A card is worth a thousand battles
Except for a few big ones that don't need to be named, card battle games usually appeal to a niche audience. Guardian Cross has a few good reasons to think bigger, though: It's from Square Enix, it has creative talent from several Final Fantasy games behind it, and it's free. It also sounds like it was named by randomly combining two words from some of the company's past games, but we'll let that slide.
Jokes aside, Guardian in this case is a catch-all term for any number of mystical and supernatural creatures that used to be abundant in the fantasy kingdom of the Northern Cross. As they tend to do, one particularly evil Guardian named Darkblood arose and pretty much snuffed them all out. Or so it was thought until humans discovered some still around 1,000 years later. Perhaps inspired by their universe's showings of Pokemon, people decided it might be fun to capture and catalog the Guardians while also training them for battle.
You take on the role of Bran (he's not just for breakfast!), a young man with flowing locks who is just taking his first steps toward becoming a Guardian master. The tutorial sets him off on his princess-ordered quest to figure out how to bring peace back to the land while schooling him on the basics of Guardian battles. And they are pretty basic, as your team of up to 10 creatures fights on its own, using basic attacks and special abilities as they see fit. There's some strategy in setting up a good mix of Guardians since there's a rock, paper, scissors element to their primary attributes (Water is good against Fire but weak against Lightning, etc.), but the card battles are the least interesting part of this card battle game. In other words, there's a reason there's a fast forward button on the battle screen.
The process of convincing the Guardians to fight for your team in the first place is a lot more fun. Instead of making you open packs of cards, Guardian Cross sends Bran out with a magic rifle to hunt down new recruits. Using your left hand to drag and aim the crosshairs and your right hand to fire, you get 60 seconds to take down as many monsters as you can. The Guardians you find are still random, with more powerful ones appearing less often according to a five-star rarity scale, but putting a skill-based twist on the acquisition process is a pleasant surprise.
This being a freemium game, there are a few finite resources that limit you from just going nuts battling and hunting, and they all work together. Every battle out in the world map against rogue Guardians or NPC trainers costs five energy, and just like in most social games, you'll see energy recharge slowly over time. Along with propelling the narrative, these battles can also help you earn hunting tickets over and above the one you receive for free each day.
Guardian Cross encourages you to square off with other masters in the Coliseum, too, by dangling prizes like ultra rare cards and magic stones. You'll need a special ticket that gets you three matches against similarly ranked human opponents, though fighting against other people isn't any more involved than squaring off with the AI. A card battle game that doesn't include matches with live opponents seems a little strange, but since the combat is so simple, it makes sense here. Other players can also be added as in-game friends, enabling you to gift cards and resources back and forth.
If you're looking for something a little deeper, you'll find it in the combination and enhancement system. Guardians can be leveled up by sacrificing other cards, an act that pays off even more if the cards you give up are duplicates or at least share the same primary attribute. Leveling boosts a Guardian's stats across the board, but magic stones can be used to increase one stat at a time, giving you at least a little control over the way the Guardians you use the most develop.
Since you'll be looking at the cards a lot while the battles play out, it helps that the artwork is great. The character designs are right in the Square Enix wheelhouse, with a cast that looks like it could have come from any number of previous RPGs. And composer Naoshi Mizuta of Final Fantasy XI fame knocks it out of the park with the game's soundtrack, coming up with a classic sound that blows away the typical mobile game fare.
So if a game has some clever ideas, looks pretty and sounds fantastic, but is kind of a monotonous grind under all of that... well, that's where you end up with Guardian Cross, I guess. It's a card battle game that may be best suited for people who don't like card battle games, and that plus your feelings about the usual Square Enix flavor should give you a pretty good idea if it's right for you.
- Puts a twist on the collect and battle card game by making the collecting more fun than the battling. Sweet art and stellar soundtrack by Final Fantasy series vets. Uses some standard social game mechanics in a non-annoying way.
- Actual card battles are overly simple and repetitive. No live battles against other players.