South Korean developer NATE Games quietly released Guardian Soul to the App Store recently. Given the fanfare that surrounded the release of GameVil’s Zenonia, I am surprised Guardian Soul has received so little attention. The titles are very similar, though different enough that each should be able to stand on its own. But because comparisons between the games are, I think, inevitable, much of this review will be spent comparing the two.
Zenonia veterans should feel instantly at home with Guardian Soul, and the game interface is nearly identical. So much so, I would bet the games were built using the same engine. The interface consists of a semi-transparent d-pad and one main action button. Other buttons for utilizing abilities, items and transformations, and for accessing the inventory and menus are scattered around the fringes of the screen. In game, menus are navigated using the d-pad and action button, just as in Zenonia; the inventory and menu screens are not touch responsive, as one might expect from an iPhone game. Only the game’s main menu utilizes touch control.
Guardian Soul’s story is basically what we have come to expect from an action RPG. The evil King Largo seeks an ancient artifact called ‘Agnesia’ and is ransacking the kingdom searching for it. Your heroine, Leica, appears in the midst of this chaos and resolves to set things right. Leica is a Guardian Master, a special type of warrior capable of adopting guardian forms in combat. In her human form, Leica is incapable of attack, and therefore relies entirely upon her transformations to do battle. Throughout the game, Leica will take on the forms and abilities of her enemies in order to combat them. Two transformations can be equipped at a time, and each has an elemental affinity — fire, ice or wind. In Fire areas, a Fire guardian form will be necessary to advance, as other forms will be nearly incapable of damaging opponents. When entering an area, the game always tells you the location’s affinity, so there is never any guesswork in choosing forms.
Each form has a standard attack, plus two magical abilities. Typically, one ability acts as a ranged attack and the other as an area attack. Early in the game, Leica has enough MP usually to launch 2-3 magic attacks from a full MP gauge; spent MP recovers over time. Choosing which elemental affinity to use and when to dole out magical attacks is the crux of Guardian Soul’s combat.
Leica’s overall strength is based on three components: Level, Class and Guardian. Leica levels up by earning experience points in combat; for each level, her HP and MP increase, and she receives a number of points that can be assigned to improve HP, defense or attack. Level is also used to determine which armors Leica can equip.
Class increases through the completion of quests, and determines which alchemical processes and arena battles are available to Leica. Quests are obtained in towns from the Quest Provider, and task you to slay a quota of a particular monster. When all quests for a particular Class level are completed, Leica graduates to the next Class.
In addition to an elemental affinity, Guardians have attack and defense ratings of their own. Naturally, Leica will be more effective when using more powerful forms within the same elemental affinity. She acquires Guardians by visiting the towns’ alchemists. During combat, monsters will drop alchemical components that Leica uses for this purpose. Depending on Leica’s Class, she can access more complications alchemical processes, resulting in more powerful transformations. Alchemical results are random, however, and sometimes fail altogether. Alchemy is never a sure thing. Each process has a completion percentage that increases whenever the process creates something new, so you will always know when you’ve gained all you stand to gain from a process. Alchemy may produce guardians, armors and items.
Between the quests, gathering alchemical components and earning experience points, there’s always some incentive to fight. Thus, the game does a fairly good job of covering up your grinding, so that it never actually feels like you’re grinding. In addition to battling as you explore, you can also access the Arena in towns. The Arena battles available are dependent upon Leica’s Class and it costs money to fight. But the battles are often more interesting and profitable than fighting in the wilderness. Arena battles pit you against monsters of different elemental affinities, requiring that you strategically isolate your opponents to deal with them in the appropriate form. Getting cornered by two opponents of differing affinity can go badly for you. In the Arena, monsters drop alchemical components more frequently and you also gain experience points toward your Level, making Arena battles very worthwhile if you have the money to spend.
Combat in Guardian Soul suffers somewhat from control issues (see below), but otherwise works pretty well. There is not much action to be had in fights. Your paths don’t leave a great deal of room to move, and enemies are packed densely into the space. Fleeing an enemy, or trying to reposition for an attack will often get you noticed by other nearby monsters. Then you have even more baddies pounding on you at once. It’s just as well; the controls discourage movement during combat anyway. Encounters often boil down to standing toe-to-toe against your opponent(s) smashing the attack button until either you or it falls down dead. Often, enemies will crowd your path so completely that you will have no choice but to cut your way through; this can spell disaster when your HP has already been worn down, and you’re struggling your way back to town for healing. While you could often navigate around enemies in Zenonia when necessary, in Guardian Soul there is often no way to elude combat or avoid taking damage. Mostly, you just have to pray you can absorb the hits. It pays to isolate enemies when possible, picking them off one-by-one. Choosing an appropriate guardian form improves your chances, and wielding magic against swarms is essential when overwhelmed. In general, combat is less about maneuverability and reflex than in Zenonia; it is more about planning and caution, ensuring that you don’t get in over your head. And when you’ve made kills, you need to press forward to maintain the advantage; enemies respawn quickly.
Graphics: Guardian Soul is developed by South Koreans and it shows. In appearance, game resembles many other Korean-made RPGs, such as Ragnarok and Maple Story. I count that a good thing, btw. The pixel-based artwork is reminiscent of 16-bit era classics, and is equal parts beautiful, adorable and charming. Guardian Soul is no graphical slouch, and I think the overall art direction here is superior to Zenonia.
