The magical kingdom of Sprawl is a booming metropolis of fantastical marvels, but not all is as it appears underneath the shining veneer: several elderly residents run a drug trafficking ring, non-humans get openly discriminated against, and mages battle against losing their importance thanks to the discovery of a new power resource. Plus, as twelve-year-old Lil (short for Lilith) soon finds out, child labor laws are non-existent. Lil’ Guardsman places you squarely in Lil’s shoes as she sits in the guardshed, determining who can and can’t enter the kingdom of Sprawl. It’s a quirky premise, skillfully handled in both polished and unexpected ways as Lil interacts with her fantasy world’s colorful and sometimes nightmarish denizens.
Lil reluctantly takes over her single dad Hamish’s guard shift so that he can give into his obvious gambling problem betting on the land’s premier sport of goblinball. She’s still a kid and wants to do things like chucking rocks at stuff with her friends. Unfortunately, what she thinks is a one-time event quickly becomes routine when she proves adept at the task. To further complicate matters, Lil accidentally attunes to a time-travel device called the Chronometer3000, resulting in her assignment as the guinea pig for its test run. However, given the hordes waiting at the kingdom’s gates, her assignment works in her favor. What starts as a relatively benign tale of a beleaguered child helping her father takes dark and complicated turns as the narrative progresses, often inadvertently, thanks to the very decisions Lil makes at the guardshed.
Lil’ Guardsman’s primary gameplay component involves interacting with the people and occasionally a scary tree monster wishing to enter the kingdom of Sprawl effectively. Many have benign motives, such as the kindly Mrs. Abernathy wanting to gamble her son’s inheritance on a goblinball game because she likes the odds, while others have more malicious intentions. For example, the scary tree monster wants to stomp on some people. As the title suggests, it’s solely up to Lil to determine whether their reasons justify entry to Sprawl.
There’s a handful of trade tools to help Lil out with this “noble” calling: a decoder ring, a metal detector, truth spray, an X-ray scanner, and a bullwhip. Yes, Lil isn’t sure about the bullwhip, though it does come in handy on rare occasions! You can only take three actions when interacting with characters, regardless of your chosen avenue. Inexplicably, finite power crystals power all items, limiting how often you can use them during a shift. However, you can buy upgrades later in the game that provide more uses per shift.
Interrogating/talking to someone directly costs one point, calling one of the three often contradictory royal advisors for advice costs another, and it costs one point to use any of the trade tools. There’s an element of strategy to Lil’ Guardsman since you have to choose your steps wisely. You don’t always want to drag out character interactions, mainly if the person you’re talking to is in a justifiable hurry. Depending on what tools you choose or your responses in interrogations, you can glean more information about what the traveler is up to to help you decide your course of action. It’s easy enough to get the hang of the gameplay loop while Lil is working a shift, and updates to the routine appear gently so they’re easy to pick up. If you don’t like the outcome of an interaction or its subsequent rating, you have a limited number of times to use the Chronometer3000 to go back and replay an interaction.
When Lil isn’t determining the fate of Sprawl through her guard duties, she can travel to different locales in the city. In this gameplay component, you see how your decisions regarding characters play out. Occasionally, you must provide an opinion or do something that impacts Sprawl or Lil’s personal life, such as attending a Goblin Liberation Army rally if invited or stating who might be the better choice for an arranged political marriage. The story’s second half evolves into a war plot, so you also determine who gets drafted into the army as you try to get the best-equipped individuals to go. Fights occur at the end of later levels, with outcomes determined by your choices. I managed to bring victory to Sprawl twice in these skirmishes but failed spectacularly in another instance.
The gameplay itself is entertaining and downright addicting, especially in short bursts. But the characters, plot, and winning dialogue are where Lil’ Guardsman excels. The script had me in stitches and chuckling outright on numerous occasions. While humor is subjective, its tongue-in-cheek fantasy parody is well-written with a surprising amount of depth. The cast of wacky and outlandish characters are lovely! Getting to know them through the guardshed interactions and their epilogues is excellent. I especially love the surprisingly heartwarming father-daughter bond between Hamish and Lil. Lil, in particular, is a true delight as a game protagonist. You never forget she’s a kid put in an unreasonable situation, yet she handles everything with aplomb and in a very believable manner. Her reactions to all the craziness going on around her is truly priceless. The game’s writing and characterization remind me of the animated series Gravity Falls, which is high praise!
Visually, Lil’ Guardsman’s aesthetic is very reminiscent of nineties animated shows. The presentation works exceptionally well, given the writing’s humor, and compliments the game’s excellent graphics and lovely animations. The game’s English voice-acting is phenomenal, and the music is atmospheric for the varying emotions in scenes. The scriptwork is nearly flawless in the game’s English version.
As mentioned, Lil’ Guardsman works best by playing it in small bursts, given how it’s divided into twelve segmented levels. Certain parts dragged on whenever I played it for longer durations. It might also look relatively child-friendly, but the writing and humor are surprisingly mature and even dark at times, so it isn’t appropriate for really young children despite the cartoonish aesthetic. Some might find that having the limited ability to go back in time during levels lowers the game’s challenge level.
It’s hard to find much to fault Lil’ Guardsman with. It’s clear a lot of care and heart went into the title, and for those with whom the humor resonates, this is a fantasy tale worth playing through and laughing over. I immensely enjoyed my time with the game and found the end of Lil’s journey highly satisfying. Lil’ Guardsman is one duty I wouldn’t mind repeating, even if putting such lofty decisions in the hands of a twelve-year-old doesn’t seem like the most rational of choices!