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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Lil' Guardsman has big laughs, heart, and LucasArts energy

There are too few funny games in the industry.

We've got games with jokes. And games with funny systems and mechanics. But there are too few games that are built from the foundation up to be funny. In the early days of PC gaming, it felt like it was half arcade-y experiences and half games built on humor. It was Commander Keen and Guybrush Threepwood.

Thanks to the efforts of the writers behind Sierra Interactive and LucasArts' point and click adventures, the foundation of the games industry is kind of built on comedy. And yet it so rarely is given the front seat in games made in the modern era.

Well, Hilltop Studios is here to honor the past and give us that comedic zest we're missing in games today. And I promise you, Lil' Guardsman is anything but little.

An animated GIF of Lil' Guardsman. It depicts the main character Lil, a young girl with big red hair and a blue sweater with a heart stitched in it, walking through a variety of scenes. Starting with her bedroom, she wanders into the town, then a bar, then a back alley, a sports arena, a dungeon, and finally the jester's office.

​Just the Facts

Developer: Hilltop Studios

Publisher: Versus Evil, tinybuild

Platform(s): PC*, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox Series S and X, Nintendo Switch *denotes platform reviewed on

Price: $19.99

Release Date: January 23, 2024

Review key provided by publisher.

Hilltop Studios follows a blueprint I've seen a lot in recent years. They went from a team of artists who'd supported bigger studios and initiatives bringing things to launch, learned and established themselves as they went, before branching out with their very own gaming baby. As such, they've got a very specific level of polish and technical know-how that you don't often see in independent efforts, one that really uplifts the Lil' Guardsman package.

With the idea of making a game with comedy as one of its core design tenets — one with a Papers Please-like routine gameplay loop that also honored inspirations like Monty Python and LucasArts point and clicks — I'm over the moon to confirm they hit all the marks with this charming adventure game.

In Lil' Guardsman, you play as Lil, a precocious 12-year-old whose maturity is so beyond her years that her father, Hamish, recruits her to take a shift at his job as royal guardsman for a day. He's got bets to make and Goblinball to watch, of course. So Lil is pulled into the all-important gig of figuring out which of the riffraff she should allow entry into the royal empire known as the Sprawl. And of course this one shift turns into two... then three... which snowballs into Lil basically being hired permanently.

One by one, folks approach the box and Lil uses anything and everything to suss out any sus activity (as designated by the royal advisors daily guidelines). She identifies and confiscates contraband in the process, before deciding whether to accept or deny these folks entry into the kingdom.

As the guardsman, she's got the front seat to the political and personal happenings of the Sprawl, meeting prominent individuals from across the kingdoms of the land, all with their own agendas for entering the city. With that in mind, the preteen's power over who goes in and out is a little more far-reaching than I think any adult in charge really thought about.

You can't really go half-cocked into making these decisions, though, as each entry is graded on a three-star scale (with the ability to get a coveted fourth star if you're able to figure out each person's unique interaction), and only shifts with a high enough score keep Lil employed. You've got to pick when to go rogue, when to go against the policies that restrict your decisions from on high, and when to trust your gut when a blatantly evil-looking man is asking for entry.

Lil's got access to five special tools: the Decoder Ring to process hidden messages, the X-Ray to find hidden objects, the Bullwhip... for some reason, and finally, the self-explanatory Metal Detector and Truth Spray. Every day, she's given three power crystals, consumed with one use of each tool, but she can buy them after work to recharge. Choosing the right tool for the job is key to making it through a shift successfully, and I hope you pay attention to the little details, because using the wrong tool on the wrong person could mean literal death for those involved. Guardin' is intense work.

Lil' Guardsman's got warmth, it's got that self-awareness and cheese that made the games that inspired it so charming, and it constantly surprises you with the ways it shifts your mindset about what is possible. Let's just say there's a surprising amount of death and a surprising amount of corruption I'm willing to put a 12-year-old through.

Every day you work is a "level," a surprisingly game-y framing that alludes to the game's overall cohesive blending of adventure game narrative and routine-based gameplay. Each level is made up of a guard shift, a post-work activity of some sort that plays like a traditional point and click, and some shopping to prepare yourself for the next shift.

During each shift, you've got a set of guidelines prepared by the three royal advisors that you must try to stick to for the best possible shift score. There's the bureaucratic Councilwoman Ashe, the no-nonsense military leader Lieutenant Meg Stryker, and the embodiment of chaos that is Jester Malcolm. Between their threats of fines (or worse), the three turns you're allotted to interrogate each person, and your limited tool usage, getting things right is very important.

An animated GIF of Lil' Guardsman. It depicts the full process of choosing to deny entry to the Sprawl to someone, pulling the deny lever and having an image print out signifying their denial. When this particular character, a gray skinned elven mage, is rejected, he says: "You have no right to deny me, no right to even stand in my view you pathetic... smaggle!"

What I was most surprised by here is how balanced Lil' Guardsman was between narrative and genuine systems-based gameplay. You've got to balance tool usage and crystal availability to make sure you're able to keep up with the shifty clientele who show up at the gates. You've got to balance your personal narrative desires with the Sprawl's demands, making sure to keep your job while pushing back against fantasy racism. You'll often find yourself having to pick between min-maxing your way to victory, doing exactly what's expected of you, and sticking to the heart of the kind of Lil you're crafting.

