With its anime-inspired graphics and its kooky cast of quirky characters, Guardian Tales plays out like a dream. Right from the very beginning, it takes you on a whirlwind of nostalgia with its design elements reminiscent of Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete and Tales of Destiny, complete with grid pattern maps and that little sound effect that indicates dialogue through a speech bubble. Both games still enjoy comfortable spots in my “Favorite Games Of All Time” list, so the fact that Guardian Tales reminds me so much of these two is already a pro in my book.

A walk down memory lane

The story alone is already a plus for me, because while I’m still not sure what the heck is going on (I’m a new knight! I have to protect the kingdom! The princess was abducted! There’s an alien invasion!), it’s all very old-school and typical of JRPGs. It’s the classic role-playing game hero’s journey, starting out from humble beginnings and embarking on a quest to save the world.

What I love about the game is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is a refreshing change of pace from all the gloom and doom of most action games today. The cute little sprites and the hilarious characters are all very welcome - for instance, a character that looks very much like Red Riding Hood has her own backstory, which I really take the time to read in every game. Here’s her character description:

“Elvira is a rising star in the notorious crime syndicate, Reservoir Snakes.

Reservoir Snakes was founded by Elvira’s grandma, who survived a traumatic wolf attack with her granddaughter. Traumatized by the incident, the grandma recruited private contractors armed with illegal weapons to protect her family. In such process, the grandma discovered her talent as a mafia boss and quickly evolved the small army into the biggest crime syndicate in Kanterbury. Elvira, longing for grandma’s affection, became the member of the syndicate and hunts down anyone that came in its way.

The syndicate is ruthless to failures. Any member who fails is disavowed and no one knows what happens to them. Naturally, Elvira’s always a bit on the edge. Her basket is no longer filled with delicious foods for her grandma. Instead, deadly explosives and firearms fill the void.”

Whether or not there are more of these adorable little wink-winks throughout the game still remains to be seen, but the fact that the world is named “Kanterbury” could maybe allude to “The Canterbury Tales”, so it’s possible there are more treats like Red Hood Elvira’s story to discover.

A game within a game

Speaking of pleasant surprises, here’s where it gets even more interesting: as soon as you clear World 1, the main menu completely changes. It was such a delight for me to discover that all of a sudden, I could build my own little town! It’s essentially a game within a game, where I can build a bakery, a cafe, and other entertainment hubs to keep my partymates happy in Heavenhold. Every so often, the characters (and the structures) generate pink hearts that you can collect to expand your town even further. You can spend forever trying to optimize the economy in the main menu alone, and it’s not even the main game.

 

These little treats will actually make you spend a huge chunk of your time inside the menus themselves. For instance, there’s this Facebook rip-off app called FaceBreak, and as you go along throughout the kingdom, you befriend certain characters who will follow you on your social media account. Every once in a while, they post random status updates that you can browse through for a laugh.

You also get tons of event items and bonuses that will really hype you up for the adventures on the World Map. Sure, you’re the typical Chosen One and you have to gather all the 12 Champions and fulfill the prophecy and stuff, but a little side quest here and there can’t hurt, can it?

Getting sidetracked

Of course, that whole thing works as a double-edged sword - it can be pretty hard to stay on track because of all the things you need to figure out in the menu. There’s not much hand-holding when it comes to the mechanics of the game, and there are just too many currencies to figure out (Purple thingies? Random gems? Star pieces? Evolution stones? What is happening?). It’s not just the gold that you need to worry about - you also need to account for the gems that you use to summon heroes and weapons, as well as various little multi-colored thingies that you need to save up for or earn.

With all that jazz, it’s definitely a slow and steady pace to get to the point where you can actually get the hang of the game. It took me two hours of playing through the story before I was able to start summoning heroes, as well as unlock the Rift and the Tower. It took me another two hours to clear World 1, where the actual game finally started opening up to me. Clearing World 1 also opened up a third character slot in my party. It’s definitely a game where you need to spend dedicated time and effort to play (and yes, your mobile phone WILL heat up).

Even after I’ve clocked in a total of 6 hours playing this game, I still haven’t figured out the Hero Evolutions completely. Every character also has an Awakening tree, where you can spend stones to level up certain skills and stats.

Still, even though the currencies are a tad too complicated, they’re kind of easy to obtain, as you get rewards for different achievements like completing certain objectives, summoning once, upgrading equipment ten times, and so on. I didn’t really feel like I needed to spend actual money to get ahead. Micro-transactions are limited to summoning more heroes, recharging tickets for rifts, and speeding up the construction time for the buildings in the floating castle. There’s a daily login bonus too, plus an ongoing event that gives you event coins (again, another currency).

The biggest issue I had was a problem with the connection - I couldn’t connect to three different WiFi networks even though the signal strength was at max. The game would go through the initial loading screen, then shut down on its own because it keeps telling me my connection is unstable. I had to connect to my mobile data to play, which is a bit odd considering my mobile data is less stable than my WiFi network at home.

Gacha gaming

Since Guardian Tales is a gacha game, I particularly enjoyed the summoning sequence for both weapons and heroes. When you summon a hero, they’re delivered by a drone from “Kamazon” and you have to sign for the package. Then, you open up your box and check out what you got - it’s a fun and interactive way of showing something as mundane as a character roll. The heroes are packaged in figure boxes similar to the toy vending machines you can play in Japan, so it definitely can’t get any more “gacha” than this.

There are 58 heroes to collect, and the probability of obtaining “rare” heroes is acceptable. So far, I’ve had 30 summons already, and got a bunch of rare characters that I really enjoy playing as. It’s exciting how you can chain special attacks too depending on which characters you’re using, so having the right combo for your party is a conscious decision based on their skills and not just on the character’s coolness factor.

Even if you're not into the battle system itself, you’ll still find more than enough challenges navigating through each stage alone. The levels or areas aren’t repetitive - you need to lift heavy boulders and connect certain obstacles that are in the way. Some areas you can only access once you acquire special items and skills, and there are hidden areas in the map that aren’t immediately noticeable at first glance.

You can also engage in a little PvP, or even join a guild to up the ante on the social aspect of the game. There’s also a Rift where the goal is to smash illegally parked cars. In the middle of the task, NPCs pop up and lament their tortured fate, claiming they were only parked for a short period of time and didn’t deserve to get their car wrecked. It’s absolutely hilarious! It’s highly engaging, and just really, really cute.

Overall, Guardian Tales warrants your full attention, and is not something casual that you can just play whenever you need to take a quick break. It probably would have been better if the complicated currencies were released via episodes so that players are introduced to the various systems gradually, like what Ragnarok M: Eternal Love did with their patches. But because everything is so complicated and well thought out, I can’t believe Guardian Tales is a free-to-play game, what with all the effort that was obviously put into every single detail.