RPG Systems: The game’s systems — guardian transformations, quests, alchemy, levels, etc. as described above — tie together nicely and succinctly, supporting and promoting the gameplay. None of the systems seem frivolous or tacked on; they’re all relevant to the adventure, separate threads meeting at a single nexus without fraying or loose ends. Few RPGs are so tidy in their endeavors.
Direction: Some gamers may view this as hand-holding, but Guardian Soul does an excellent job pushing the player in the right direction. It’s never unclear where to go next, which I think is very important for games on a mobile device, as they often get set aside for periods of time. It’s not always easy to come back to an RPG, having not played for a while, without being disoriented and having forgotten your next set of goals, or where to find them. Guardian Soul keeps a Scenario summary in your inventory screens to remind you of the tasks at hand. And when townsfolk give you new story-related goals, Leica will often run to the appropriate village exit, indicating in which direction your next task lies. I wish Zenonia were as kind; I stepped away from it for a while, came back and I’ve been lost for months.
The Map: Guardian Soul does a fantastic job with the map. The mini-map shows you the layout of the location you are presently exploring. Tapping the mini-map brings up a larger grid map of the surrounding area, showing the locations of towns, Leica’s position, and denoting explored and unexplored areas of the wilderness.
Controls: Guardian Soul adopts many of the same control perks and problems seen in Zenonia’s 1.0 release. Leica automatically navigates around obstacles in her path, and targets nearby enemies when attacking. These are both welcome features first seen in Zenonia, and do much to improve the game’s playability. Unfortunately, the d-pad feels stiff and unresponsive, and the buttons don’t always trigger when pressed. I often needed to mash the spell buttons two or three times to launch spells, and the Leica doesn’t always move when I tell her to. Just as Zenonia made vast control improvements in its 1.1 update, I am hoping that Guardian Soul will do the same.
Music: Zenonia has very repetitive music, so much so that I prefer to play the game with the music turned off. Guardian Soul fairs somewhat better; the loops are longer and the melodies more complex. In fact, I like the music. The game contains a sound glitch, though, that causes the music to cut out whenever another sound effect is triggered. Attacking, picking up an item, accessing your menu and any other action causing sound will cause the music to abruptly stop, and then restart a moment later. This gets irritating very quickly. Acerbating the problem, music and sound effects are tied to a single volume control in the options menu, so it is impossible to keep sound effects while turning the music off; you either get both or neither. Again, something I very much hope to see fixed in an update.
Alchemical Failure: Higher level alchemical processes fail too frequently. Then, when they succeed, they often result in duplicate items. It’s at this point in the game that grinding begins to really feel like grinding, when you’re going out to gather alchemy materials, only to have your efforts constantly fizzle. Success at this point really becomes a matter of random chance and good luck, and forward progress is halted at points as you realize that higher level transformations are required to advance further in the story. Because of the high rate of alchemical failure, however, those transformations never seem to be forthcoming.
Short: The entirety of Guardian Soul occurs within the woods surrounding the Agnes Holy Place. While most action RPGs will take you through varying locales — lava caves, icy slopes, dank dungeons, etc. — Guardian Soul does not. You will play in the forest for the full length of the game. Overall the game is fairly short for an action RPG, though still packs in more gameplay than most iPhone offerings. I would even say that it runs longer than it should, as gameplay seems to be artificially lengthened by constant alchemical failures towards the end of the game, making it much harder to gain the powerful guardians necessary to complete your quest.
I don’t want to count it among my dislikes, but the translation deserves special mention. Overall, Guardian Soul’s translation is fairly good. As did Zenonia before it, though, it does read in Konglish at times. ‘Konglish’ is a form of Korean-influenced English that often results when native Korean speakers attempt to translate Korean into English. Up until about a year ago, I was living in South Korea, working as an English teacher. I spent five years there and loved it; I’m far from fluent in the Korean language, but I can read and write, and I understand Korean grammar. Konglish typically manifests itself in Korean grammatical rules being applied to English, and so some sentences will be missing articles (Korean has no articles) and you will sometimes encounter incorrect verb tenses. Also, some letters are interchangeable. For example, one Korean character phonetically falls somewhere between the English sounds for ‘L’ and ‘R’. And so the game consistently refers to the character as Leica; but the map represents her as ‘Reika’ and marks her position using an ‘R’ icon. Also, given that so much of the game hinges on elemental affinity, I’m fairly certain that many instances of the word ‘frame’ are supposed to be ‘flame’. The most grievous error I have found is that the game sometimes mixes up the directions East and West in dialogue, but this hasn’t really been a problem, being that the game will often show you, rather than tell, you which direction to head in next.
And that’s Guardian Soul in a rather lengthy nutshell. While it lacks the globetrotting of most RPGs, Guardian Soul offers up a healthy dose of adventure and a lot of good ideas, though not all of them realized to their full potential. I think the game will appeal to fans of Zenonia, looking for a new RPG to supplement their gaming diet. Where Zenonia relies mainly upon inventory management and character skill trees, Guardian Soul places lesser emphasis on items and inventory, instead hinging on guardian transformations, elemental affinity and alchemy. While gameplay remains similar between the two, the underlying systems are wildly different. I think Guardian Soul trumps Zenonia in presentation, but Zenonia beats Guardian Soul in polish. With a 1.1 update that fixes controls and sound, though, the issue of polish would be highly debatable. That leaves gameplay, and Zenonia has more of it; Guardian Soul is no slouch, though. While short for an RPG, a short RPG still packs in more than games in most other genres.
If you’re a fan of Zenonia, or just looking for a good action RPG, I think Guardian Soul warrants your attention.