Square Enix jumps aboard the card-battling bandwagon with Guardian Cross

Guardian Cross is a new iOS game from veteran Japanese developers Square Enix. It’s a free-to-play card battling role-playing game, a genre which has traditionally seen a great deal of success on mobile devices despite often-poor production values and a distinct lack of traditional “gameplay.” Is Square Enix’s title the one to break the mold?

The answer isn’t a simple one. Guardian Cross certainly has a significantly higher degree of polish than its rivals such as Rage of Bahamut and also features much more interactivity, but it still suffers a number of noticeable flaws that are seemingly endemic to the card-battling genre.

In Guardian Cross, players take on the role of a pair of new Guardian masters in service to the land’s emperor. Through capturing Guardian cards and using them in combat to complete missions and battle other players, one gains in power and becomes capable of taking on more and more difficult challenges. As usual for the genre, it’s possible to fuse cards together to increase their strength, meaning there’s a strong degree of customization possible through collecting and powering up the various Guardians available in the game.

The biggest twist on the usual card battle formula is how cards are acquired in the first place. Rather than the mindless tapping of the “OK” button seen in titles such as Rage of Bahamut, in Guardian Cross players must actively hunt their prey in a special “Hunting Grounds” area. By expending tickets or hard currency to try a “normal” or “special” course respectively, players are given 60 seconds in which to spot as many Guardians as possible and take them down using a sniper rifle. This adds a very welcome degree of skill to the game, particularly when combined with game mechanics such as “Break,” where Guardians occasionally glow red and may be captured with a single shot if the player has fast enough reactions.

Where the gameplay falls down a little is in the actual card battles themselves. Like in most other games of this type, they are completely hands-off affairs — the player’s prearranged “deck” of cards is compared to the enemy’s and a victor is determined. However, in a slight change to the usual formula, rather than a winner immediately being declared without any feedback as to how each card performed, the whole battle is shown with extensive on-screen feedback. This allows the player to see which cards are performing particularly well and adjust the order and makeup of their deck accordingly. While the hands-off nature of the battles is disappointing, these additions alone make it better than its rival titles.

The game has a very high degree of audio-visual polish. Graphics look wonderful and animate smoothly on a Retina display device and there is plenty of music and sound effects to keep things interesting. The interface is occasionally sluggish when pulling data from the Internet, however — a spinning “loading” icon puts in a regular appearance, but not as frequently as in Rage of Bahamut, in which it appears after tapping on every interface element.

The whole aesthetic is somewhat reminiscent of Square Enix’s recent Final Fantasy console games — specifically Final Fantasy XIII — and, coincidentally, the game is currently running a special branded promotion where players may earn rare Final Fantasy-themed cards for inviting friends to play.

The game is monetized in several ways. The story-based “missions” require the use of “Battle Points” (an energy system by another name) which either replenish over time or with the expenditure of hard currency. Said hard currency may also be used to purchase access to the “special” hunting course, which gives a significantly higher chance of acquiring rare Guardian cards. While there is plenty of opportunity for the game to get players to pay, it does not feel quite as “forceful” as in some other titles — there is a much stronger emphasis on progression through the game through play rather than pay. This makes the game feel much more friendly and “game-like” to the player rather than a thinly-veiled attempt to part them from their cash. Ironically, this will likely help encourage hesitant players to open their wallets a little more, because they will feel more like it is their choice rather than something that is expected of them.