks. The net effect ends up looking like a watercolor painting and is quite pleasing to the eye. The original graphics mode is selectable, but unless you're a hardcore purist, there is very little reason to use it. Along with the visual filter, all of the stages are now displayed in the HDTV native 16:9 aspect ratio rather than the original game's 4:3 aspect ratio. This opens up more space on either side of the central play area, giving you more maneuvering room as well as allowing for a greater number of sprites to be displayed on-screen.
Re-releasing updated versions of classic titles has become something of a trend, but Guardian Heroes isn't just another title hopping on the bandwagon. This is a port that has been given proper care, resulting in a game that is still solid all around. Top that off with a bargain 800 MSP ($10 USD) price point, and there's little reason not to add Guardian Heroes to your collection.
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