The heroes are back, but how much have they advanced?
In 1996, Sega's Saturn console was graced with a brilliant side-scrolling beat'em-up called Guardian Heroes. Developed by Treasure (the team who would later create action classics like Sin And Punishment: Successor to the Earth, Radiant Silvergun, and Ikaruga), Guardian Heroes was widely praised for its non-stop action, excellent graphics, and impressive music. That was the last we heard of the franchise, until now. Treasure has finally resurrected the Guardian Heroes to continue their battle on GameBoy Advance. While borrowing concepts from classic brawlers like Final Fight and Streets of Rage, Advance Guardian Heroes adds enough twists to the usual formula to make it a slightly flawed but refreshing update to an otherwise stale genre.
The story of Advance Guardian Heroes goes like this: an immortal, Zur, has resurrected the previous game's villain, the black mage Kanon. Zur and Kanon long for the power of the legendary Soul Sword, and it's up to you to stop them before they find it and rule the world forever. Of course, this is simply a backdrop for some ass-kicking of the highest order, and you're offered several different modes with which to get your fight on. Story Mode has you fighting through the story to the end; VS Mode allows up to four players to duke it out; Training lets you practice your moves; and Tutorial shows you the basic fighting techniques you'll need to survive. Two additional modes, Time Attack and Endless, are unlocked by meeting special gameplay objectives. The sheer number of gameplay options ensure a good deal of replay value.
However, these different modes are not without blemishes. VS Mode is fun but very basic; you can fight in teams and win-loss records are kept, but simple battle options like Best-of-Three and Best-of-Five series aren't included. It's also too easy to lose track of your character in a melee. Many characters look almost identical, and the "1P" and "2P" icons above them aren't distinctive enough. Training Mode seems extraneous; it doesn't provide any guidance in pulling off moves, and amounts to little more than an extra one-on-one fighting mode. Time Attack is useful for unlocking various characters in VS Mode, but once that's done there isn't much reason to go back to it. These extra play modes are great, but Treasure really should have spent more time fleshing them out completely. There's a lot of potential that just didn't get realized. Story mode is also short; a good gamer will be able to blow through it on Normal difficulty in five to six hours.
Still, any polish these extra modes lack is made up for in gameplay. The pace of the action is frenzied and relentless, with numerous enemies coming at you from all angles; fortunately, you have equally numerous ways to fight back. The B button throws punches and kicks while the A button jumps, and R generates a magic shield used to counter blows and reflect enemy fire. Reflecting enemy shots is a skill you must master if you're going to achieve any sort of success, adding some technique to the usual button-mashing. The controls have a slight learning curve, but once you get the hang of it you'll be throwing down with the best of them. The depth of the control scheme is one of the most rewarding parts of the game. The crazier levels become, the farther you'll want to dig down into your bag of tricks.
And speaking of tricks, magic is an integral part of Advance Guardian Heroes' gameplay. Each of the three characters you have to choose from in Story Mode has his own type of magic. Enn uses fire spells, Ray uses lightning, and Hyu uses ice. There are five spells to choose from for each element, and while the differences between them are mainly cosmetic they're still fun to watch. Spells are selected with the L button, and executed by holding R (shield) and pressing B. This button combination is a little awkward and can be difficult to pull off in the heat of battle; luckily you don't have to rely on spells too often, as they're usually most effective against bosses and stronger enemies.
The magic system ties into another gameplay feature, the Anger Gauge. Fans of the Final Fantasy series will recognize this as a variation on the concept of Limit Breaks. Simply put, the more damage you take the angrier you get. When your Anger Gauge is filled you can press A and B simultaneously to enter Hyper Mode, during which your character is temporarily faster and virtually invincible. Entering Hyper Mode causes your Magic Meter to refill. This becomes a crucial strategic element, as you'll often find yourself waiting for just the right moment to enter Hyper Mode to get your Magic/Shield power back.
Another key element is the addition of RPG-style character attributes. Each character can be improved in seven different categories, "leveling up" by collecting crystals dropped by defeated enemies. The more crystals you collect, the more you can pump up your hero (and unlock VS Mode characters) at the end of each stage. Crystals can be distributed in any matter you choose; if the upcoming level requires high magic defense, you can raise your player's level in that area at the expense of others. It's an ingenious way to add some customization to the game experience.
Graphics and sound are solid. There are fifty-five areas spanning six levels, with each one unique and colorful. There's lots of parallax scrolling and a considerable amount of Mode 7 sprite-scaling (e.g. enemies zooming in from the background to attack you in the foreground). Because of this some sprites are less detailed than they could be, but you have to admire Treasure for taking chances; rarely do you see a GBA game as visually ambitious as this one. Quality cut-scenes push the story along. The music is uptempo and high-quality, right in line with the on-screen action and very well done. Each boss has his own digitized war cry, a nice touch although more variety is needed. The art style is unique as well, looking like it was ripped straight out of a Japanese cartoon. Treasure definitely knows what they're doing in terms of 2-D artwork.
There are a few visual downsides, however. Enemies get repetitive, and you'll wind up fighting the same boss characters over and over again. Some more variety would have been appreciated. Slowdown creeps in when there are a lot of characters on-screen, and in a game as fast-paced as this any slowdown is instantly noticeable. It doesn't affect gameplay too much, but you always know it's there.
Presentation is a mixed bag. Menus are easy to navigate and you're able to quit a game at any time, but the localization effort put into this game is absolutely terrible. Its script reads like it was translated with Babelfish, using embarassingly poor "Engrish" the likes of which is hardly seen these days. The Tutorial mode is more confusing than helpful because you're forced to decode sentences like, "If you can't run Homing Move that can be launched stopping anything in the air, even if you defeat me you will come to the hells! What will you do?" Huh? Ubisoft, you can do better.
Despite these problems, Advance Guardian Heroes is a satisfying package. It has its warts - mediocre extra modes, laughable text localization, occasional slowdown, a Story Mode that's over much too soon - but it also has fun and addictive gameplay with a lot of interesting features. This is a good action game that falls short of being great. Fans of the original should enjoy it, and it may create some new fans as well.