Battlecruiser Games’ Guards has a tricky proposition to tackle: it wants to be accessible enough as to engage casual strategy fans yet also comprehensive enough to grab veteran fans of turn-based strategy RPGs. While the game does succeed in introducing gamers to the strategy genre, its shallow and limited mechanics may turn off those who are looking for a deeper experience.
Guards puts you under the control of four characters (under a selectable pool of eight) as you fight through different stages in order to rid the land of evil. Each stage is positioned like a mini chessboard and your four heroes occupy the left side of it. Your team of four fend off hordes of enemies on the right side of the board as the enemies inch closer to the heroes. After your heroes attack, the monsters follow suit, and the game turns into a turn-based RPG with strategy elements. By switching positions of two heroes (with three of them in the front and one in the back), you can attack. Moving a hero from the front to the back will heal them, while moving one from the back to the front will activate their special ability, from healing spells to a charged attack that can hit enemies farther away.
The game is divided into different levels. Once you finish off a certain number of monsters, the level is finished and you can use gold to purchase temporary upgrades for the next level. If one hero should fall, the game is over and you have to start from the beginning. You can however, use items to revive a fallen hero. While this sounds a bit dissuasive, games usually last 20 or 30 minutes. Additionally, you’re encouraged to keep going with mythril earned by playing, which is used to unlock more characters, upgrade existing ones, or purchase items. In addition, there are sidequests that you can fulfill in order to unlock rewards, such as upgrading a character to his or her maximum level or playing through a certain level. These actions are necessary to go up against the later challenges and ultimately beat the game.
As someone who isn’t too familiar with tactical and strategy based RPGs, I found it refreshing that I could get into the gameplay easily. It was great setting up a team and using their strengths in order to defeat an onslaught of enemies. The tutorials were straightforward and I could get into the swing of things by the third round. It was pretty easy to construct a team and dive in headfirst to defeat enemies early in the game, and the relaxed turn-based mechanics made sure I could think about my next moves and not stress out about time limits. The presentation is minimalistic, with low-res and faceless models, and the sound isn’t too remarkable, but it’s suitable for this title. The game runs smoothly at any graphics level, so I can forgive the lack of detail; it would have been nicer to include more rendered facial features, but that’s just a minor gripe.
However, there are some flaws with this simplistic system, mainly the fact that it becomes annoyingly limited later in the game. I didn’t enjoy the fact that I was stuck with the four heroes I selected for the rest of my playthrough, and could only switch them out when I had died. This problem is exacerbated when stronger enemies appear. For example, the archer, whose special ability causes all enemies to suffer minor damage, was crucial in the early levels but tended to phase out in usefulness by the fifth one. However, since I couldn’t switch her out, I was constantly trying to get the others to pick up the slack, which ended up killing me in the middle of battle. This works conversely as well, as I needed the priestess (the only character with a reliable healing spell, excluding items) for every level in order to survive. While I wish I could have experimented with more teams, reserving a slot for my only healing character made the character limit even more restrictive.
There are a few gripes with the placement system itself. In order to execute a move, you must move two characters, which was problematic when I had to switch a close-range character with a long-range one. Because of how the system works, I had to miss an attack with my close-range guy because there were no enemies present in his attack range. Having an option to keep the positions unchanged would have saved me a couple of moves spent on unnecessary healing because of this.
The thing that I’m a bit disappointed at, however, is the fact that the game relies so much on grinding the same levels to fill the time. Because of the instant death mechanic (which can be rectified by items that will resurrect your heroes,) a lot of progress can be wiped clean due to a bad move or unlucky enemy placement. Long range enemies are a nightmare on later levels, and with only a select few heroes that can tackle these threats reliably, you’ll be hoping that the RNG doesn’t wipe out your squishy long-range attackers. I would have appreciated the option to select which level I could begin since plowing through the first few levels gets boring after the sixth or seventh playthrough. This is further aggravated after completion, since two harder difficulties open up. Prepare to grind even more if you choose to do this.
An accessible game to those unfamiliar with tactical RPGs, Guards has enough to satisfy newcomers, but its reliance on grinding as well as its limited gameplay system might persuade veterans to look for something deeper.