A deduction adventure with a great sense of humor, Lil Guardsman takes the addictive and absorbing gameplay style of titles like Papers Please and plants it into a cute fantasy setting. You play as Lil, a funny and precocious 12-year-old who covers for her dad as a guard at a gate to the city. 

Its cute, cartoony style and laidback tutorial lull you into the idea that this game will be silly and playful all the way through. Your first task, after all, is to have a pleasant chat with an old lady who you well know is welcome past the gate. However, the story draws you into the political conflict raging within and around your city in a way that engages with some surprisingly mature themes.

Your role at the gate requires you to follow the instructions of three royal advisors who set you tasks with varying degrees of seriousness. One is simply to find someone with a silly name, while others need you to watch out for illegal drug smugglers disguised as pensioners. You are taught early on not to judge a book by its cover and to pay attention to what you are doing.

To get as accurate information as possible from each encounter, you are given a number of crystal-powered tools—including a decoder ring, truth potion and a whip—and up to three actions per conversation. At the beginning of each day, you choose which of the tools to power up with the crystals at your disposal. You can replace crystals you use up with the money you earn at the end of your shift.

One of these actions can simply be to ask questions. You get to choose the attitude with which Lil responds to the answers you are given, with a lot of humor drawn from the option to tease people. A lot of the game consists of this dialogue between Lil and the other characters, which is enormously well written. All the characters have fantastic backstories that build a full and detailed picture of the game world, despite the limited space you have to explore.

You are also given the Chronometer3000, which allows you to rewind time. However, this has limited use, and the crystals that power it are unstable. You can only use it a limited amount if you don’t want it to kill you horribly, and it is best kept a secret from nefarious characters with unsavory schemes.

The Chronometer3000 (as well as being relevant to the plot) comes in handy if you want to ensure you get the best score. The game is split into twelve chapters, each of which requires you to engage with a certain number of people. You are scored at the end of each chapter based on how much information you’ve gathered from each person and how well you’ve engaged with them.

It’s not particularly difficult to figure out who is likely to be untrustworthy. The characters are notoriously bad at disguises and are typically not great liars, either. However, how you choose to navigate your engagement with them—rather than a flat pass or fail rate based on whether or not you allow them entry—can result in different scores. 

You also have the option of playing as an agent of chaos, and simply letting all the liars and crooks run rampant through the city. That is, assuming you can toe the line enough to keep your job and don’t get so embroiled in their antics that you end up dead.

As you talk to more of the local folk, you get drawn into their stories. A goblin uprising is simmering in the back alleys of the city, which those who benefit from the status quo wish to prevent. You can choose to help or hinder their movement. With a royal wedding on the horizon to secure an alliance with a neighboring kingdom and a civil war on the horizon if not, you gain the trust of the Princess who seeks your counsel on pressing matters. You are given the chance to offer an opinion on her nuptial options and to guide her in which of her advisors, both new and old, are worthy of her trust.

Lil Guardsman examines the political plotting and societal issues in an astute and intelligent way. It offers a not-so-subtle allegory through the experience of non-human characters, in which your own father is complicit through the job he does to support his family. The game also explores how small decisions can have a lasting impact on those around you, with some particularly moving scenes giving it a big emotional impact.

While the story beats of the game don’t change a lot, the journey changes drastically based on your decisions and you feel it the whole way through. These details are sprinkled into the game in subtle ways that make Lil Guardsman more profound than it appears at first glance. 

The combination of the cute art style and dark political conspiracy is great fun, with an incredible soundtrack to accompany it. Lil Guardsman plays with the tropes of the fantasy setting and is rich with fairytale-inspired humor. It is broadly kid-friendly, exploring important topics in a manageable way, while remaining delightfully engaging for an adult audience as well.