If you grew up in the '80s playing RPGs like Dragon Warrior and Ultima, you're going to immediately recognize the roots of 9th Bit Games' Guardian Saga [$1.99]. Heck, the name is even borrowed from the DOS-era Ultima games. It's about as old school as you can get without releasing a text-adventure, and while it will certainly appeal to fans of the era, it's also going to provide a steep learning curve for newcomers.
As these things tend to go, the story kicks off with you learning about the Guardian Beasts, the giant monsters who protect humanity from evil, but who have decided to stop. Your job is to find out why. To do so, you'll need to adventure around the world searching out the Guardians and unraveling the mystery of what happened.
It's a relatively basic RPG story, and the game is rooted in basic gameplay. You won't find the complex party management of the Final Fantasy series, nor will you find a map, fancy visuals, sub-plots, side quests or a love story -- this is all about you exploring the world on your own, doing a little grinding and unearthing the truth. To that end, Guardian Saga does a fantastic job of giving you not only a clear sense of progression, but also the tools get the job done.
Being a lonely hero means you acquire all the skills necessary to survive. You don't have team members, so you'll be healing yourself, casting spells, taking potions and everything else on your own. You'll also need to use your own memory to tackle objectives -- no notepad, quest screen, or hint guides here -- when the king tell you to go to the town in the Northeast, you have to remember it. You'll spend most of your time in the overworld, but there are a few dungeons spread around and the towers that hold the Guardians to explore, as well as a diverse cast of enemies to kill.
The same premise goes into how you level up and chose your weapons. Leveling is automatic, and weapons are essentially bound to the town you travel to. You won't find yourself making any hard choices between swords or armor, you'll just purchase the best one you can. There is rarely much in the way of loot on your travels, which means you'll be doing most of your stocking in town. It's a bit jarring at first, especially if you're used to grabbing a potion or two off an enemy, but considering you can't use items in combat, it's clear 9th Bit wasn't too concerned with item management.
The nostalgia delves deep into the aesthetics as well. The 8-bit graphics aren't updated with modern colors or pixel density, and the score and sound effects sound entirely composed using the limited hardware of the NES. It still looks fantastic though, and I'd love to see an iPad version of it just to stare at the visuals on a bigger screen without the oversized directional pad of double-sizing it.
That said, Guardian Saga dwells in its past to a point of absurdity at some points. As a mobile game, it could have stood to have a better save option, and while there is a means to quick save before you exit it would be nice to have multi-tasking support for when you receive a call. The quick save is unforgiving as well. You'll be kicked out of the game after doing so and you can only return to that exact point. That's not a complaint -- more of a warning -- one quicksave per game session, one use only.
It might also have been nice to have a quest system in place, if nothing else to remind you of what you were doing if you put it down for a while. It's also worth noting that you can check out your character stats by tapping the box in the left corner. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out I could heal, use items, and quick save from this menu. This is all to say that there are a few modern conveniences that it would be nice to see here simply because there are added complexities with a mobile game that didn't exist back then. It's clear these were left out on purpose, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't be handy for playing on the go.
Even through the moments of frustration, fans of early RPGs will find a lot to love in Guardian Saga. It's a solid homage to everything that made the NES and DOS eras influential and interesting. Once you get the hang of it and remember some of the tricks from the '80s, Guardian Saga clicks and settles in well. This isn't a game for fans of in-depth, complex story arcs or ridiculous item management; it's for fans of a simpler time, when RPGs meant you leveled up, killed some monsters and saved the word and nothing more.
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