Guardian's Crusade is Activision's latest import from Japan. Developed by Tamsoft, and originally titled "Knight and Baby", it is their second attempt at bringing over a Japanese title that normally wouldn't appear here. With the success of Tenchu and Guardian's Crusade this will hopefully become a regular practice of this once monumental publishing house.
"A Knight like any other."
Guardian's Crusade tells the story of a young knight living in the small village of Orgo. It begins with the young Knight (his default name is "Knight", which leads to some interesting dialogue, but you can re-name him if you wish) being awoken by his fairy companion, Nehani. She tells him that the mayor wishes to see him. The mayor asks him to deliver a letter to the mayor of a neighboring town. It concerns the lack of a good harvest this year, and the mayor is worried that it is a bad omen for the future. After delivering the letter to the neighboring mayor, who thinks your mayor is overreacting, you head back home. Just before reaching home, you find a strange pink animal in the road. Before you can decide what to do about it, a strange light comes down from the sky and a mysterious figure appears in its midst. The figure implores you to return this creature to its mother at God's Tower and that the fate of the world depends upon it. Thus begin the adventures of Knight and Baby and their search for God's Tower.
The story is a very lighthearted romp through many familiar conventions of RPG's that came before. It moves at an excellent pace and never leaves you really bored or annoyed at its simplicity. It also pulls a number of emotional strings that, even though I could see them coming, still got to me. There's a reason why certain things become clichés. It's because they work every time. The climax of the game is built up wonderfully and makes the adventure seem worth it. There is a real sense of victory and accomplishment at the end with a hint of sadness that worked very well for me. One thing the story does very well is to move your emotions into familiar territories that get you every time. They know why we play RPG's, and they use that to their advantage.
Activision is to be commended for their translation. I don't know how much of the credit goes to Tamsoft for the excellent NPC dialogue, but Activision's localization team did an excellent job. I wasn't really checking the dialogue closely for errors so I can't say they were perfect, but there were definitely no major errors that stood out in my casual observations. Each NPC in the towns has well written and interesting dialogue, and the dialogue for just about each one changes with time or after certain events. It is enjoyable talking to people, and not a chore as in most games where you trudge along hoping the next carbon copy citizen will have that next hint. In GC, you will want to talk to everyone each time you visit that town just because you get to know many of them. It really increases the immersion for the player and also helps make up for the lack of personality in the hero.
Yes, the thing I hate most makes a return appearance: The Silent Hero. This guy doesn't even get the "…" that makes me want to throw my controller at the screen. If they'd just say at the beginning of the game that the guy is a mute or give me a lot of dialogue choices I wouldn't mind as much. Anything is better than taking on the role of mute piece of plywood. The NPC's have more personality and the only hint of personality the hero gets is through the ramblings of his fairy companion who comments on everything.
And I do mean everything. Nehani is one of the most well developed characters I've seen in a long time as all the observations and dialogue that usually go to the hero are given to her. Click on an object and she'll make her comments on it and report if anything is found. And you can click on just about everything in the game with some very amusing results. Click on enough barrels and she'll say, "You are definitely the master of checking empty barrels." Her dialogue is witty and interesting and makes her a very enjoyable character that you really get to know. While Knight is the hero, Nehani is really the main character as she's the one with the personality.
While rife with traditional elements of past RPG's, GC uses all of them to their utmost extent and gives the player many reasons to play through to the end. While not as deep and involving as some, it is quite enjoyable and masterfully executed.
"It's a bright world after all"
The graphics in GC are, above all else, bright. Even the browns are bright. The game is entirely in 3D with all exploration done from the same overhead camera angle. The exploration graphics are solid and they are also in hi-resolution, which is very nice. The landscapes are simple and the characters are rather small to allow for this, but it creates a nice overall look that fits the themes of the game. Character animation is smooth in both the world map and in battles. You can turn up the speed in battle, which cuts the frames of animation and raises the frame rate for quicker battles. While it's nice to watch the full battle animation, there isn't enough variety to leave the slower battles on.
