Lil Guardsman review: a simpler, fantasy-fuelled take on Papers, Please

Lil Guardsman is a game that wears its heart on its sleeve. In a victory for normative determinism, this is a fantasy adventure about a small girl named Lil who somehow becomes the first (and seemingly only) line of defence at a city’s border patrol as a guardsman. At various points, both Lil and those around her frequently call attention to the fact that, yes, you are merely a 12-year-old child who is massively underqualified for this task, and that if you’re going to continue filling in for your good for nothing father who’s down the pub gambling on the latest ball game, then really, what do your superiors expect? It’s very self-aware in that sense, and occasionally verges on breaking the fourth wall. This alone will probably be a fairly good indicator of whether you’ll gel with Lil Guardsman’s sense of humour or not, but for the most part, this is a sweet and jovial narrative adventure whose characterful animation and charming voice cast help bring this oddball tale of fate and consequence to life.

It’s also not shy about where it’s taken its main source of inspiration from either. This is fantasy Papers, Please through and though, albeit one that’s more about interrogating and probing would-be citygoers for information than checking documents and spotting inconsistencies. During the day you’ll be working your post, dealing with the increasingly large, but fixed queues of fantasy species all trying to enter the city gate to go about their business. When you’re off the clock, it’s time to pick up the game’s wider plotlines, with Lil able to travel around the city to set locations where she can chat with other townsfolk, sometimes partake in the odd mini-game or two, and visit the local shop before toddling off to bed. It’s admittedly quite a straightforward interpretation of Lucas Pope’s magnum opus, with star ratings denoting clear right and wrong answers for how you deal with each day’s horde, but you know what they say about first impressions. Good ones go a long way.

An ogre mother asks for entry to the city in Lil Guardsman
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Versus Evil

A knight gives instructions to a young girl in Lil Guardsman

A young girl complains to three adults in Lil Guardsman

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Versus Evil

A big part of this comes down to Lil Guardsman’s appealing Saturday morning cartoon visuals. Every character you meet is so handsomely drawn and voiced that they instantly make every encounter stick in the memory. Sure, those visuals often undermine its sense of mystery and intrigue when you’re sitting in your guard hut – you can spot someone’s who’s sus as soon as they step up to your gate a lot of the time – but simply calling out their nonsense and refusing them entry is only part of what makes Lil Guardsman tick.

To get the full four-star rating, for example, interrogation is essential, the idea being to reveal the usually obvious reason why ‘yes, this old granny on her way to see her grandson’ should be let through or, ‘definitely not, this riff on a singing Disney princess is clearly a mass murderer and shouldn’t be let anywhere near anyone’ (even if the blood on her hands and dress were a dead giveaway). However, with only three action points to spend on each individual before giving them a big fat ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on your control box, you’ll need to weigh up whether to keep asking them questions, or use one of your five special tools to help you along.

These tools comprise of a (rather OP) truth spray, a metal detector, an x-ray machine (because, I don’t know, anachronisms seem to abound here), a whip and a special ring that lets you read runes and inscriptions. Use the right combo of actions to make them cough up the truth, and hey presto, you get a big medal for a job well done. If you only get part of the way there, however, then the end of day summary text will hint at other information you might have been able to get out of them had you been more precise in your questioning.

An amulet ring deciphers a spell in Lil Guardsman

An x-ray machine is used on an old woman at night in Lil Guardsman

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Versus Evil

The completion screen for a successful shift in Lil Guardsman
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Versus Evil

It’s all quite gentle puzzle fare at the end of the day, though, and as long as you meet the average (and quite easily met) rating set by your gaggle of three advisers, you’ll be paid the same regardless of whether you interrogated everyone perfectly, or were only semi-successful. Later levels do ramp up the difficulty a touch, but you’ll rarely feel truly stumped or fail completely – and if you do, there’s a magical time-travelling macguffin just for this occasion. A character’s dialogue and behaviour usually make it clear which tool is most appropriate, and even though they all have limited uses per day, the threat of ‘running out’ of power crystals for them was never an issue for me. Early on, the power crystals you do have feel perfectly calibrated to how many times they actually need to be used per day, and soon you’re earning so much money that buying more of them isn’t a problem.

With the stakes set quite low, this can make the latter half of Lil Guardsman’s six-hour runtime feel a little samey – or at least like you’re just going through the daily motions over and over while you wait for the wider (and quite engaging) story to happen. It does make some good attempts to mix things up, though, with both return visits from repeat offenders (always a treat) as well as other light twists on the ‘yes/no entry’ formula. These include recruiting appropriate citizens for the ongoing war effort in the second half of the game (your choices writ large in Street Fighter-style beat ‘em-up segments at the end of the day), and at one point you even help plan the princess’ upcoming wedding by deciding what caterers, entertainment and tailors to let through. Honestly, whoever drew up this town’s labour laws needs a good talking to – or thrown in prison with all the goblins you’re told to ban entry for. Essentially, though, you’re doing pretty much the same thing at the end of the game as you are right at the start, with little growth or evolution in how you go about it.

A salesman demands entry to the city in Lil Guardsman

A knight with a suspicious looking horse tries to enter the city in Lil Guardsman

A crazed woman tries to the enter the city in Lil Guardsman

A pair of Ghost Buster like figures appear at the city gate  in Lil Guardsman

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Versus Evil

Papers, Please eventually fell into similar routines as well, of course, but the brilliant thing about that game was the room it gave you to take a more human approach to your decision-making, so you could compassionately fudge the numbers if you felt like being kind or empathetic to someone’s plight. Here, though, the star rating clearly implies there’s a ‘correct’ way to deal with these folks, which at times can rub up against your desire to break the rules when you know they’re unjust. Case in point: those goblins I mentioned. Yes, this is another fantasy game using different species as a veil for racism, but to have the game effectively frame the best outcome as to ‘always obey the man’ and chuck these poor folks in jail doesn’t really sit right.

Of course, it’s not like you have to obey the man if you don’t want to. You still, fundamentally, have that choice, and one of the more impressive things about Lil Guardsman is just how much your decisions do actually matter over the course of the game. As small as they might seem initially, they do end up having surprisingly large ripple effects, and best of all, you get to see them play out in front of you, and then adapt and react to the consequences as the game reaches its dramatic climax. Who you draft up for the war effort will have quite a profound effect on whether your kingdom actually wins that war, for example, and even those wedding providers get a second outing in a way I didn’t see coming. There are other neat touches, too, that I won’t spoil. All I’ll say is that if you pay attention to your guard hut’s daily noticeboard announcements, there’s a lot of narrative satisfaction to be had in seeing some of its more extended plotlines evolve over time.

It’s deftly done, and goes a long way in smoothing over some of the cracks that emerge from its simplified take on Papers, Please’s gate-keeping. Overall, I had a very good time with it, and wolfed it all down in almost a single serving. It’s probably a good one to play with kids and young teens, too – a kind of Baby’s First Papers, Please, if you will, that can introduce them to the core concept while also giving them a jolly good story at the same time. For adults, Lil Guardsman may ultimately miss the point of what Papers, Please itself was trying to interrogate all those years ago, but you can’t deny its heart always tries to be in the right place.

This review is based on a retail build of the game, provided by publishers Versus Evil.

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