Guards doesn’t make a strong first impression. While it’s a lane-based strategy game in the vein of Plants vs. Zombies, it absolutely does not share its charm. Your guards are faceless mannequins hewn out of wood with yawnsome names like Knight, Peasant and Archer. Your enemies are generic wolves, goblins and bats, all dull browns and greys. It’s a fantasy world made out of Tolkien’s boring offcuts. Plus it has that ‘will this do?’ title.
It doesn’t get much better when you start playing. Guards has stripped the lane-based strategy game to its bones, and then stripped a little further. You have three lanes, but four heroes. That means that only three can be in play at one time, so you’re choosing which one to keep in reserve, and they heal while they’re not in the action. For those units that are in play, you’ll be ensuring that the right guard is facing off against the right creature. If enemies are a way off, you are probably best using ranged characters like the Archer or Healer; if they are close, you will be using a Witcher (lawsuit incoming) or a Peasant.
It doesn’t leave many options. You’re not going to send out a melee fighter against a ranged unit, so the decisions are largely made for you. We found ourselves sighing, then plonking the obvious unit against the obvious opponent, and letting the automated attacks do their thing.
To be fair, there’s a little spark of genius in how you have one guard that’s forced to be in reserve. When you swap it into battle, it triggers a special attack. Each unit has a different one: the Healer heals your characters, while the Archer sends up a volley of arrows that falls on every enemy. These special attacks are almost always more powerful than your average attack, so you will likely want to be activating them every turn, but the healing mechanic complicates things. Do you bring a powerful unit into the fray and activate its special attack, even though it’s on low health and could be healing at the rear instead? It’s often not an easy choice.
The problem with Guards’ opening moments is that you only have the naff, unexciting characters with naff and unexciting special attacks. There’s no strategy in an arrow that hits everyone, or a healing effect that heals everyone. These aren’t attacks that make you think about where to place them: you’re dropping the character wherever you like, and benefiting from their global superpowers.
You’re also hitting a brick wall with the progression. Guards is a series of ten levels that get increasingly difficult, with more, different and better troops added with each. But on those first few runs, you will be lucky to reach level five of ten, as the enemies cream you, offering no real chance of victory. It feels like the balancing is skewed deliberately to make you fail.
If it all sounds negative, it is. Guards is not a game that will endear itself to you early. But, oddly, it’s a grower, and we soon appreciated its charms. It’s just a wonder that it takes so long to reveal them.
After every run, you’re getting gem-like things, and those gems buy you stuff. There are character unlocks, character upgrades and items. You’re also getting skill points that give you team perks, like additional healing power when you’re at the rear of the map, and the ability to earn more gold from battle.
Upgrading characters means you have a greater chance of progressing further and, by doing so, the levels begin to feel more satisfying, rather than an unbalanced kick to the nethers. Buying characters means the doors open to more interesting attacks, like the Valkyrie and her chakram, which zigzags from enemy to enemy, as long as they are up, down or right of the one it hits. Chaining chakram attacks to take out a whole screen is immensely satisfying. And the items and perks make load-out management a ‘thing’, as you’re wondering whether to build a team that’s buffed to the gills, or one that can generate more gold, and therefore buy more upgrades per level.
As a game, Guards begins to open up, and actually becomes something you would choose to play. And while it might seem initially limited – it only has ten levels, each a few minutes long, which isn’t a chunk of content – Guards is generous with how it escalates. If you reach the final level, defeat the boss and destroy the portal, you will unlock an increased difficulty which will, in turn, unlock new upgrades for your characters, more skill points to spend, and will have significant effects on the creatures you face. New beasts will appear, like wild hellboars, while the existing ones get increased health and new attacks. Progressing to a new difficulty is very close to being the equivalent of a whole new set of levels.
But the helter-skelter doesn’t stop there; if we were to plot an enjoyment graph for Guards, it would be extremely shallow at the start, with a gradual ramp up, before – alas – dropping back down again. That drop is because Guards just can’t keep the momentum going.
To progress in Guards, you need gems, and to gain gems you need to play levels. But unlocks at the latter reaches of the game are expensive, so you’re going to be playing a couple of runs to get them. Except, a run in Guards is still fifteen minutes or so long, which is not an insignificant period of time. The satisfaction of completing a run, as a result, goes down, and the feelings of grind start to creep in. Guards doesn’t have enough variation or interest in its core gameplay to sustain that grind, and we found ourselves switching off and chasing achievements without really thinking about strategy as a result. You end with the same boredom that you started with. Rollercoaster.
So, how do you score a game that starts and ends with boredom, but has an hour or two in the middle with some real enjoyment? That sweet, gooey centre is certainly made more appealing by the price, which is a very generous £4.19. Approach Guards knowing that it needs some persistence, but rewards you – at least momentarily – and you might consider it a steal.
As turn-based battlers go, Guards is minimalist to a fault. You will wonder how it can possibly hold your attention for more than a few minutes. But let its few strong ideas sing, and persist past the stingy first few runs, and you’ll start to feel rewarded. Enjoyment might even creep in. Just pull the eject cord before the grind hits.
You can buy Guards from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S