The basic landscapes are very similar with blocky environments and similar color schemes all around. A few areas get some variety but, for the most part, the flora and fauna won't dazzle you. Where the landscapes tend to shine is in the towns. They all seem to have their own personality, further emphasized by the NPC dialogue. The textures, though simple, are some of the cleanest I've seen on the Playstation and are used nicely to create an atmosphere for each town. Even better are the town layouts that fit each location perfectly. Small towns tend to have a circular village-type layout while some of the bigger cities fit into more of a grid structure. These are small details but it's always nice to see developers addressing them.
Dungeons near the beginning of the game are rather drab and dark, mostly underground or in temples. Later in the game there are some rather spectacular dungeons to explore with beautiful graphics and designs. The ice cavern and God's Tower are two of the real standouts. You'll notice that the whole game in story, graphics and game play builds up to the climax. From simple to complex, the developers did a great job of making you want to move on in the game, to go further and see what's next. Most developers should take this game as a template on how to build up a game from beginning to end in a way that will keep the player wanting to play.
The game also takes advantage of the Playstation's special effects, especially in battle. Spells use multiple levels of transparencies and lighting effects to make up for the somewhat simplistic nature of the character models. Simply unleashing a living toy is accompanied by a dazzling light show, and critical hits leave a trail behind Knight's sword. And even nicer is that none of the dazzle is lost in the quick battles so you needn't worry about missing out if you're in a hurry.
I do wish they'd made more use of transparencies in the overhead exploration though. I only recall one time when it was used to wonderful effect on the sails of a boat. You could see through the sails so your view wasn't hindered. It was an instantly noticeable effect, but it was only used in the one place you didn't need it. Because of the severe camera angle, it was more than a bit tedious exploring the bigger towns as building would block your view. You'd find yourself constantly spinning the camera to see if you missed something. It took me longer than it should to get through some towns simply because I wasn't sure I'd been in every building. Having the foreground transparent would have solved this problem.
There are a number of FMV sequences that are of decent quality and nicely directed. The animation is top notch and they feature a number of nice effects and some of the coolest water and lightning effects I've seen. They retain the cartoon style of the game and fit in nicely. One in particular later in the game is truly stunning and quite long. The only problem with the FMV is that it suffers from quite a bit of graininess, first generation level graininess. It's worse in some than it is in others and is noticeably distracting.
The music in GC is average at best. While the compositions do have their moments as in Denvrado or God's Tower, the sound quality is flat. I'm really not fanatical about Redbook audio quality and I enjoy midi as much as the next guy if it is done well. The midi music in GC has very poor quality and little variety in tone, leaving the whole soundtrack very similar and flat. The compositions are still very good with some very enjoyable pieces, but they are really hurt by the sound quality itself. I do have to give kudos to the composer for my favorite battle music since Suikoden though. The battle music is up-tempo but subdued so that it doesn't get annoying all the way through the game. It is always there accompanying you, but it never seems to intrude the way some of the more bombastic battle themes do. More composers should take the hint that battle music is less about power and more about tolerance as it is the one piece that will be heard maybe 1,000 times before the game is over. Save the over the top stuff for the occasional boss battle.
"Raising a baby on a Knight's budget isn't easy."
Guardian's Crusade at its core is your basic menu based RPG with all the usual tricks of the trade going back to Dragon Warrior 1. But it also has a few new tricks up its sleeve as well as a crossing over into probably the most popular genre in Japan right now, monster breeding.
Knight is your basic hero with his trusty sword. His main attack is a standard sword slice that will occasionally do a critical hit based on his luck ranking. His weapons and armor can be upgraded at shops along the way and he can buy the usual health and status fixing items. There's nothing here that will really throw you a loop as far as Knight is concerned until you discover the living toys. The game is analog control compatible but it only has two speed settings like most Playstation analog games. Developers have to worry about alienating those without analog controllers so we get very limited analog control. It is still nice using the analog stick though, as it is less strain on the thumb and you don't have to hold a run button all the time.
Knight has no magical powers so in order for the game to fit into the more traditional RPG roles an alternative was created. The living toys are found all over the world as you explore towns and dungeons. Each toy takes the place of a traditional magic spell. Some heal, some attack, some cause or cure status changes. You'll recognize most of them but the toys are so unique in their actions and execution of the spells that it all seems fresh.
