Sometimes it seems as if every traditional RPG religiously follows an unpublished plot rubric. Hundreds of years ago, the first RPG designer inscribed a list of holy commandments never to be broken; even today, its yellowed pages - deep in the bowels of a secluded Japanese monastery - delineate what can and cannot be told. "All heroes must be idealistic youths seeking adventure," begins the text. "Any additional heroes or heroines must be his idealistic friends." The text is very clear on another point: "Under no conditions will the final opponent be anything less than a complete threat to the whole of creation, nor the people permitted any hope beyond our idealistic youths. The fate of the universe must always rest solely upon their shoulders." Fortunately, Tamsoft ignored this text when designing the refreshingly quirky Knight and Baby. Translated by Activision to Guardian's Crusade, the game proves that an RPG doesn't have to be epic to be enjoyable.
At first, Guardian's Crusade is likely to underwhelm. The game is graphically simple, filled with uncluttered backgrounds and brightly colored characters. The battle graphics combine untextured models with ordinary spell effects and unassuming backgrounds. If the world of Guardian's Crusade isn't black and white, it's at least decidedly Technicolor. But a few hours of playing reveal a method to the graphical madness: The simple graphics are for effect, not want of programming talent. Tamsoft has designed the world to be a vibrant abstraction of reality. The game continues to perplex with its soundtrack; instead of symphonic suites, funky J-pop accompanies the action. Few songs linger once the power is off, but their groove carries the action nicely.
After a few hours, the game starts to work its magic. The story of a knight-errant and his quest to return a baby monster to its rightful home is delightfully simple. Evil forces are always at bay, of course, but they never overpower the game's goodhearted nature. The excellent translation deserves special attention. Consistently warm and natural-sounding dialogue and spot-on characterization turn this otherwise ordinary game into a joy, and Activision should be praised for giving it a worthy localization. The ridiculously lanky Knight, love-struck fairy Nehani, and bulbous hippo-dragon Baby all wander their way into your heart. They may be stereotypes, but they're such endearing stereotypes.
The gameplay, like the story, is hardly innovative, but a few twists keep things interesting. The character of Baby is a virtual pet, battle companion, and slapstick sidekick rolled into one. While Knight is unable to control Baby directly, he can still feed him, send him to fetch items, praise and scold him when necessary, and instruct him in battle. Our rotund friend, however, has a mind of his own and doesn't always follow Knight's instructions. The virtual-pet features aren't so complex that they detract from the rest of the game, and Baby truly appears blessed with the stunning intellect of a two-year-old child. The producer of Guardian's Crusade has aptly described the game as a buddy picture, and the feeling of camaraderie is apparent. The game's magic arrives in the form of "Living Toys," a collection of 70 (or is that 71?) companions, each with its own effect. Unlike ordinary spells, these toys perform their tasks with personality (The squat, wind-up cheerleader who peps up your party is my personal favorite). Collecting them all gives completists an admirable goal.
Enemies appear on the field map before they engage Knight in battle; deft maneuvering avoids many an encounter. As Knight increases in power, once-aggressive enemies shrink in size and turn to run when they see him walking (and Baby bouncing) in their direction. Watching once-feared foes cower in your wake is extremely rewarding. Unfortunately, experienced RPG fans will probably find the game too short: It can be completed in fewer than twenty hours, and there's little incentive to replay.
If you fire up Guardian's Crusade expecting an epic confrontation between the forces of good and evil, you're destined to come away disappointed. Approach the game without preconceptions, and you're likely to be pleasantly surprised. Charming, sweet, and unpretentious, Guardian's Crusade never pretends to be anything besides an enjoyable RPG. For gamers burnt out on MTV-advertised hype-fests and derivative super-deformed tales, that could be more than enough.