Many young players will see Guardian Heroes and have no idea it’s actually a port from the Sega Saturn. This anime-styled brawler supports three 2D planes rather than a fully traversable 3D plane, tons of characters to play and unlock, a branching story arc with several different endings and encounters which, if opted out of to go down a different path, will never be experienced. This fast-paced HD-ified port brings some old mechanics into the present. The good news? It doesn’t feel a bit dated.
The controls are fairly intuitive, with X standing in for light attacks, Y for heavy, and A for a quick dodge back. B is reserved for special abilities—in the case of our Mage demo, that was magic. Those straightforward controls were balanced by a unique addition: the left bumper and left trigger, which jump planes toward and away from the player. Navigating planes takes a little getting used to, but it soon becomes second nature. (Though the adjustment period is a little more extensive when you’re trying to do this in the heat of combat.
In the interest of time, we skipped through the dialogue of the story—we were in a bit of a rush to see the meat of the gameplay. The story was told in pretty typical old-school fashion though: portraits of the characters would pop up on the screen and the camera would shift to them. It certainly feels very retro; it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but gamers that have gotten used to rich cinematics and other “modern” accoutrements may feel a bit estranged.
If the meat of Guardian Heroes is the combat, the potatoes are the combos. Unlike some simpler combat schemes featured in other beat ‘em ups, Guardian Heroes plays sort of like a fighting game and even includes a move list for each character. Going to town on an enemy is fun, but working the light/heavy mixups and following the enemies into the air for air combos is what feels really intense. There is also air dashing and double jumps, making the game very fast, very frantic, and very much a fighter’s game. Using the big abilities (such as the various magical spells for mages) also integrated well into the combo system, serving as opportunities to take advantage of an airborne or knocked down enemy.
Taking out casual enemies provides plenty of satisfaction, but as with any beat ‘em up, the game’s core is really the bosses. With less enemies on the screen, the multi-plane combat really works best here; it’s easier to think and manage space and is a lot less confusing. Along with that, the boss we faced had some pretty interesting powers and provided an appropriate level of challenge for an early stage of the game. He possessed a decent variety of moves to keep me off of him, but not too much to frustrate players for simply not knowing what each move did. Of course, later game bosses remains to be seen, but these battles are definitely where the unique maneuverability of Guardian Heroes characters will shine.
While the single-player experience will rely on the intrigue of branching story archs, co-op play, and different characters for replayability, there also exists a multiplayer mode that is full of unique bits and pieces. A rules customizing setup allows for tons of options and game changers for players that really want to tweak their “versus” experience. Changing abilities, changing parameters of the match… all of it is possible. Beyond that, players can even unlock and play as game enemies instead of just the protagonist characters. Unlike those characters, enemies can be rather huge and will have plenty of different gameplay options.
Guardian Heroes is definitely a look into the past, but it very much contends with today’s XBLA-offerings. Combining the more beloved aspects of brawler games such as many enemies on screen and unique boss fights with fighting-styled combos are where Guardian Heroes shines. How it will fare against more current gameplay mechanics is unknown, but while it’s not weighed down by older design concepts, it may leave some wanting. We’ll wait to see more as the game approaches release.