The border patrol dystopian simulator, Papers, Please, has been a formula emulated ever since its launch way back in 2013; though never with the same widespread success. Hilltop Studios has seemingly changed my opinion on that, as their debut, Lil’ Guardsman, is following a similar format but with a reverent Dungeons & Dragons twist.
The game is firstly a series of deductions and sleuthing as you’re tasked to admit or deny residents who enter the fantasy-inspired town of Sprawl. However, the heart of Lil Guardsman is its rich narrative as utilises a point-and-click style adventure to tell an overarching story. Your choices impact the world and even the ending, but is it a happily ever after for Lil’ Guardsman? Let’s get into it.
Once Upon A Time
This fairytale adventure takes place in the conflicted yet bustling city of Sprawl; a town in the middle of multiple factions at each other’s throats due to conflicting politics. For Lillith (Lil), the toils of democracy aren’t particularly on her mind as she is only 12 years old. Child labour laws aside, Lil is convinced by her dad to take his place at the southern guardpost of Sprawl – sparking the bulk of the game’s narrative.
What starts off as a begrudging new job, turns into a wider conspiracy as Lil gains possession of the Chronometer300. This device has the unique ability to rewind time by using raw materials that power Sprawl’s technology. On the surface, you’ll find a lighthearted and witty fantasy story, reminiscent of the Lucasfilm point-and-clicks of the 2000s. But as you go deeper, corruption, political espionage and potential uprisings are at the hands of Lil.
I was surprisingly caught off guard by the narrative. Lil’ Guardsman is instantly funny and endearing, but the slow burn of seeing your choices unfold in front of you has grand consequences; resulting in a complex story that reflects our times with a considerable amount of nuance. That’s not to say it’s heavy going, however, as the constant levity of the comically wry dialogue from not just Lil, but also the dozens of characters you meet along the way.
There’s a whole bunch I’m omitting from the game’s narrative, as the twists and turns are what make the story so brilliant, but you are restricted in some of the choices you make. Some decisions trigger an instant failure and whilst you do restart right before your failing moment, there seems to be less free will in the story than initially thought.
These story choices usually sit within the main gameplay loop of Lil’ Guardsman. What you’ll mostly be doing is sitting at the guard booth and meeting all the people, elves, goblins and even creatures more nefarious, making the tough decision to either ‘Admit’, ‘Deny’ or later on ‘Jail’ the person/creature wanting to be let in Sprawl. You’ll talk to the fully voice-acted character to deduct their intentions, as well as look for visual clues on their appearance to attest to the entrant’s legitimacy.
If you’re stuck on a decision, there are also tools of the trade that can help you on the job. You’ll have an X-Ray Scanner, Metal Detector and Truth Spray which are self-explanatory, but you’ll also have a Bullwhip and a Decode Ring which use less conventional methods to help you out. Whipping an entrant may just unveil a clue to their true intentions, but when to use it is down to your own sadistic nature.
All the items come with stipulations though, as not all of them work on everyone and all items are powered by the same material the Chronometer3000 uses. It’s an overall finite resource that you’ll have to juggle with whilst doing your job. You’ll have daily dos and don’ts given by the three main powers that be – Malcolm the Jester, Ashe the elven mage and Stryker the burly human soldier. Choosing to defy or follow affects the story, but you can always call them on shift for their unique perspective and advice.
In between your daily shifts at the guard booth, you’ll also visit a bunch of locations across Sprawl. This uses the more traditional point-and-click as you check out points of interest and talk to the locals. You can tap the screen to click on these items, but you can also have full movement of Lil using the analogue stick, which is a nice touch for those adverse to more traditional methods.
You can also shop to upgrade your equipment at the guard booth or buy crystals to power them. However, during my playtime, I really struggled with keeping enough cash to make a substantial purchase. Maybe I was too nice to people by not confiscating items to sell, but worth bringing up. These moments also elaborate on the world around Lil and the recurring characters are fantastically written. There’s some fourth wall breaking to cheaply usher in the game mechanics, but the bundle of subtle references outweigh some of the jokes that don’t land and Lil’s snarky childlike wonderment is pitch-perfect.
I’ve mentioned the writing being bolstered by the excellent voice acting and the sheer amount of it, but the artwork is the icing on the cake. Lil’ Guardsman sports a prestige Cartoon Network-esque art style from the 2010s. The world is vibrant, character designs are so distinct and it’s all met with a huge variety, creating a world that feels lived in; it perfectly encapsulates the game’s tone. Similarly, the music befits the overall style too as booming horns cut through the lo-fi drums as you venture through the city or work your shift. It may not stand out from everything else, but it accompanies it all nicely.
Overall, Lil’ Guardsman isn’t entirely lush with gameplay as it doesn’t switch it up or elevate its own mechanics during the runtime. However, what it does do with its gameplay is exceptional in every facet. The story is hilarious and surprisingly deep, with wonderfully written characters. All alongside a brilliant cartoon art style to accompany it all. At a gameplay time of 8-10 hours, it really doesn’t overextend its welcome and the ability to alter the timeline makes for a good opportunity for multiple playthroughs.
Lil’ Guardsman never overextends with its ambition but rather perfects everything the game does. With nuanced and hilarious writing, gorgeous visuals, complete with fun deducing-based puzzle mechanics, the game is a king amongst its own kingdoms.
Lil’ Guardsman is out now for Nintendo Switch (review platform), PS4, PS5, Xbox One and PC Steam.
Developers: Hilltop Studios
Publisher: Versus Evil, tinyBuild
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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