Lil’ Guardsman blends Papers, Please with a LucasArts adventure | Hands-on preview

by on June 7, 2023

One of the indie games that really got me excited for where gaming was heading back in 2013 was Papers, Please. The idea of a video game where you played as an immigration officer checking paperwork as fast as possible blew my mind, but it also stressed me the hell out. There aren’t a whole lot of games that have attempted to recapture the glory of Arstotzka, and as upsetting as that is, my blood pressure sure appreciates it. Thankfully Lil’ Guardsman is here to put that border patrol action back in our lives, but with a fantasy comedy twist.

Our hero Lil is just a child living her life in The Sprawl, whose father happens to be the head castle guardsman. One morning he asks Lil if she can take over his job for the day so he can go to the pub and bet on sports, and one tutorial later you’ll be sat at his desk and interrogating the fantasy races that want to enter the town. Not everyone is allowed through your gates, and you’ll need to use all your wits and guardsman tools to make sure you keep the riff raff out.

The only way to know who is welcome in The Sprawl is to look at The Writ and follow the rules it contains. In this demo (which featured one shift in the guard booth) I had to keep an eye out for anyone preparing to make a speech at the mages guild, people with funny names and grandma drug smugglers. It wasn’t too hard to spot the suspicious people, especially once I started using everything in my office to help out.

A screenshot of Lil' Guardsman

For each person who tries to get into the city you can perform three actions to try and suss them out. The most simple of these is asking them why they need to enter, and then either trusting their answer, doubting it or making fun of them to find out more. You can also call on your three advisors using the telephone, although admittedly the goofy jester is never particularly helpful. Once you’ve got a lead it’s then time to whip out one of your tools and find out more before making your decision.

Thanks to the less grounded setting of Lil’ Guardsman, you have a nice variety of outlandish contraptions to use when you’re in a pickle. If you think someone is lying you can spritz them with truth serum, if you want to check for any hidden items you can whip out the metal detector and if you think someone needs reprimanding immediately you can grab your whip and get to it. My favourite interaction involving the tools though was with a cyclops mother picking up her kids from her ex husband, who had a drawing made of incomprehensible squiggles to show me. With one flash of my decoder ring I was able to find a hidden message in the picture that revealed their opinion of their new stepmother, and then let their mama through the checkpoint to save her kids immediately. The different ways you can probe the charming folks of The Sprawl is just delightful, and I can’t wait to meet more of them.

For each person you interact with at the border you get rated on your performance, and if you want all four stars you’ll really have to read the situation perfectly. There’s some bonus gold on offer based on your score too, and although I don’t know what this money will be used for in the main game it’s probably worth hoarding.

A screenshot of Lil' Guardsman

I assumed that after my shift the demo would end, but life in the guard’s booth is only one aspect of Lil’ Guardsman. At closing time I was informed that the princess of The Sprawl had gone missing and that I was needed to help find her. Far be it from me to question why a child was needed to help with this matter of urgency, I arrived at my destination and found myself a contestant on a gameshow called “So you think you can save a Princess”.

This ridiculous section of the game functioned sort of like the TV show Blind Date, but instead of asking vaguely raunchy questions a lineup of hunks you’re asking a lineup of fantasy heroes about how they’d deal with a group of angry mages. It’s as silly as it sounds, and is only made sillier when you start asking about their favourite ice cream flavours. These hard ball questions can lead to some sticky situations though, and I actually ended up angering the warrior so much that I died.

The writing really pulls the game together, but I’d be doing Lil’ Guardsman a disservice if I didn’t mention the wonderful visuals too. The Saturday morning cartoon style is just perfect for this kind of adventure game, and really brings the eclectic characters you’ll meet on the job to life.

A screenshot of Lil' Guardsman

Although this demo of Lil’ Guardsman only lasted around forty minutes, it really got me excited for the full game. Thanks to the sections where you aren’t in the guard booth especially, I have no idea what weird and wonderful situations Lil will be thrust into later on in the game and can’t wait to find out. With other elements like money, gemstones that charge your tools and a time rewinding device all teased in the demo too, it looks like there’s going to be plenty to sink your teeth into when it releases later this year.

Lil’ Guardsman blends the border officer setup of Papers, Please with comedy stylings of a LucasArts adventure to create a truly wonderful experience. If the rest of the game is as good as this demo then it’s definitely going to be one to look out for in the next six months, and if you don’t believe that feel free to spray me with any leftover truth serum.

Lil’ Guardsman is coming to PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox, and Switch this year.