Now before I begin the monster breeding section let me begin by venting my feelings on this genre and those similar to it. It annoys me. If it were in my power, Pokemon would die a horribly ugly death. I don't get it and I find the whole phenomenon annoying and nauseatingly kawaii. I am a card-carrying member of the Anti-Kawaii Brigade and proud of it. So I was probably (probably…heh, more like definitely) a bit slanted in my views before playing GC and wasn't even going to play it just for those reasons. I'm sure I'll get some angry e-mail for these statements, but if you want to write me to tell me that my opinion is wrong don't bother. You'll just make me more adamant in my dislike of all things kawaii.
When you first have baby in your party, it will basically just be able to attack, defend, help (heal Knight with items) or run. Baby also becomes your storeroom as the little pink thing can carry up to 100 of every single item in the game. Pretty deep pockets for such a tiny pink blob. As you fight more monsters, baby will learn how to morph into those monsters and a transform option will appear on the menu. Baby will take on the appearance and gain all the attacks and strength of what it transforms into. Be aware that if you don't treat baby properly, the transform command will disappear and baby will only transform when it feels like it. Baby also has a fetch command that can be accessed outside of battle. Use it and baby will run off and steal something in the immediate vicinity. This can make shopping much cheaper, but baby will get upset if you don't rest in-between bouts of fetching or if you don't respond properly when it returns with an item.
The breeding aspects are rather obscure and not easy to manipulate at all. The most obvious thing is feeding baby. It will eat almost anything and it will be happy if it likes what it is fed. I usually fed it candy bars (very cheap) and it was always happy with them and its statistics shot up fairly high. Yours would too if you were hopped up on sugar 24 hours a day. Talking to baby in battle also seems to help and will keep that transform command open. Just remember to talk to it every time you can in battle, even if it's only to give the same command. Also keep baby healed and don't let it take a lot of damage. The "shield" living toy will come in handy for this. Baby will have three free rounds with no damage, and since baby doesn't wear armor, it will take more damage from enemies than Knight does even if its stats are higher.
If I were you, I'd find a good FAQ on the breeding aspects of the game as I'm still not completely sure of everything to do. I found baby to be more of a hindrance in battle than help as I'd have to waste living toys healing it rather than attacking. It was especially frustrating when I couldn't transform it manually for quite awhile. I'm not going to use my personal experience as the sole basis for rating this part of the game as I probably missed quite a few things in the breeding aspects and I wasn't really all that inspired to experiment. Fans of the genre will probably enjoy that part of it a lot more than I did.
The game is not all that difficult to get through. I had more trouble with some of the secondary battles than with just about any of the boss battles. The living toys can be easily abused, especially if you find a lot of them. They can take damage and be removed from battle, but another can always be called upon and they will all be available again the next time around. I would have liked it if they actually sustained permanent damage or gained levels with use. It's a magic system with a lot of potential that only needs a bit of tweaking. Money never seems to be a problem in the game, as the enemies in the game seem to carry a ton of rubies on them. If monsters in RPG's ever got together they could probably take over the world financially rather than physically.
Exploration is very linear to a point. You're pretty much on a straight-line path until the halfway point and then you're left in the middle of nowhere with no clue where to go and a huge map to cover. And while you're left to explore, it is still a linear path to move on to through the game. You just have to find the right place to go to first. Not a bad idea but it occurs a bit suddenly. They do it again later in the game but this time it makes sense and you have a bit more freedom to choose where to go next.
The breeding aspects as well as the large number of living toys give the game an excellent amount of replay value. I'm certain there are numerous ways to raise baby, and you could probably starve it to death and let it die every battle if you want to make the game a bit more challenging. Hmmm, maybe I will play it again after all.
Guardian's Crusade is a well above average RPG. It is extremely true to its roots while giving us some very fresh twists. A bit on the easy side but overall it is an enjoyable adventure. I had a fun time playing it despite it having two things in it that I really don't enjoy: the silent hero and monster breeding. The game does so many things well that these aspects hardly bothered me, and if you like breeding you should probably give this game serious consideration for purchase. RPG fans should commend Activision for taking a risk on this game and let's hope that they keep on taking those risks.