Guardians of the Galaxy follows the eponymous team from Marvel’s comics and films on a new adventure, separate from the continuity of the works that came before, while using the characters from the movie incarnation: Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Groot, and Rocket. It follows the trends of the popular movies, as they bungle a mission and in the process set off a chain of events almost leading to the galaxy’s destruction, before saving the day. Along the way, they are still forging the bonds that drive them to protect each other and to be a team and a family, as well as further contextualize themselves in relation to the greater galaxy and specific individuals with that.
Guardians does this by having you take control of Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, as he leads the team across 16 or so chapters taking place in a variety of worlds, running, gunning, platforming, and leading pep talks. It’s a pretty standard action-adventure format, with special abilities that impact different enemies or obstacles in the environment, and the added wrinkle of some of those obstacles being only surmounted through using your teammates.
The heart of the game clearly and surprisingly is its narrative, coupled with the character interactions around it. Many AAA games about licensed franchises end up focusing on a mechanical feelling of being the character over all else, but in the end it really is the Guardians themselves that are going to be this game‘s legacy.
The first actions you take in the game are dealing with settings and accessibility features. They aren’t perfect—I never found a setting for making on-screen newspapers font larger for instance, but they have the depth one would hope from a big-budget title.
Star-Lord fights with a pair of element guns and the occasional punch or kick with some light platforming thrown into the mix. It’s a game about balancing the cool-downs of your allies’ abilities as well as of your own elemental attacks to conquer dangerous foes, and that basic interaction is really satisfying. It just feels good to freeze an enemy and then have Gamora or Drax smash them from above. One of the more unique facets of the game’s combat comes from the huddle-up mechanic. In addition to the sort of super-moves you would expect, when a meter is filled Star-Lord pulls his team together for a pep talk. It’s very much him sort of living out his mental image of himself as a quarterback. Your allies will say a few sentences, you choose a response, and you all get powered up, revved up, and good to go. It’s a fairly effective way of both communicating the state of your team, how the members are getting along, and how the team works in tough situations while having a direct mechanical benefit.
You’ll definitely need those boosts. Some of the bosses in the game, and even some of the non-boss encounters can be a bit grueling to conquer, but they never felt unfair. At the normal difficulty, I never had to retry a battle more than one or two times and it tended to be that I didn’t understand going in what it was going to ask of me. Once I did, I was able to accomplish it. It was a very satisfying game—there’s generally something new to find behind the different corners. You get new abilities and power-ups as you go through the game, and it’s paced well, barring a few sections of near-endless space cops, so that you tend to want to keep playing.
The game also has a lot of little touches that really make it sing. In Knowhere, a largely non-combat area, pressing the triggers to fire your guns instead has Quill make finger guns and make the “pew pew” sounds with his mouth. It’s far more endearing than just disabling the button, and helped to lift up a part of the game where Quill finds himself largely alone, showing how he deals with stress through humor rather than only saying as much.
Honestly, the game is quite striking. The first major area it opens up with is a region of space called the Quarantine Zone, a graveyard of ships pulled together from the battlefields of the Chitauri War (which takes place before the game) and connected with a web of pink bulbous ooze. Out the gate, it makes full use of the range of color that makes current-gen graphics so enticing, with pinks being used to full effect in a way most AAA games likely wouldn’t. The QZ isn’t the only imaginative place, with the game fleshing out the underbellies of ships and the cosmic horror of Knowhere, a community built into the rotting head of a massive creature, in ways that the MCU films often skirted around.
The enemy designs have the same level of life and polish; at least, the literal monsters in the bestiary do. Gelatinous cubes that morph into giant spikes, weird perversions of komodo dragons, killer puff balls that you can (and should) kick to kill instantly—the monsters don’t disappoint. The humanoid enemies are a little less stellar—less so in design than in the sheer exhaustion of the levels where the same few variations of criminals or space cops are your only foes. It’s a shame since most of the NPCs you interact with are well-realized and life-like in their alienness, even the ones that are Kree and therefore just blue humans with slightly altered facial structures. (Cosmo is best boy.)
Of course, the player characters are well modeled and textured, though I wasn’t a fan of all of their specific outfits for the game. Luckily, you can find outfits scattered throughout the game and play around, and there is some humor to be found in making everyone weird apocalypse versions of themselves from some comic run I haven’t read, but only a few outfits actually work well for the game’s tone, so I tended to stick to those.
Speaking of tone, it should surprise no one familiar with the characters that Guardians of the Galaxy focuses on a story of found family. This is a quintet of people who, in various ways, are no longer part of the group that raised them. It’s impossible for any one of them to “go home”. This is a story of them both uniting over that shared trauma and helping each other to move forward to something new, maybe even something better. That core is joined by a young Kree girl named Nikki, and Peter’s connection to her.
Nikki is introduced early on in the game and becomes pivotal to the machinations of the final boss. Peters’s connection to her is largely assumed but falls in line with the kind of storytelling in games like God of War (2018) and The Last of Us, with him filling a filial role due to his history with Nikki’s mother during the war.
That said, it doesn’t follow the same arcs as such games—unlike Atreus or Ellie, Nikki is only directly with the party for a couple of chapters. Instead, it uses her as an example of what people do in times of stress, and how the Guardians need to do better than that. The game views grief through a lens of post-traumatic stress disorder that, at times, was quite spot on with at least my lived experience, continuing the trend of Guardians media getting too real for me. It is not a game about suddenly being better. It’s about learning to have the support structure and the tools to one day be better.
What I’m trying to say is the game made me feel feelings and I wasn’t expecting it.
That honestly sums up how I feel about this game. I was expecting a licensed cash grab, and that isn’t what this game is. Guardians of the Galaxy has more polish and perhaps more evocative imagery than expected, sure, but most importantly it has more heart than I would’ve given it credit for from the trailers. I don’t think I’m going to forget about it anytime soon.