Guard Duty: standing to attention

Every so often, a Kickstarter campaign comes along you regret not backing. Sick Chicken Studios’ launched their project for Guard Duty in February 2017 but the first time I heard about it was in January when Emily Morganti kindly got in touch with the offer of a key.

The full game has now been released since that preview and I’ve had the opportunity to play it through to the end. The previous build focused on Tondbert Roughskin, part-time-drunk and three-quarters dwarf, in medieval Wrinklewood. After slacking on his duties at Night’s Watchman as the result of partaking in a few too many birthday beverages, he unwittingly lets a mysterious stranger into the town and wakes up in the morning to a quest to save the kidnapped Princess Theramin.

Now jump a thousand years into the future to 2177 where Agent Starborn is Lieutenant General of the Guardians of New Haven, a resistance group embarking on a last-ditch effort to overthrow an alien-like evil and take back Earth. How are the fates of Tondbert and Starborn intertwined? Can they help each other across the span of time to save humanity? And most importantly: can Tondbert save the Princess and get a kiss from her at the end of the game? You’ll just have to play to find out.

If you like the classic point-and-click adventures and love Simon the Sorcerer in particular, then Guard Duty will be one for you. There’s something nostalgic about it which makes you feel as though you’re stepping back to the early 1990s despite it featuring a streamlined interface to bring it up to date. The visuals certainly help this sensation: for example, the forest reminded me of the similar setting in the first Simon instalment, and some of the characters throughout the title look as though they’re related to those in the Sorcerer’s world.

The Simon the Sorcerer poster stuck to the dartboard in Tondbert’s bedroom that I noticed while playing the preview has sadly been removed, but there are plenty of references to older games and films to keep fans happy. There were a few times I genuinely chuckled after hearing a line from a movie and then the protagonist remark on how cliched it was. It all serves to wrap you up in a lovely warm blanket of nostalgia as you work your way through both Wrinklewood and New Haven for just over five hours.

And what are those hours filled with? Well, it wouldn’t be an adventure without puzzles. The thing that struck me was just how logical they are: use a rope if you want to climb out of a window, grab that hot cup of stew from your inventory if you need to melt some ice. It’s all very intuitive. The gameplay takes a more contextual turn when you step into the shoes of Agent Starborn and this gives is an almost ‘cinematic’ feel, which suits the 80-style futuristic titles and the Lieutenant General’s save-the-world personality.

Guard Duty isn’t as challenging as a lot of other point-and-clicks so if that’s something you’re looking for, then you may come away slightly disappointed. But for me, it was great playing an adventure game that wasn’t trying to be difficult – and it was a pleasure to complete a title without having to turn to a walkthrough once! There’s also none of the mechanics which usually lead to frustration, such as needless backtracking and pixel-hunting, and Sick Chicken Studios have done a good of job modernising the genre.

Adventures can sometimes be overwhelming and the nature of their puzzles can make it seem as though you have an endless to-do list. Fortunately though here, Tondbert is scribbling notes throughout his journey and I found myself looking at these whenever I needed to check my current objective. Having them written in the protagonist’s handwriting, complete with silly doodles and spelling mistakes, was a lovely touch that adds to the personality of his character.

As handy as these notes are, over the course of the game it becomes clear that they aren’t just there for player reference. I don’t want to spoil anything for anybody planning to play Guard Duty – and I’d highly recommend that you do – but it’s revealed just how important they are towards the end of the title. The narrative may be short and players might not get to spend as much time with Starborn as they do with Tondbert, but it’s wrapped up in a way which nicely ties everything together.

In fact, it was the story that was the highlight for me as Sick Chicken Studios’ release sort of takes you by surprise. It’s very unassuming game with the pixel-graphics and light-hearted nature we’ve come to expect from point-and-clicks; and its tale of knight-wants-to-save-princess at first seems like standard genre fare. But these factors actually hide a very touching plot with a great message and you’ll be feeling all warm and fuzzy inside by the final credits.

Hopefully we’ll get to see Tondbert and Agent Starborn in a sequel in the future. And if the developer ever decides to do a Kickstarter campaign for it, they’ve already got their first backer right here.

Guard Duty: referencing the classics

Since getting back in touch with Emily Morganti, she has put me onto some great adventure games. There was detective-drama Lamplight City which asks some interesting moral questions; Unavowed, a title of character and choice recently nominated for Excellence in Narrative at the Independent Games Festival; and most recently Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements, an upcoming release which cleverly combines point-and-click and RPG elements.

