Review | 10/14/2011 at 10:54 AM

Guardian Heroes HD Co-Op Review

Treasure's seminal action-RPG/brawler is reborn on modern consoles

The Sega Saturn was a fine console that fizzled in America due to a botched launch, poor marketing, and unabashedly inept management from the Sega of the nineties (the company is run by entirely different people today). Regardless of sales, Sega’s 32-bit console played host to a number of excellent games - many of which never reached American shores.

One standout game that did make the transition - complete with garish cover artwork - was Guardian Heroes, Treasure’s unique mixture of the beat-em-up and action-RPG genres. Treasure has never ported the game to other consoles (though they did release a GBA semi-sequel, Advance Guardian Heroes), so relatively few gamers have experienced this gaming classic… Until now!

Guardian Heroes HD boasts a rather unique story mode for a brawler. A single playthrough only lasts for six or seven stages and an hour and a half or so, but that’s only part of the story. At the end of every stage from two onward, players make dialogue choices which determine which branching path they’ll take. There are a whopping 30 stages in total, each with different enemies, events, and bosses. These culminate in five completely different final bosses and endings – and two of those even have unhappy versions if the player retains a low enough karma rating.

All of those branching paths make for a fascinating and well-developed story. At the outset, we meet our group of four playable heroes as they recuperate at an inn. They have just recovered a fabled and special sword, though they can’t say what’s so special about it. Then Serena, the unlockable fifth character bursts in, attacked by malicious castle guards. It turns out the ruling family wants the sword for some reason, and they don’t care how many heroes or innocent villagers are hurt in the process.

As the tale goes on, players will slowly realize that Guardian Heroes’ conflict contains three completely distinct sides, all vying to come out on top. Each faction’s viewpoint is well-represented and sympathetic (cruel though their methods may be), so you can see why the heroes might choose to side with them. All of those text-laden cinemas might hamper the co-op experience, especially since every game begins with Stages 1 and 2 before granting players a choice of routes. Thankfully the Back button toggles a fast-forwarding feature, allowing you to breeze past stuff you’ve already seen.

A deep story isn’t Guardian Heroes’ only RPG trapping. One example is the aforementioned karma system, in which killing innocent villagers and juggling dead enemies can build up negative karma and lead to a couple of unhappy endings. Players can view their karma by pausing the game, though sadly that’s only possible during offline play. When playing online, you can’t pause the game for any reason, not even to exit the game – a strange oversight.

On top of karma, every blow landed on enemies or innocents, and each spell cast grants experience points. Filling the EXP meter and leveling up doesn’t take long – after all, each playthrough is relatively short. For each level gained, players get to assign one attribute point to a variety of stats. The light layer of customization fits the game’s fantasy setting and other RPG-like attributes perfectly. On the downside, levels don’t carry over between playthroughs; gamers start each new playthrough from square one. The lack of a New Game+ option is a missed opportunity.

Guardian Heroes also displays a lot of depth in its beat-em-up gameplay. You can just jam on the attack buttons and enjoy the combo and juggling system, but that’s only scratching the surface. Dashing, blocking, multiple throws, mid-air recoveries, and fighting game-like special moves make for far more interesting gameplay. Plus most characters have unique magic spells too.

Making all of these techniques easier to manage is the three-line depth of field system. Instead of letting players walking up and down like every other brawler in existence, Guardian Heroes divides the field into three distinct planes. Players and enemies can jump back and forth between the planes at any time. This takes out the worry of having to line up just right to bash on an enemy. It also evokes memories of the first Fatal Fury, though the mechanic works better in this genre than a pure fighting game.

Guardian Heroes HD contains everything that made the original game such a treat, along with a new coat of polish and a few extra features to appeal to modern gamers. The first choice you’ll want to make is whether to play with Original or Remixed graphics. Guardian Heroes has always featured hand-drawn, anime-style sprites and backdrops with 3D floors. Original graphics retain the pixelated visuals and effects, hearkening back to a time when pretty much every game looked distinct and special.

Remixed makes smart use of filters to smooth everything up without diminishing the original art style, plus adds a cool line hatching effect to the character shadows. The new fire and spell effects look great and perfectly modern. Finally, all of the non-gameplay art (close-ups) and UI elements are redrawn and entirely faithful to the original style. Both graphical options extend the playing field to create a true widescreen presentation, much like the upcoming Sonic CD port does. As a result, the game looks great whichever one you pick.

Original and Remixed modes can be enjoyed in any combination of Original and Remixed gameplay, as well. Remixed increases the number of attack buttons from two to three, maps spell casting to the right analog stick, adds air dashing, and many other little tweaks. I would completely prefer the Remixed gameplay, but it also makes the game significantly harder. Juggling enemies no longer provides EXP, which in turns makes it hard to level up enough to handle the game’s higher difficulties. The enemy AI is also much fiercer and juggles players more incessantly.

Guardian Heroes has always featured drop-in, drop-out two-player co-op, and HD adds online play into the mix. Teaming up together throughout story mode can be a ton of fun, but there are some caveats. Chiefly, both players share a limited number of credits (lives). Normal allots nine credits, while Hard only grants three. Frankly, that’s not enough for the average co-op team to beat the game with. The number of enemies doesn’t change, which means there is a limited pool of EXP for leveling up as well. As a result, co-op is actually harder than single-player, which doesn’t sit right with me.

That’s where Easy difficulty comes in. It bumps up the credits to 99, making it possible for anybody to beat the game without much pressure. On the other hand, you don’t unlock characters on Easy. See, on Normal or higher, every single defeated enemy and boss gets unlocked for Versus and Arcade modes. Playing on Easy means you’re not making progress in the metagame. Still, it’s a co-op couple’s best shot at having fun together without failing halfway through the game. One more nag: second player doesn’t earn Achievements in local games.

Guardian Heroes HD brings a lot more to the table than just Story mode. Versus Mode supports four players locally or 12 players online. Not only can local and online players mix, but bots may fill out empty spots, making large games more viable. With a total of 45 different playable characters to choose from (after you’ve run through each stage on Normal or above), Versus is inherently unbalanced. But I don’t think anyone expected a 12-player throwdown to be fair. No, you play it for the sheer chaos and spectacle.

HD introduces a new Arcade mode as well. Survival would be a more apt description, since it simply pits the gamer against a huge, unending mix of the game’s enemies in an enclosed arena. Note I say gamer, not gamers, because some crazy fool thought Arcade should be limited to single-player only. Seriously, it would have worked just as well (if not better) as a cooperative experience.

Guardian Heroes HD marks the second of Treasure’s classic Saturn games to be released on Xbox 360 in recent weeks (following Radiant Silvergun). The remake gets so many things right – especially the visual presentation - making a great older game even better. I only wish co-op had received the same attention as the graphics. Forcing players to share a limited number of lives on the game’s real difficulties and not letting them team up in Arcade takes away from an otherwise sublime experience. But my partner and I had a blast running through Story on the Easy difficulty before I settled down to unlock stuff by myself on Normal and Hard. Fans of beat-em-ups and old-school gaming goodness will likely enjoy the journey as well.