When talking about games, I often hear either narrative or mechanics held up as the end-all, be-all of a good video game. Like a game only needs strong mechanics or a strong narrative for it to be good. However, my time with Advance Guardian Heroes serves as a good argument against such notions. It’s a beat-em-up whose combat mechanics show a surprising amount of depth. Unfortunately, because the game’s scenarios don’t require that you actually use any of that depth, it’s all for naught. The game just succumbs to the same problems that other beat-em-ups before it have suffered. In other words, it’s a repetitive, bloated slog of an experience.
And the game’s narrative certainly doesn’t help matters. It’s a fantasy story centered on an evil empire reviving heroes from the past (IE from the original Guardian Heroes) so they can harvest their souls for conquest. It’s thin schlock with a translation so literal as to put Toaplan’s efforts to shame. Yet translation aside, that’s not too much of an issue. The narrative only exists to bolster the game’s mechanics, which, as I said, are where the game’s real strengths lie. For one, all your actions hold a powerful sense of weight. Each punch feels like it has a very tangible impact on whatever it hits.
But more than that, the mechanics do a great job of inviting the player into the experience. Advance Guardian Heroes is a combat-oriented game where you move your character right and beat people up until the level ends. And to that end, the game gives you a wide variety of moves to perform, each with their own unique function. One move is for crowd control, another to deal damage quickly, another to slow enemies down, etc. That’s isn’t even getting into the magic and levelling systems layered on top of the combat. So glancing at how the combat works, it’s clear that the mechanics offer the player a lot of room for growth and exploration as they figure out how each move works and where to use them. The game almost feels like a satisfying precursor to deeper character action games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. I would expect no less from an action-oriented studio like Treasure.
Unfortunately, I’d also expect a lot more. What set Treasure’s games apart from others was not only how finely tuned the mechanics in their games were, but also how well the scenarios demanded the most of those mechanics. Ikaruga’s levels required quick use of the polarity system; Gunstar Heroes made you figure out how combining power-ups worked, etc. I can’t say the same for Advance Guardian Heroes. First of all (literally, first of all), the early levels expect more than you can possibly deliver that early in the game. For example, the designers structured the first boss around countering, but severely limit how much you can counter the boss’s attacks.
And moving beyond that, there’s no clear link between the game’s mechanics and its scenarios. In fact, it almost feels like the two exist on entirely separate planes of existence. On one plane are the mechanics, demanding real skill and attention from the player. They reward mastery of said skill above all else. On the other plane are the scenarios, which focus on visceral action and spectacle. They reward the player for showing up, usually with a large variety of unique scenarios. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of design. Other games have made it work. And to be fair, there’s a glimmer of something commendable within this game’s focus on spectacle.
Alas, it’s only a glimmer. The rest of the game experiences an unresolvable tension, instead. There’s no reconciling spectacle and skill on equal terms. You can’t appeal to spectacle with skill, for example, because that would draw attention away from said spectacle. The gameplay has to demand less of the player than it would otherwise, so they can focus on all the exciting things happening around them. Naughty Dog seems to understand that rule, as far as I can tell. Conversely, you can’t appeal to skill with spectacle because how do you use spectacle to draw the player into the mechanics (IE what the player needs to develop skill with)? Unless you properly interleave the two, the spectacle is only going to distract the player from the mechanics, not draw them in deeper.
We can already see that happening with Advance Guardian Heroes. For all the sensory variety the game offers, most of the scenarios are near identical, mechanically speaking. Enemies function very similarly, and the levels rarely demand anything of you save a basic understanding of how combat works. Perhaps that explains why I knew that there were a lot of moves to perform, but never learned how to reliably perform any of them. With most of the levels being straight lines, I never had to learn. Unsurprising, then, that the game ends up as flat and boring an experience as it does.
The worst part of all? The game has no reason to be this mediocre. We’ve seen that it has the potential to be a gripping and engaging video game. But because it can’t decide on how it wants to engage the player (skill or spectacle), the game eventually settles on neither, ending up as the lacking game that it currently is. It almost feels caught between the less demanding beat-em-ups of old (Final Fight, Streets of Rage), and today’s more grueling fare (the character action games I mentioned before.) In fact, part of me wants to see this game as a camp throwback to those older titles, if not for how unpleasant an experience this turned out to be. Sort of like Dark Savior, now that I think about it.