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.