Decisions, decisions! Should I let the Scary Tree Monster in? On one hand, it’s scary, and could thwomp me if aggravated. On the other hand, it wants to run for mayor, and I can’t deny free speech. This is just one of many decisions you’ll have to make in the satirical narrative deduction game, Lil’ Guardsman, by Hilltop Studios. Play as Lil, a sarcastic 12-year-old girl taking over for her dad at the front gate, and make choices to determine the fate of the kingdom of Sprawl. Will you make the right choices, or will you doom us all?
The writing in Lil’ Guardsman is probably the most I’ve ever laughed out loud in a game. The art is cutesy and cartoonish, with the characters having their own one-note personality (by which I mean you can look at them and know how they’re feeling). Through the conversations, Lil is reacting to what is being said, and makes serious topics lighthearted with her preteen sarcasm. Behind this veil of goofy and almost childish personality the game presents you with, it catches you with adult humor, swearing, and other Bob’s Burger-esque slap-stick riffs. While there are brief moments of dark topics, like war and death, it flips to its funny side in a flash. Lil’ Guardsman is one of those games that’s meant to be played multiple times so you can test out multiple outcomes, and due to its brevity (around six hours if you skim-read), it’s easy to do a couple playthroughs.
There’s a lot of great experiences that happen throughout Lil’ Guardsman but one of the most important is the actually gameplay. If you are current in the game scene (and even if you’re not), there’s a possibility you’ve played or seen gameplay of Papers, Please, a dramatic deduction puzzle game where you admit immigration workers into the city while trying to weasel out the baddies. This game kickstarted the puzzle deduction mechanic, where the player has to answer a yes or no question based on their judgment. These answers determine the game’s outcome, and while the game mechanic itself is fairly easy, the weight on how the game’s environment can change makes the decision daunting. Lil’ Guardsman relaxes the mechanic a little bit by allowing a way to go back in time. Since you have the chance to rewind time and make different choices, you’re not completely worried about the repercussions, and the summary at the end also hints at if you actually did well or not.
Typically the 3 star rating points to a positive (true) ending, but that doesn’t mean you have to play by these rules. Well, you kind of do. There is a star rating you must achieve per day or you have to restart (or do a gameover, not entirely sure). It’s pretty easy to get a good star rating, and being the chaotic good that I am, I usually stuck with the positive choices (not without tossing in a little bit of mischief, mind you). At first there seems to be an abundance of ways to learn more about a character that walks up to the gates, but with the 3-action limit and the same possible actions almost throughout the whole game, there are briefs moments where you get stuck. The game suggests to “get them talking,” but there’s not a simple “talk” button to use. Using different actions causes the NPC to squirm, but to make them squirm in the right way is the tricky bit. There were some points, mainly when the story was nearing a climax, that I ignored interrogating too much and simply approved or denied them access. Perhaps the developers were expecting you to do a lot more interrogating than needed because the crystals to power the different tools were plentiful and I never felt that I was running out. The upgrade system for the tools was slow, however, as you didn’t earn much money per day and had to buy crystals with that same money.
Besides the main mechanic, the dialog choices and exploring the world and their own bit of flavor. There isn’t a terrible amount of world to explore, but it gives off the feeling of living in a little city. The options to explore places changes throughout, and it can be confusing in come cases why locations are available, as there’s nothing to do in them (unless I completely missed something, which is a possibility). The art all fits in the fantasy cartoon theme (besides some purposefully-opposite 8-bit art), and gives each character a personality of their own. What was also interesting is how this art is important when determining if they should be let through the gates. Are they looking shady? Is that blood or ketchup on their apron? Every part of the character is important in determining whether they should be trusted or not.
I couldn’t believe it when I first heard this, but all the dialog, that’s right ALL the dialog, has recorded voice acting. At first I thought it’d just be the opening sequences, but the more the game went on, there were interesting and unique voices for all the characters. If only it listed who voiced the specific characters in the credit list. There were so many wonderful and silly voices that matched each character’s personality perfectly. The background music and sound effects blended seamlessly into the personality of Lil’ Guardsman.
In summary: Lil’ Guardsman has easy to understand gameplay with superb writing and a comprehensive story. Its completely voice acted narration is unexpected from an indie game and has a Saturday-cartoon art style that matches the whimsical nature.
Jordan played Lil’ Guardsman on PC with a review copy.