Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Review
I am passionate about many things. My family, of course. Music, art, videogames, creative integrity, intellectual freedom, and honest discourse are all up there, too. Although the Guardians of the Galaxy are hands down my favorite gang of dysfunctional superheroes, I am not in the least bit passionate about whether Eidos Montreal’s new game copies the film’s by-now canon cast, or even slavishly apes the comics. If you are, well, you do you. I’m more concerned whether the game does a good job of capturing the quirky nature of the characters and their complex dynamics, and hopefully entertains me in the process. Judged by this metric, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a very good game.
Although action and combat play a very large role in Guardians of the Galaxy, this is very much a story and character-centric title, and the expansive campaign draws on costumes, iconic locations, many characters and incidents from both the two Marvel Cinematic Universe films as well as decades of comics, while still telling a specific and coherent original tale, which I won’t spoil here. It takes some twists and turns, you see, with more than a few well-earned surprises that seem entirely organic to Guardians lore. It begins with the Guardians attempting to pay off a fine to Nova Corps imposed by Star-Lord’s ex-girlfriend Ko-rel, and ends with something like the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance, complete with hints of a larger allegory about the power and abuse of faith. One thing Guardians does well is using humor to dispel some of the heaviness around some genuinely dark themes.
You play as Peter Quill, the self-proclaimed Star-Lord, and while all of the Guardians have effectively written and often revealing character arcs, Peter’s is probably most layered as he moves from being a hesitant leader full of hollow bluster to something closer to a genuinely strong guiding force. During the course of the story, he confronts a lot of karma, past events, actions and incidents that have significant consequences, almost always reflected by his shifting relationships with people in his past or the Guardians. While some have complained that Peter is the most vanilla of the team, being half-human he is also the most relatable and I never felt short-changed by his story or his abilities in combat, at least when he was fighting with the team.
The characters of the Guardians, while not visually like those of the films or performed by the same actors, are extremely well written and the complicated family-like bonds that tie them together are a source of hours of dialogue and incident, all of it impressively acted and voiced. There are some minor issues with lip-syncing and unconvincing facial expressions but it was almost never enough to distract me from the otherwise effective writing and performances. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy contains many films’ worth of snarky humor, drama, conflict, and much more emotional truth than I was expecting from an action RPG.
Effective Mechanics, Formulaic Combat
But Guardians is an action game, and its combat mechanics are surprisingly satisfying. While you play only as Peter Quill, as leader you effectively control the special abilities of your team, chaining together their attacks with your own. Successful completion of combat scenarios and boss battles earns points that can be applied to adding abilities to any of the Guardians and eventually they can each bring up to four special attacks into the mix. Peter himself can also upgrade his own defenses, elemental weapon, health, and resource collection by using workbenches scattered through the environment and on the Milano. It’s something short of a full-on RPG, with nothing like a complex skill tree, but those special attacks become increasingly important and linked to the escalating challenge of the enemies the team encounters.
Combat effectiveness is rated and at certain points, Peter can call a huddle in order to either bolster or temper the over-confident mood of the Guardians. Successful motivation means temporarily increased power and defenses, but even a failed huddle grants Star-Lord a short period of boosted power and resurrections for fallen team members. Unfortunately, left to their own devices and without Peter’s management, the other Guardians aren’t terribly effective solo fighters and they can’t heal Peter when he falls.
As enjoyable and genuinely engaging as the combat can be, it isn’t close to perfect. The battles are too often protracted and formulaic: start with enemy A, in the second phase introduce enemy B, then combine for part 3. Boss battles can be a fun challenge but usually feature a new big bad with tons of annoying adds from earlier in the level. Early on, Peter gets the ability to use his visor to scan the enemy for their weaknesses, and this is vital because it points to another flaw in the game’s combat. Unless the team is using the precise, required combination of attacks, enemies are absolute sponges and take forever to go down. The puzzle-like, lock-and-key element is obviously an important mechanic to many RPG bosses, but it’s somewhat overused in Guardians, resulting in some fights that feel repetitive or unfair. While most of the combat in Guardians of the Galaxy is between the team and mobs of enemies there are occasional, and not terribly effective or fun, Starfox-like sections with the Milano taking on attacking spacecraft or flying through tight corridors.
You might never see those sequences, though, because while Guardians of the Galaxy is an extremely linear game overall, there are a lot of decision points that impact whether certain scenes or events play out. Peter’s interactions with the Guardians and other characters are full of dialogue choices that impact the mood and and level of cooperation, color the tone of the scene and occasionally ripple out beyond the moment to later in the game. Combined with a focus that is always shifting between story, action, cut scenes, and exploration, Guardians is never stuck in one gear for very long.
Colorful, vivid, and occasionally jaw-droppingly impressive, the game’s lighting and environments look great, with some spectacular and imaginative set pieces and many moments of effective world-building, even if they are mostly just there for show. On the PS5, there aren’t many visual settings to play with other than switching between the quality and performance modes. At least in the pre-release build I played, there were a few boss battle crashes and textural anomalies, a few broken cinematics, and other small issues that should be addressed with a day one patch.
Like the films, Guardians of the Galaxy features a very large number of iconic, licensed songs (from the 1980s in this case) that are used quite effectively in combat and in character building, and the orchestral score by Richard Jacques does a great job of bolstering the action outside of the licensed music. There’s even an entire album of original metal music from the fictitious band from which Peter takes his Guardian name. Everything audio-related — sound design, voice acting, music — is very well done. It’s also hard to imagine a game more respectfully attuned to its sources, and fan service is everywhere, including dozens of costumes to find — all with artist acknowledgments and the book or film from which it came.
Although over the decades comics have become ever more reflective of the complexities and concerns of contemporary life, in the end, they are still often the literary or cinematic equivalent of fast food: momentarily delicious, exactly what you need to fill the void, but not necessarily memorable or nutritious. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t afraid of touching on some weighty themes, but they’re always secondary to an absorbing story, entertaining characters, and engaging action. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t perfect, but overall, it’s a very effective translation of Marvel’s iconic band of misfits from page or screen into interactive entertainment.
***PS5 code provided by the publisher for review***
Well written and acted
Interesting story arc
Formulaic, repetitive combat
Balancing issues in combat