More noise than signal

Advance Guardian Heroes – Gameboy Advance

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

Something of an odd choice for Japanese game design deities Treasure, this. Departing from their recent run of Triple A shooters to do a sequel to the top notch Sega Saturn Guardian Heroes, an RPG tinted side scrolling beat ’em up characterised by huge, er, characters, fairly spectacular spellcasting effects and the kind of graphical zooming trickery that set jaws dropping amongst those who hadn’t yet subscribed to the prevailing wind of 3D killing off 2D gaming. Above all, it was a tremendous amount of fun as we’ve come to expect from that particular codehouse. Jaws dropped again when the news came that Nintendo’s humble pocket system would play host to this welcome yet unanticipated sequel. Surely it could never do the original justice?

Sadly, no, it can’t. But it has a damn good go at it, and in the process pushes the hardware beyond the limits anyone had thought possible. The game starts with your death, which would seem unfortunate but allows the legendary Undead Hero to inhabit your body, the design of which owes more to Gunstar Heroes than Guardian Heroes. This big dead fella you may remember as your large sword swingin’ golden armoured CPU controlled helper in Guardian Heroes, and while the newest incarnation relies more on fisticuffs than swordplay you’re by no means defenceless.

In terms of moves available to you it’s hardly Street Fighter Alpha 3 but it’s certainly streets ahead of Final Fight One, probably its closest contemporary on the handheld. Standard ground punches chain into combos so it’s easy to start baddie bashing, although you’ll need to start mixing up attacks to survive the onslaught. Overhead attacks send enemies flying around the screen and a ground pounding attack that would seem more suited to the Hulk knocks down those around you. Aerial attacks prove effective also, and if that’s not enough you could always start laying the smackdown with one of your spell types, which differ slightly depending on your character choice. Homing attacks and lasers? What is this, R-Type?

All of which would probably get you off the first level but not much further unless you learn how to block and counter. The shoulder button when held creating a barrier from most attacks. A swift tap just as a blow is about to land not only stops any damage but knocks your attacker into a stun, or if it’s a projectile it’s returned to sender with extreme prejudice. This is so vital towards the game’s later stages it’s the only way to play it, which does make a short game harder (a good thing) it limits the amount of fun you can have with it (a bad thing). Defeating your attackers earns you crystals, which can be used to level up your characters attack, defence or magic stats as you see fit.

Oh yeah, the plot. There’s not as much pontificating as I remember clicking through on Guardian Heroes, but the Advance incarnation still has more development than you’d expect or probably want from the genre. A thousand years have passed since the last game, and the Heavens have decided it’s time to have another final battle, with mankind on the extermination agenda. You take on a huge but not too varied army of miscreants the heavens have thrown your way headed by Zur who inexplicably looks like a goofish Shakespearean extra but who’s also raised Guardian Heroes‘ fiendish magician Kanon from the dead. You’ll have to deal with the sword swinging footsoldiers, giant ogres, huge robots and mirrors. Don’t ask. In a canny reference to the original / recycling of assets you’ll have to have versions of the heroes of the first game, now unwilling soldiers of the Heavens, who are trying to raise the ultimate warrior.

Lovely, but somewhat superfluous. I suppose it has a better ring to it than ‘Walk right. Kill everything that gets in your way’, but it’s all faintly ridiculous and ultimately breaks up the action. At a short but challenging six levels, there’s a slight suggestion it’s only there to bulk up the playtime. In terms of additional lifespan you can unlock near enough every sprite in the game to play as, either through repeated playthroughs donating the crystals ordinarily used for levelling up your character to a research fella or by having a blast of the survival and time attack modes, themselves unlocked after completing the game on varying difficulty levels.

It’s not enough. There’s no real incentive to unlock all of these characters, no benefits apart from a sense of completion for the dedicated or anal amongst us. It shows attention to detail that essentially every character in the game is properly playable if you put the effort into it, but you’ll still be playing the same game through every time. Unlike it’s elder brother there’s no branching stages, no alternative paths through the game which made Guardian Heroes a viable prospect to replay through a few times. Understandable format constraints make such a scheme impossible on the GBA, but after you’ve spent four or five hours playing this through a couple of times there’s no added incentive to come back to it again.

Which would be a problem if this were a fun game to play, after all Final Fight One offers approximately nada in terms of extras but it’s still a great game to dig out for a half hour rampage now and again. The mechanics of Advance Guardian Heroes make it a more complex game, but also detract from the fun to be had from it. Quickly, and almost immediately on higher difficulty levels it become apparent that the only way to progress is to wait for an opponent to attack, stun him with a block/counter and then unleash a quick flurry of attacks. Repeat until bored. This quickly saps the fun from the game, reducing it to a mechanical exercise in timing.

Fine if you like that sort of thing, but I’m sure it’s not that significant a portion of the population. Technically it’s a very impressive game, pushing the sprite handling and scaling capacities of the GBA past what limits were imagined for it, although it goes a little to far. Slowdown rears it’s ugly head a few times when the spells are sent flying amongst dense crowds, and while it’s rare that it presents a hindrance to gameplay it does tarnish the presentation a little.

The main thing that’s bothering me about this game is that it really doesn’t feel like Treasure made it, despite the obvious reuse of their IP. The touches of personality that raised things like Guardian & Gunstar Heroes and Bangai-o above the normal genre standards was what made them legendary, and there’s only a precious few moments in this latest outing that come close to that. The rest seems somewhat…perfunctory, I suppose. It’s by no means a bad game in any sort of technical sense, just a rather joyless one that’s too mechanical and too short lived to be recommended to all but hardened beat-em-up fans.

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