If you’re going to review one of your new favourite point and click games, you’ve got to show off a bit, haven’t you? Therefore, if we’re going to be talking about Guard Duty — the seminal point and click adventure game from Sick Chicken Studios, recently migrated from PC to console by way of Ratalaika Games — we’re going to be talking about it like a proper gaming hipster.
I’m talking why-yes-I-am-playing-new-games-on-the-Vita-in-2020-actually levels of hipster. Indulge me, won’t you? Only this game is quite the indie darling, whichever platform you choose to play it on.
Consoling a whole new kind of adventure
Guard Duty originally launched on Steam during the course of 2019, winning plenty of praise for its pixel art, solid sound and music direction, top level voice acting and overall charming, comedic pointy clicky loveliness. We’ll touch on those elements as we go, but let’s focus on a bit of the technical stuff and get it all out the way first.
As of the time of writing, Guard Duty is available on not only PC, but also every major console — Xbox, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and the PlayStation Vita. On that very forgotten Sony handheld, played through for this review, the pixel art pops with a special kind of vibrancy, and performance is generally strong, with the occasional stutter.
For instance, looking at our hero Tondbert’s To Do List will cause a bit of a framerate chug, but it’s nothing deal-breaking — plus you get to make use of the touch screen, which is the sort of thing I wish a lot of console ports of adventure games would remember when hitting the Vita or Switch. Heck, even the PS4 controller’s panel thingy makes a great mousepad for devs canny enough to use it.
More than just a participation trophy
Those of you deep into the console gaming scene may have arched an eyebrow, perhaps both eyebrows, perhaps even going and lifting up someone else’s eyebrows for good measure, upon learning that it was Ratalaika Games bringing this PC game to consoles. The publisher has often ferried indie games to market and sold them with the promise of easy achievements and trophies, but nowadays seems to be reversing that trend by bringing genuinely solid games to the platforms it publishes on — Guard Duty being a stirling example.
So while indeed a playthrough of this game guarantees a Vita or PS4 player a relatively easy Platinum Trophy, this doesn’t feel like a cash grab interpretation of the rule by any means. Indeed, Guard Duty is more like a Telltale title insofar as the achievements and trophies politely fill themselves in as you progress the plot, so it’s all running in the background and encouraging you — rightly — to enjoy the story.
And quite the story it is!
A tale of two cities
It’s hard to discuss the plot of Guard Duty without mentioning the hook — that it takes place over two timelines. Marketing for the title is a little coy about this, mentioning it happens but not how or why. I shan’t spoil those notions here either, other than to say that they are done in a remarkably clever way and introduce some radical shifting of gears to the game overall.
For about two thirds of the game, you play as the town guard Tondbert — a scruffy but ultimately earnest and likeable little fellow who likes a pint and should probably tidy his room a bit, but also has a good nose for dodgy goings-on and a canny knack for finding his way into and out of trouble.
Tondbert is a likeable protagonist, although sadly many of his fellow guards like to tease him to excess. He always wins out in the end, of course, but quite a few of the funny problems he faces are caused by mean spirited folks who just don’t take him seriously.
Silly them, however — for Tondbert soon stumbles upon a plot involving black magic and evil pacts made with beings of unfathomable power. Indeed, the monsters and villains of this game are surprisingly sinister for a game so rich in levity and spoofing references — and it’s here that the writing of Guard Duty takes flight in some stellar directions.
Lovingly laid-out locales
Each area in Guard Duty, whose environments are surprisingly varied, offers plenty of eye candy without ever being too busy. Butterflies dance along the breeze by a brook. Cows graze in the pasture close to the castle square. Pixel-art trees rustle and shudder in sweeping breezes — and terribly creepy monsters click, hiss and claw against their otherwise idyllic surroundings, hungry, angry, urgent.
You never die in Guard Duty, and Tondbert — as well as the protagonist of the future timeline — outfoxes his enemies with cunning and tricks rather than strength or combat. It’s classic point and click adventure game fare in that respect, and the first fantasy half of the game feels as though it could have easily been a 1995 release that flew under everyone’s radar, let alone one of the indie treasures of 2019.
A button to examine, a button to use or talk to or pick up as context demands, and plenty of things to see, do and puzzle your way around — Guard Duty doesn’t feature altogether taxing puzzles, so won’t cause any headaches or much stroking of the chin. That said, there’s a standout compass navigation puzzle and a tense, chittering game of cat and mouse with a creepy crawly that each create some fantastic setpieces, and these demand some mental agility and memory use to overcome.
The way the latter example sticks its nasty eight-legged landing, particularly, is down to the excellent use of sound cues throughout the game. Likewise, voice acting throughout Guard Duty is a treat, with Tondbert himself proving a memorably bawdy chap — and the General of the future timelines proving a similarly striking character for her assertive, no-nonsense tone.
That chronological curveball
I am still trying not to give too much away about the other timeline in Guard Duty, as it houses some of the best narrative — and cleverly, it’s up to the player how deeply into the exposition you want to get, thanks to the dialogue options.
However, when first encountering this section of the game, the stark tonal shift of it all gave me a little pause for thought at first. I’d like to think this was intentional, because it wasn’t until I mulled this over that I realised why this is the case — not only does your hero and your timeline of play change, but the controls and the overall way in which you interact with the world subtly changes too.
I adjusted, and enjoyed the game, and through doing so came to indulge in a clever, witty and heartwarming ending (that nonetheless still has me planning a PS4 playthrough). But it was only upon further reflection that I realised the biggest, cleverest referential meta-joke in Guard Duty overall.
What’s old is new again
See, as we’ve discussed, the fantasy timeline of Guard Duty is straight up mid-1990s adventure game, right down to the stylistic choices and means of gameplay. Get to the other timeline, and things suddenly get more… edgy, less comical, and more focused on just finding the right thing to advance the next portion of plot.
It’s like a LucasArts game crashed into a WadjetEye game — wafty jokes in the former and biting writing and cynicism in the latter — and things got too tangled up. Or so I thought.
But the real clever thing here? It’s real clever. It’s commentary on the evolution of adventure games. Of course the fantasy old world is all classic gameplay and silly humour. Of course the future timeline is post-modern grittiness and streamlined, context sensitive gameplay with a huge narrative focus. It’s the meta-narrative of how this genre evolved.
And that? That’s Guard Duty in a nutshell — a warm and lovingly made game you can saunter through and poke at over the course of an evening, and through its tales, trials, tribulations and triumphs, enjoy a highlight reel of everything that makes adventure games so wonderful — past and present.
And if all that’s not enough, it costs next to bloody nothing and it’s fan-bloody-tastic.
Tony’s Terminal Tabulations
Guard Duty would be fine as a love letter to the adventure game genre, but on Vita or any other console or computer you might play it on, it’s much more than that.
Sumptuous art, lively voice acting, immersive music and straightforward yet well paced puzzles make this a relaxing comedy stroll of a game that hides some tense and inspiring surprises.
It’s so cheap, too! What’s that about?!