I love it when a game hones in on one idea it can execute really, really well. Sure, big AAA open-world games are amazing, but there’s also something nice about a smaller release that can fit in between giant action-packed adventures. Guards is a recent release with a simple but charming art style that builds a rogue-like campaign around one simple mechanic.
One Choice Every Turn
The single action you can execute every turn is the most important thing to understand about Guards. You will always have four characters in the same formation at all times. One of your heroes will always be in the middle of the furthest left column with the other three making a wall in front of them in the next column. On your turn, the only action you can ever take is to swap two of your characters around. Once swapped, all of your characters will execute their attacks, and then all of the enemies will move forward or attack your front line.
The hook here is that whenever you move a hero from the back row to the front, they’ll pull off a special ability. What they do depends on which of the 8 unlockable classes you’ve chosen to bring with you on your run. Depending on their class they might throw a bomb at a random enemy, heal your whole team, or pull off a powerful strike that stuns a whole line of enemies.
The gameplay is simple, but planning out which enemies you need to focus on and how to get your special attacks to hit where you need is really engaging. I’m still not sure whether I’d call this core gameplay loop a tactics game or a puzzle game, but whatever it is it’s really fun.
Guards is a game that revels in minimalism in every aspect. The first and most obvious highlight of this mentality is the art style. The low-poly look to the characters and environments is eye-catching, but in a way that prioritizes readability over flash. When everything is laid out on the game’s simple board in a simple arena, everything is nice and clear. It almost looks like you’ve set up a bunch of paper-craft toys to square off more than a video game.
The menus follow the in-game art style to a T, with a simple and readable interface. The game uses big, chunky visuals that almost look like they were designed for mobile phones more than TVs. The simple design did cause a problem for me once, when I misread which button to press to buy mid-run upgrades. I ended up using completely stock characters until I was about four battles into the campaign.
The story, if you can call it that, is also extremely minimalist. In fact, it’s basically non-existent. Your characters are all humans battling monsters across a map and… that’s about it. There’s some text here and there that suggests something about a portal bringing evil to the world. It’s there, but if you are looking for a story-based game, this ain’t it.
Quests, Characters, and other Progression
Each run through Guards nets you a few resources to use towards upgrades to make your next run easier. On this meta side of things, you can buy and upgrade characters, fill out a skill tree, and buy items. There’s also a quest log, which gives you resources for things like beating levels or upgrading your characters. It basically rewards you for a whole bunch of stuff you’d normally do anyway. The quest log serves as a guide for what you should be doing to progress further in the game, but mostly I just opened it up and checked off completed quests between runs.
You start the game with three characters available, and just enough resources to buy your fourth. From there, you can choose to unlock any of the four other characters at any time, or focus your resources on upgrading the skills and health of the characters you already have. Pretty quickly I went for leveling over unlocking, because I realized there’s no real benefit to bringing an under leveled character in to the game. All the leveling up happens by spending resources between runs, so I just beefed up four, and then didn’t swap them until I had gotten a fifth character maxed out.
The skill tree is simple, but it’s nice to have some options on how your overall game can feel. The same is true for the items you can bring into battle. These are mostly things that will give you an extra life, more health, or extra damage.
The meta stuff is all fine, but none of it is terribly exciting.
When I first tried out Guards I enjoyed the idea behind the mechanic but didn’t think it was something I’d get drawn into. Then I tried it again. And again. I kept picking it up whenever I had a few minutes to invest into a run. It’s a great game to play for 20 minutes or so, even if it never feels terribly deep. If you do pick it up, make sure you are finishing your runs each time you play, because it doesn’t save partway through.
This is really a fairly simple game, but one that is confident in its simplicity. You’ll get the gist of what’s going on with only a few minutes of play. If it hooks you, you’ll keep coming back just to play with that simple idea. If the simple mechanic doesn’t hook you, you’ll probably step away after one run and never touch it again.
Even when you beat a run and unlike higher difficulty levels, things feel more or less the same. The enemies get stronger or faster or gain new abilities, but the game is still all about making one simple choice over and over again.