So when I received her email regarding comedy-adventure Guard Duty, I knew it was going to be something I’d enjoy. If Emily’s superb taste in games hadn’t been enough to persuade me to request a preview key straight away then the screenshots she sent over would have given me the final push. There was no way I was going to turn down the opportunity to play something that featured so many little references to classic adventures such as Simon the Sorcerer and The Secret of Monkey Island (more about that later).

This project is Sick Chicken Studios’ unique take on the genre and tells a story about love, loss and the end of the world. That’s exactly what Agent Starborn, time-travelling Lieutenant General of the Guardians of New Haven, is facing in 2177: an alien-like creature is threatening to exterminate all human life and our hero has his gun pointed right at him. But it seems as though it’s too late to stop the monster and disaster is unleashed, as as laser splits the Earth into two and the scene fades to black.

Although players will have the opportunity to also play as Starborn in the full release, the setting then changes to 1,000 years earlier in Medieval Wrinklewood. Tondbert Roughskin, part-time drunk and three-quarter dwarf, is slacking on his duties as Night’s Watchman after partaking in a few too many birthday beverages (we’ve all been there). He unwittingly lets a mysterious stranger beyond the town walls and wakes up in the morning to a quest to save the kidnapped Princess Theremin – along with a raging hangover and missing set of armour.

Adventure genre elements that frustrate a lot of players are obtuse puzzles and pixel-hunting, and I’m very pleased to report that neither seem to be here. In the few hours I’ve spent with Guard Duty so far I didn’t once become stuck or get confused about the solution to a challenge. Everything is logical (in as much as it can be in a comedy game): use a rope to climb out of a window when the trapdoor is stuck, use a net to trap a slippery frog, attach a photo into a library card to make a somewhat-sticky fake ID.

I encountered one dialogue tree puzzle and due to the number of branches available, I thought I must have missed a vital piece of information in another location. I hadn’t however and after thinking it through properly, I realised what the answer was right in front of me and actually made sense. It seems as though the developers have really considered the design in this respect and it’s good to know that gameplay time isn’t superficially extended through needless backtracking.

Guard Duty, video game, pub, inn, drink, Tondbert, knight, stranger, conversations

Sometimes adventures can be overwhelming with what seems like an endless to-do list: go here to get this thing to give it to someone who’ll exchange it for the item I actually need to progress. This is where Guard Duty’s integrated list comes in handy and I found myself referring to it several times throughout the preview whenever I’d lost sight of my current goal. The fact that it appears to be written by Tondbert himself – complete with spelling mistakes and doodles – was a really nice touch that added to his character.

All of the art is impressively created by one person and it’s clear they’re a fan of the classics. I loved the Simon the Sorcerer poster stuck to the wall of Tondbert’s bedroom and punctured with darts; and although I can’t be sure, some of the characters throughout Wrinklewood look very similar to those in that series. There’s references to Monkey Island too: the silhouettes of Guybrush and LeChuck can be seen chatting over a pint in The Drunken Monk, and I laughed when the protagonist enquired about find leather jackets in Sam’s Previously Owned store.

More modern titles make an appearance also, and I couldn’t help but smirk when I saw the Assassin with a broken leg sitting in a pile of hay in one corner of the town square. This character asks you to spare some change and fulfilling his request results in a nice little achievement with a very apt name. Throw in some film references for good measure (‘No time for love, Dr Jones!’) and what you’ve got here is something that combines the best bits of our favourite media.

At three-and-a-half hours in, the preview build ended and left me with a cliff-hanger: is Tondbert dead after falling down a hole while trying to rescue a knight from a huge snapping Wrinkleworm? Is this it just a bad nightmare? Is he going to wake up and save both Princess Theremin and the world? What’s the connection between our unlikely hero and Agent Starborn, and will the events in Wrinklewood influence the future of Neo London in 2177? So many questions yet to be answered.

Guard Duty, video game, knight, Tondbert, Gap, catapult, tree, vulture

The game surprised me in many ways and, while I expected it to be a pleasant enough experience, I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. I’m kind of gutted I didn’t know about the Kickstarter campaign back in February 2017 because it really would have been worth making a pledge. There are a lot of adventure games out there which say they’ve redefined the genre or are inspired by the classics, but it’s been a long time since I’ve come across one which does both as well as Guard Duty seems it will.

The full title is due for release this spring and is on Steam right now for anyone who wants to add it to their wishlist. While you’re waiting, why not give Sick Chicken Studios a follow on Twitter or check out more screenshots on the official website.