If you want to understand what Guard Duty is all about, visit Sam’s Previously Owned. Sam works the front while her dad goes off on adventures spanning the world, collecting the most unique items and then using them to stock the shelves. There are all sorts of wonderful oddities tucked into every nook and cranny of this remarkable little boutique. There is a contractable scythe that folds up so small you could carry it in your jacket pocket, there is a wizard’s hat where the word ‘wizard’ is spelt with an extra ‘z’, and fittingly for a game that relies on cryptic puzzle solving, there is a red herring. And if you got all those references, please say goodbye as you leave civilisation behind, for you are one of us now. One of the people that Sick Chicken Studios is trying to enthral with their throwback adventure game, Guard Duty.
Taking place in two time zones, our first glimpse of the game is at the skyline of a dark and dystopic city. Skyscrapers extend out of the streets like knives on a rack. The world is shaded an ominous black and red. It’s almost like a Nintendo Virtual Boy was put in charge of urban development. Inside the tallest tower, a beat up cop clutches his wounds and speaks in the forlorn clichés of a hero doomed by destiny. He tells an otherworldly cockroach to go to hell. The creature obliges and blows up the tower with him and the cop inside.
Our second glimpse of the game is seeing a drunk-off-his-arse guard buffoonishly let a sinister man in a dark black cloak enter the city gates where he intends to wreak havoc upon the kingdom. This is quite the tonal shift. We’ve gone from dark, gritty cyberpunk dystopia, to Carry on Camelot. The game has lost all of its sharp edges and has taken on a softer, bouncier quality rich in technicolour. It’s like the transition from Kansas to Oz. The gravelly American drawls are replaced with the kind of British northern accents only an overly-committed dungeon master would attempt after marathoning the extended cuts of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. We’re in a different game entirely. It’s almost as if they shipped the preview code with the wrong intro.
When you’re finally given control of your character you find yourself in familiar trappings. Not the setting but rather the structure. A cross section of a small room allows us a peek inside at a dishevelled and mightily hungover protagonist. He’s the same guard who let the stranger in and doomed the kingdom, although he’s completely oblivious to the part he had in tipping over this ill-omened chain of dominos. In the centre of the screen is a glittery cursor and when we move the analogue stick it traverses around the 2d plane, highlighting any interactive object that it passes over. In the right-hand corner there is a sack and when you click on it, it opens up showing you the wonderful collection of utter crap our hero has collected.
This one’s name is Tondbert and in the grand tradition of adventure game protagonists, he’s as much use as a khazi covered in Clingfilm. He can’t even leave his castle bedroom without an unbelievable amount of MacGyver-esque drama. Unable to find the key to his locked door, instead of breaking it down like a normal person, he decides to vacate the premises in nothing but his long johns via a broken window, several stories above the hard, unforgiving ground.
He ends up in a bush at the bottom of the castle covered in bee stings and unable to talk. This was the highlight of the preview experience. Seeing the text boxes reflect his garbled speech, and how the townsfolk reacted to his deformed image had a lot of legs in terms of hilarity. Communicating with other characters is something of a necessity in an adventure game however, so I felt the need to overcome this hurdle. After I had exhausted every mangled dialogue option available to me first, of course.
Fortunately, due to the intuitive design of the puzzles, it isn’t long before he gets the antidote and finds his clothes, allowing him to rejoin civilised society. Sick Chicken Studios have made a point of streamlining the process of solving puzzles to reduce frustration and time spent feeling stuck. For the most part, it’s a success. Tondbert has a handy to-do list that keeps you on track with your current objective, and if there are steps to a puzzle that are so obvious they seem quite perfunctory, then the game will fill them in for you automatically.
For example, leaving his bedroom requires abseiling down the side of a castle by tying a rope to the bed so it has an anchor point. From there, most games of this type would require you to then go back into the inventory, select the rope again and use that rope on the window. Guard Duty does away with these extra and cumbersome clicks. All of the puzzles I played through in this preview build were based in reasonable logic, meaning I never felt like I had to be a psychic to figure out how to progress. Also, I’ve never been more grateful to an NPC in my life than I was to the decorator that just let me use her ladder, not because I went on a ridiculous and convoluted fetch quest for her, but just because I asked politely. Guard Duty got a lot of goodwill from me because of that.
The game ends without us getting a deeper look at what the second portion of the game, the grim dystopic future, looks like. It would have been nice to compare and contrast these two disparate elements, especially as their Kickstarter page says that section will have its own protagonist as well as its own mechanic for interacting with the world. But the first impression Guard Duty makes is a remarkably positive one. The lore is bright and breezy, fun and funny, but never too silly to make it seem throwaway. The characters are amusing takes on the traditional stock adventure types, but modern enough to not feel redundant.
Mostly though, the dedication to recreating the feeling of a mid-nineties PlayStation adventure, or an early nineties LucasArts game is astounding. The soundtrack is a concerto of bubbly whimsy that perfectly pairs with the squishy nature of the character designs and animations. The cast all sound like bit part players from old BBC2 late night comedy shows, just as God intended, and the humour has that perfect mix of cheeky, surreal and innocent that American game developers like Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert took so much pleasure in stealing from writers like Eric Idle and Terry Pratchett. Besides, do you know of any other games made in a 320×240 resolution in 2019? I didn’t think so (unless Wadjet Eye Games makes one).