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Lil' Guardsman (NS)

Lil' Guardsman (NS) - Review

by Evan Norris , posted on 26 January 2024 / 3,127 Views

Imagine if every time you wanted to visit the Scumm Bar on Mêlée Island you had to pass a customs checkpoint. This is the wacky dream of Lil' Guardsman, a tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure game from Hilltop Studios that mashes together the silliness and slyness of classic LucasArts point-and-click titles like The Secret of Monkey Island with the calculated detective gameplay of Papers, Please

Set in a medieval kingdom known as the Sprawl, Lil' Guardsman follows Lil (short for Lilith), the sassy 12-year-old daughter of a well-meaning but mediocre gate guard, Hamish. One day, Hamish asks Lil to cover for him down at the guardshed, so he can make a bet on the upcoming Goblinball match. As the first line of defense for the city, Lil is tasked with admitting only helpful citizens and turning away any ne'er-do-wells. She soon learns that the decisions she makes will have huge ramifications for herself, her friends, the Sprawl, and the lands beyond.

The story in Lil' Guardsman is a lot of fun. In true LucasArts fashion, it's filled with exaggerated characters, ironic situations, and a prevailing sense of whimsy and humor. While there are certainly high stakes — wrong decisions could result in famine, death, or even the end of the space-time continuum — everything unfolds in a jokey, playful way. There are plenty of fourth wall breaks, gags, Easter eggs, and wacky, unexpected visitors, including a pixelated goblin named Buttface.

Deciding whether characters like Buttface are harmless citizens, dangerous agents of chaos, or something in between is the core mechanic of Lil' Guardsman. The good news is that it works exceptionally well. What could have been painfully simple or hopelessly abstruse is in fact neither. Thanks to Hilltop Studios' careful calibration, the detective work required to arrive at the "right" answer is simultaneously approachable and challenging. If you pay close attention to the clues around you and use your tools prudently, you will succeed.

Here's how a typical interaction works. When a visitor first approaches the guardshed, they'll generally state their business. The guardsman-in-training Lil then has three action points to divine their true intentions and suitability for the Sprawl. She can spend an action point to interrogate them (with options to "trust", "tease", and "doubt"), call one of three royal advisors for advice, or deploy one of several special tools. Once she arrives at a decision, she uses the Wicket3000 to accept, deny, or, jail the visitor.

Success during each guard shift relies on equal parts preparation and investigation. Ahead of each shift, Lil has the option to attach magic crystals to five different tools, which can then be used once per crystal. These include a decoder ring to translate runes and encrypted notes; a metal detector to detect, well, metal; an x-ray scanner to see beyond clothing and tarps; truth spray, which compels honest testimony; and a whip, for those situations where brute force is the only answer. Investing crystals in the right tool(s) for the job is essential.

Equally essential is reading the royal writ, a set of instructions handed down from above before each shift. This is basically a list of hints disguised as orders from the three royal advisors. Again, this speaks to the developer's careful touch. Hilltop Studios doesn't want its game to be a cakewalk or, conversely, a tedious experiment in trial and error. Rather, the game operates in the middle space, giving players the components needed for success, and making them feel brilliant when they succeed. It also provides perfectionists with a bit of a safety net in the Chronometer3000, a limited-use time traveling device that Lil can use to erase a particularly bad interaction. This way you don't have to start a level from scratch due to one disastrous decision.

You'll know immediately just how disastrous those decisions were thanks to the results screen, where Lil earns one to four stars based on her ultimate decision and the steps she took to get there. If your daily average comes in lower than two or, later on, two-and-a-half stars, you will fail, so you want to aim for those three star results. To get four stars you will need to show perfect deduction, deploy the right tool at precisely the right time, and get a little lucky. Typically adventure games don't have a lot of replay value, but this one, thanks to its scoring system, provides a reason to come back after the credits roll. Even without repeat playthroughs, the campaign will take roughly 10 hours; a solid running time for an adventure game.

When Lil' Guardsman focuses on this gameplay loop of preparation, investigation, and results, everything works very well. When it veers away from this cycle and experiments with other scenarios outside of the guardshed, which it does with greater frequency as the game moves forward, it's less successful. At certain times, Lil will participate in a game show, unmask a mole, figure out who stole a shopkeeper's key, bet on a Goblinball match, and play three-card monte. These segments often feel like shallow diversions from the best part of the game.

On the plus side, these adventures around the Sprawl often involve NPCs you've already interacted with at the front gate. Not only does this make the game world feel alive and dynamic, but it rewards you with more interactivity and opportunities for decision-making. If you admit a helpful mechanic, for instance, he might fix that broken jukebox in the tavern.

Regrettably — and this is most likely due to the existence of so many parallel timelines and branching decision trees — the appearance of some NPCs undermines the continuity of the game. In my playthrough, I encountered two characters in the city whose appearances contradicted their official resolutions. In another instance, a character cheerfully helped me out after I had confiscated her lucky headgear and purposefully ruined her day.

A few continuity errors are easy to overlook, though, especially in the face of the overriding visual charm of Lil' Guardsman. The game is a delight to look at, thanks to art direction and characters by Rafa Gallardo. Each set-piece springs to life by way of its hand-drawn aesthetic, expressive characters, and detailed environments. Things only get better when the downtempo hip-hop music, composed by Hilltop Studios co-founder Scott Christian, kicks in. Make sure to keep an ear open for "The Digsite".

Combining the rules of Papers, Please with the whimsical sensibility of classic LucasArts games is far from an obvious choice, but the results speak for themselves. Lil' Guardsman is a lovely adventure game that succeeds mechanically, creatively, and comically. Sometimes its side quests distract (and detract) from the core gameplay loop, but in general it delivers engaging detective work, a memorable and consequential world, and lots of laughs. 

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Lil' Guardsman for the NS, provided by the publisher.

Read more about our Review Methodology here

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hellobion2 (on 27 January 2024)

Reminds me of a certain snes game.

  • +3