Perhaps you've heard of the Pocky & Rocky titles. Heavenly Guardian has been billed as the "spiritual successor" to those games, the first of which appeared in the United States on the SNES in 1993. In Heavenly Guardian, as in its inspirations, you roam about 2D environments shooting at stuff. If you're yearning for a blast from the past, however, you should dust off the old systems and relive the magic of that era's best games for real, rather than plod through this sad, charmless shadow of past generations.
In Heavenly Guardian, you take control of a low-resolution sprite named Sayuki, who must gather the ingredients of a powerful potion to save her forbidden lover from death. This is your excuse to plod through a series of stages in which you blast icicles at weird enemies like leaping redheaded trolls and demonic, trident-wielding cats. You can upgrade your attack by collecting power-ups, which gives you access to four different types of projectiles: your fallback rapid shot, three-way icicles, homing icicles, and bombs. To help you out on your journey, Toto, your pet floating bunny, will spew snowballs at your foes, which freezes them in place. You can also use Toto to activate the wild dance attack, which freezes and damages all nearby enemies. In addition, if you press the right stick in any direction, you can cause a gale force blizzard to blast through, which puts any foes in its path on ice.
And that's it. Heavenly Guardian is simple at its core, which makes it instantly appealing to fans of its 16-bit ancestors. Yet aside from the nostalgia it may evoke, there's nothing noteworthy about it, even when held strictly to the standards Pocky & Rocky set 15 years ago. It certainly doesn't look as good. Many games from that era look remarkably crisp and fresh even today, thanks to colorful art and oddball environments. Heavenly Guardian looks musty by comparison. Environments such as evil castles and wastelands of lava are devoid of imagination, and most graphical assets look like discarded remnants of a game idea abandoned almost two decades ago. The old-fashioned MIDI soundtrack follows suit, and while it doesn't grate, it has no distinct personality of its own. The SNES was capable of producing better than this, so there's no reason we should accept such nondescript artistry in a PlayStation 2 game, and certainly not in one that wouldn't tax decade-old hardware.
The gameplay feels just as decrepit. It can be difficult from time to time, but this is often due to cheap design elements rather than any true challenge. For example, some objects have huge hitboxes surrounding them, so your shots may stop short of their target because an invisible wall holds them back. You will encounter level bottlenecks that make it tough to avoid damage from oncoming projectiles, and you'll face enemies like the first-stage slugs that appear and pounce so quickly you can't avoid their attacks. Even worse, you have to collect hidden snowmen throughout the levels to unlock basic gameplay features, such as the ability to play any cleared stage at will or a mode that lets you revisit boss fights. Being dumped back to the beginning of the game when you run out of lives is easier to stomach when the core gameplay is entertaining; in Heavenly Guardian, it's just a headache with no compensating benefit.
There's a local co-op mode, but when a second player joins the fray, Toto gets tossed aside. This makes Heavenly Guardian one of those rare examples in which having a buddy to play the game with makes the experience more boring than when you are on your own. The rodent's snowballs and special attack are a few of the game's hooks; without Toto's abilities (and the cute way he's always rotating around your own avatar), the game loses the tiny bit of personality it had and becomes even more generic.
Don't be fooled by the promise of fun throwback gameplay. Heavenly Guardian may look to the past, but it is too bland and frustrating to evoke fond memories of "the good old days."