Monday, July 15, 2024

Lil’ Guardsman is an Absolute Delightful Narrative Puzzle

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What do you get when you put a kid in charge of deciding who gets to come inside the city and who doesn’t? Chaos and shenanigans, that’s what! Lil’ Guardsman from Hilltop Studios stars Lil, a twelve year old girl who takes on her dad’s gate guardsman job and is tasked with deciding whether visitors are allowed in, denied, or even sent to jail.

Fully voiced, featuring a fully original soundtrack that blends medieval and classical influences with electronic and low-fi, hip-hop inspiration, and with a gorgeous hand-drawn cartoon art style, Lil’ Guardsman is an absolute delight.

In the course of the game, players decide how to speak with and at times interrogate visitors to figure out whether they should be allowed past the gate or not based on each day’s Royal Writ and other information gathered throughout the levels. To do so, Lil has a guardsman toolkit which includes a decoder ring, an x-ray machine, a bullwhip, metal detector, and truth-spray. She’s also able to call the three royal advisors.

There’s Lieutenant Meg Stryker, the martial leader of the Sprawl who advises the Princess on military matters, Councilwoman Isadora Ashe, who is the most well-connected political operator in the city, and Jestor Malcolm, a man of mystery, and juggling.

Lil also receives the Chronometer3000 which allows her to go back in time and try different actions, though using it too many times could cause problems… and I wish there was a way to skip dialogue on rewinds. For some reason I could only do it on certain visitors.

decoder, metal detector, truth spray, x-ray machine, and bullwhip in lil' guardsman
Lil’s toolkit.

However! Lil only has three actions per visitor so players have to really think about what they’re trying to do and how, since the crystals that power the tools are not endless. Thus, each item can only be used once per level, at least until a business man selling upgrades sets up shop a few levels into the game.

Also within a few levels, Lil has caught the attention of the three royal advisors, who I guess don’t care that her dad Hamish just let a kid be in charge of something very important? Oops. They attempt to use her in their own agendas and before long, Lil is caught up in a whole lot of court intrigue, conspiracy, and diplomacy, never mind that the Princess has a whole lot of people vying for her hand.

Depending on how thorough Lil is in her conversations with the visitors, she receives a 1 to 4 star rating. The higher you are rated, the higher you are paid, but if you get rated below a 2… It’s not good! In fact Lil’ Guardsman does actually have actions that will trigger a game over, and I simultaneously really enjoyed trying to find them and was surprised when it happened.

a jail with characters from Lil' Guardsman
All the locations are beautifully drawn. You don’t quite know where the game will send you!

Of course, it’s not as simple as admitting or denying people. You never know when you’ll be able to use an item confiscated from a visitor or how letting in someone will impact the Sprawl down the line. For example, the bag of rice confiscated from a goblin farmer can be used with a vampire later! Similarly, just because the Royal Writ says to do or not to do something doesn’t mean that Lil should listen. It’ll be up to the player to decide just when to ignore directions.

Since there are only three actions a visitor but varied options for talking or using items, there are up to 60 unique paths to pursue in some turns, with dozens of different story branches to explore. A full run-through takes about ten hours, but I know I’ll be going back to let people in I didn’t the first time, or denying people that I did let in to see how that impacted the Sprawl.

Especially because at the end of each level, you’re given information on what happened after they were or weren’t let in! A little notification at the top of the game screen will also tell you if your choices will make an impact on the sprawl.

Lil’ Guardsman is also just laugh-aloud funny. I lost track of the number of times that I cracked up due to something Lil or another character said or did. For example, one of the characters almost entirely sings her dialogue and it is absolutely hilarious. She’s also terrifying. Please don’t let her in.

A dragon leg, his knight, and Lil at the gate.
A dragon!

The world of the Sprawl and neighboring king and queendoms is also incredibly diverse both in the context of non-human beings like dragons and goblins, but for the humans too who reflect the real world. I particularly loved how even if I only saw a character once, I felt that I had gotten to know them immediately from lines of dialogue and how Lil interacts with them.

All of this combined is enough to make this a top-ten game, but where Lil’ Guardsman truly shines is the dedication to taking Lil’s actions seriously and the portrayal of the relationship between Lil and her father Hamish.

There are real ramifications for what she does and who she ends up supporting in the game, especially considering the rising anti-supernaturals bigotry. On the other hand, Hamish is first introduced as a man who wants his daughter to do his job so he can gamble (and gamble poorly) but as the game progresses, you can really see how much the two love one another and how Hamish wants to be more involved in Lil’s life.

Lil in Lil' Guardsman with her dad and the twisted sisters
Hamish, the Twisted Sisters and Lil in the Tavern.

Lil also feels like a real 12-year-old. Her reactions to when certain moments in the game are very true to how one might react in real life, and her personality is similarly realistic. She may be in over her head but she doesn’t act like she’s actually a grown adult, which can be an issue with young characters in other media.

Additionally, the game takes the absurdity that is a 12-year-old making life-or-death decisions seriously and comments on how ridiculous this is numerous times.

Overall, Lil’ Guardsman is an absolute gift to puzzle narrative games, and I’m so excited to dive back in and see what other endings I can find. If you like entertaining but intriguing stories in a fantasy setting, this is the game for you!

Lil' Guardsman
9.6 Reviewer
Visual Appeal10
Lil' Guardsman is a lovely and hilarious puzzle narrative game where everything comes together for an incredibly fun experience. My only wish is for a skip button on previously seen dialogue when rewinding gets too exciting.
Images and review copy courtesy of Hilltop Studios

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