One of the defining periods of my formative gaming years was the hours and hours I used to spend up until two o’clock in the morning trying to figure out how I get the belt buckle off of the fishmonger, or what does a wannabee pirate give a troll so they can cross a bridge, or how the bloody hell I get past a territorial goat to get into the basement of an ancient Irish castle! If I sound like a madman to you, your childhood must have been terrible. Mine wasn’t because I filled it with 90s adventure games.
Broken Sword, Blazing Dragons, Discworld and the entire Lucas Arts complement (not Sierra, NEVER SIERRA!!), all of these brain teasers had me scratching my head in the early hours of the morning, only for me to go to bed, wake up refreshed and figure it out in 20 seconds. My reward for bending my mind through the corridors of a thousand hard-working, sleep-deprived game developers was that every time I figured out a new puzzle it would give me a new location to explore, new characters to talk to and more jokes for my slack-jawed, prepubescent self to guffaw at.
It was also a part of my childhood that I had fully come to terms with as a memory, something that I would experience only in remembrance. Games had, after all, moved on. Even adventure games made in the last ten years have been remarkably different beasts. Rather than drag your character through the plot, in more recent games the plot would be dragged through the character. Your protagonist wouldn’t be faced with puzzles that would act as roadblocks, but with decisions; and if you got those decisions wrong, the plot would carry on regardless, as was the case in Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Dontnod’s Life is Strange.
There seemed to be no place for verbs and cursors and absurdly spacious inventories in modern titles. That was until a veteran adventure game scribe brought that style of point-and-click back with 2014’s Broken Age, and made financing those games via crowdfunding as trendy as wearing Birkenstocks while sipping an Old Fashioned. The latest retro-inspired adventure title to get its funding past the Kickstarter finish line is Sick Chicken’s Guard Duty, a game that shows its roots more than a two penny dye job. From the cursor that glows every time it hovers over something interactive, to the icon of a sack in the corner denoting your stash of randomly assorted items, to the fact that it has a resolution of 320×240, Guard Duty stands as a monument to the wacky, colourful and surreal point-and-click adventures that many declared a casualty of the 21st Century.
You play as Tondbert, a Halfling guard in the Kingdom of Wrinklewood, an idyllic fairy-tale city with the charm of the Magic Kingdom and the snark of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh‑Morpork. It’s the day after his birthday and rather cruelly, during his celebrations, he was saddled with the night shift. Didn’t stop him partying though, and he may have made some ever-so-slightly catastrophic errors in judgment when he was off his tits on the local mead. The princess is missing and it was him who gave the kidnapper the keys to the castle. So Tondbert, blissfully unaware of the previous night’s events, ventures forth from Wrinklewood to rescue her and save the kingdom.
But that’s only half of the story. Much like the previously mentioned Broken Age, Guard Duty tells a duel narrative. At some point in Tondbert’s adventures, the action pivots to the viewpoint of Agent Starborn and the game becomes less King’s Quest and moves forward through time into the kind of territory taken up by Beneath a Steel Sky, with a little bit of Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher thrown in. It’s not just a change in aesthetic but almost a different game entirely, with its own mechanics and UI. It also has a pace that’s far less relaxed much less accommodating of your desire to explore and look around. Tondbert’s adventure has you mingling with the locals and taking in the scenery. Starborn gets thrust from set piece to set piece, with every new puzzle solved immediately whisking you away to the next location and rendering all previous environments inaccessible.
It’s a sharp contrast. The greatest pleasure from the game’s first half is the gentle sense of wonder you get from travelling around, speaking with the locals and listening to their yarns. They all have a backstory and are eager to share it with anyone who will listen. Opening up a line of dialogue with an NPC will often be an opportunity to sit back, relax and be regaled by the character’s tale of bravery, tomfoolery, or often tragedy. Many games couldn’t get away with their NPCs monologuing for minutes at a time, especially as, while these stories may be world-building, they don’t have any actual relation to the ongoing plot. However, Guard Duty gets away with it because its characters are just that much of a pleasure to talk to.
The characters are all charming, hospitable, warm-hearted and a lot of fun. Highlights include the no-nonsense librarian, the elderly castle clerk and the most well-mannered troll in all of fantasy media. Listening to them is an exercise in simple, carefree escapism; of losing yourself in the comforting company of wonderful companions. It’s a refreshing change from the current trend of dark, grim power fantasies that often confuse cartoonishly gratuitous amounts of cynicism with realism.
It’s not without its limitations, however. Some of their life stories are on the lengthy side. There’s one conversation in particular that happens after we switch protagonists. It’s five solid minutes of exposition, filling you in on what happened in the time between we say goodbye to Tondbert and hello to Agent Starborn. Five minutes is an eternity for one character to blather on while you have no agency over the discussion. Otherwise, the latter half of the game doesn’t have much in the way of conversation.
Although, rather than being a loss to be lamented, the lack of yarn spinning contributes to the more urgent pace of the latter half. After the events of Tondbert’s quest, as a player, you find yourself eager to solve the problems of the future to discover the fates of all your best friends doomed to history. It’s the biggest difference between the first and second halves, although as a result, the second half does feel like it only takes up about a quarter of the time in total.
Not that this is a particularly lengthy game. Like many adventure titles, Guard Duty is only a few hours long, but this has more to do with the game’s intuitive attitude to puzzle design rather than a brevity of content. I got stuck only a couple of times and even then it was only because I wasn’t paying hard enough attention to the details. The game is always keen to ensure that you have the tools you need to make it through the next phase of the game without getting too frustrated. It walks a fine line that never hands you the answer on a silver platter, but always makes certain that the answer is never more than a couple of interactions away.
As a budget adventure, Guard Duty is more than worth the £7.19 asking price, especially if you remember the old games it’s trying so hard to faithfully replicate. The greatest experience I got from this game was the feeling of being home from school, snuggled up in bed to rest from the illness keeping me indoors and playing a charming, humorous adventure game to cheer myself up. The kind of games that know the only real rewards you need are delightful companions, some hilarious jokes and a ripping yarn. Guard Duty has a massive inventory filled with all three.
Guard Duty is out now on Steam