It makes for an interesting dilemma, because with basic intuition, it's not too hard to figure out what the game wants from you in most cases. The puzzles aren't hard; it's more about the managing of resources than anything. So knowing how to maximize the efficiency of the three turns you're given to examine each person is key.

Getting perfection in this game is not quite possible, so don't let that hang you up.

And that's a lot more work than I expected from Lil' Guardsman. But that's not a bad thing! What was frustrating, though, was at times being forced down a particular path either by sudden fail states (reminiscent of the danger of classic Sierra games) or the inconsistent grading the game gives at times. For example, I once confiscated some illegal contraband from someone but allowed them entry because they'd otherwise not broken any rules, and got a two-star rating for it. Later on, I let someone through because I thought it was morally right, despite it breaking rules, and got a four-star rating for that.

Getting perfection in this game is not quite possible, so don't let that hang you up. Even with my up and down journey, I managed to get the game's "best ending" the first time through, so that more than made up for it.

And, I mean, even my biggest issues were wiped away simply because I was just giggling my way through it all.

Lil Guardsman is a genuinely hilarious game. When I first covered the game, I noted how much it reminded me of Monkey Island. But in finally playing it, I didn't expect how much it stands alongside that LucasArts legend and its peers, joining rank among some of the most genuinely clever and flat-out funny games I've played.

The concept alone is worth a laugh. Lil will constantly remind you that she's just 12 and... why is she doing any of this? But each encounter has some surprising bit of humor tucked away inside of it. One of my favorite ones comes early on when a cyclops strolls up to the gate, hoping to gain entry to pick up her kids, and one quick puff of truth spray comes with an expletive-laden rant about how that ***** KELLI IS REALLY ******* THINGS UP FOR HER WITH HER LAZY *** EX.

Almost every interrogation Lil embarks on has some kind of silly surprise like that waiting inside, and across the game's 12 levels (which take about 10-12 hours to get through), I was never let down.

Lil' Guardsman's got warmth, it's got that self-awareness and cheese that made the games that inspired it so charming, and it constantly surprises you with the ways it shifts your mindset about what is possible. Let's just say there's a surprising amount of death and a surprising amount of corruption I'm willing to put a 12-year-old through.

It has the kind of humor that so many other games strive for, all while maintaining strong narrative threads and character bonds. It's not just laughs without substance. No empty calories, Lil Guardsman is a superfruit, baby.

An in-game screenshot of Lil' Guardsman. A giant tree entity walks up to the guardshack, where Lil cowers in fear. In the guardshack, you can see a bulletin board, a barrel full of weapons, and a telephone. Amidst other various tools.

The relationship between Lil and her father is the thumping heartbeat of the story, one where you feel and understand the sarcastic warmth between them immediately and know that Lil would do anything for him in the same way he would for her. And when that sinks in, you see it everywhere else. Character relationships all over the place show that Hilltop Games understands comedy for the sake of comedy isn't what makes a game like this special. You've got to buy into these characters and care about what's happening around them. Guybrush made me cry in 2022 and now Lil and Hamish have done the same in 2024.

What really seals the deal here though is Hilltop's overall polish. Their dedication to high quality art, voice acting, and music elevate the experience from a fun diversion with solid writing to something else all together. The art style stands somewhere between Gravity Falls and the Hilda animated series, with its exaggerated but characterful characters and oddball fantastical creatures blending seamlessly into an anachronistic medieval world. The music emphasizes instruments of the era, with plucky strings leading the way and a bouncy charm reminiscent of the Monkey Island soundtrack, while blending in modern lo-fi sensibilities. And the voice acting... THE VOICE ACTING!

With the dozens of unique characters that Lil meets during her guard shifts and the various citizens of the Sprawl that she spends time with in between levels, there are a lot of strange individuals to bring to life. And with the help of a bunch of Canadian comics and actors, the world of the Sprawl is whipped up brilliantly. From the Guybrush-ian smarmy tones of Hamish to the otherworldly grumbling of a tree person, all of the performers bring their A-game and sell each joke and wacky character concept brilliantly.

An extra special shoutout to Jillian Welsh, the voice of Lil, who brilliantly captures her learned sleepy smarminess from Hamish and her genuine child-like wonder at experiencing the oddities that wander up to the gate. The voicework of Welsh and her fellow castmates turns these characters into fully realized people in a way that even some AAA voice acting fails to.

An in-game screenshot of Lil' Guardsman. The main character, Lil, with her large red hair and blue heart sweater, stands on a dock. Just to her left, a card game of some sort is being played by a charming looking elf man and a young boy. A goblin stands outside a tent to their left. And a man with a colorful outfit and hat stands, looking concerned, to her right.

Lil' Guardsman speaks to all parts of me. The child in me who fell in love with adventure games, the 30-year-old who looks back on them longingly, and the jaded human living in 2024 who needed a laugh. It's so genuinely funny, so full of heart, and it's one game you should immediately allow entry to your gaming library in 2024.

Video Games Are Good and Lil' Guardsman is . . . GREAT. (8.5/10)

+ genuinely hilarious, polish present in all aspects of its presentation, a surprising emphasis on gameplay in such a narrative-driven experience

- a little too easy for all that gameplay focus, inconsistent feedback in the game's grading

The key art for Lil' Guardsman. A large red-haired girl is sitting on a windowsill with headphones plugged into a tape deck. A variety of characters all beckon to her from around the window, including an elderly lady and a goblin. The game's logo and title are off to the right.

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