Developer Trent Garlipp • Publisher Trent Garlipp • Release November 3, 2022 • Reviewed On PC
With some games, you know right from the start you’re going to have a good time. Lil Gator Game is absolutely one of them. The vibrant world, playful audio, and endearing protagonist bubble over from the moment I hit start. And it doesn’t hurt that the first words out of the titular gator’s mouth are a subtle reference to one of my most beloved game franchises, The Legend of Zelda. Though Lil Gator Game wears this inspiration unabashedly, it succeeds in forging an identity all its own — one full of earnest joy and thoughtfulness.
“That’s enough lying around,” says the plucky reptile — a sentiment used to kick off several games of Zelda past — and he’s right. I’m ready to explore the open, colorful world. But first things first.
I jump onto a nearby playground’s rocking seahorse and sway back and forth to my heart’s content. In any other title, I’d call my impulse a detour. However, Lil Gator Game’s “journey is the destination” philosophy makes it the perfect start (and also a wonderful way to test out the game’s wobbly physics).
Aquatic playground equipment or no, the narrative’s pull draws me onward. It seems the Lil Gator’s college-aged, slightly estranged sister has returned for a break, and it needs to be special. Drawing from fond memories of the past, the green hero plans to transform an entire island into a giant LARPing session modeled on the pair’s favorite video game.
There’s just one problem. The older gator has a deadline for a group project breathing down her neck, keeping her from playing. But surely, if the game is built up grand enough, she’ll have no choice but to join in. This goal firmly in mind, I set off to make it happen.
The premise is perfect for encouraging me just to have fun. There are broad objectives I could follow, but most of the magic comes from cresting a hill to discover something unexpected (and usually very silly). But before getting free rein of the landscape, the game places me on a tutorial island.
It’s here I pick up my first hat, shield, and melee weapon. There’s a wide variety of these to earn on my travels, all of which require a certain amount of Junk to craft — a currency that pops out of the world’s numerous cardboard baddies. Some are purely cosmetic, while others, like one of my favorite weapons — a paintbrush that actually leaves colors on anything I hit — have tangible effects. One particular head adornment alters how I move in a way that makes me choke back laughter every time. Getting these pieced of gear usually requires completing a task for helpful characters that are in on the game. While rarely challenging, these quests are often filled with irreverence, charm, and absurdity.
Humor is free-flowing in this adventure, and I’m hard-pressed to remember laughing harder at a game’s gags. I enter into evidence Exhibit A: gaining my first ability. Before leaving tutorial island, I discover a monkey’s magical bracelets let me climb, with each armband giving me increased stamina with which to scale ever-growing heights. And as a side note, I’d just like to point out that each sign in this early stage of the game warns me not to do the thing I’m about to do; i.e. scale cliff faces or jump on rocks. It’s so simple but so funny.
When I scramble my way up to one of the tallest points of the early game, I come across a serious climber who offers to teach me a serious climbing technique. Immediately following this, he throws himself over the cliff and ragdolls down in spectacular style. I had to pause the game to laugh it was such a ridiculous, out-of-the-blue moment. Upon talking to him again, I obtain the secret ragdoll technique and can, at any point in my future travels, hit a button to collapse limply to the ground. It might be the most perfect ability in all of gaming.
But it’s a toss-up deciding what’s more enjoyable. Throwing myself from mountains (good thing there’s no fall damage) or jumping off and soaring through the air with my glider. I do a decent amount of both, but sadly this fails to get my elder sibling’s attention.
Time for plan B: We’re building a base, ya’ll. “NPCs” are scattered across the map and if I bring them back to my playground camp, I can build up parts of an elaborate, make-believe city. Each structure, from unassailable castle to busy marketplace, requires a set number of inhabitants to construct, so exploring the hills and valleys for willing participants is a must. Most ask me to do something for them before they can make the journey, and this satisfying loop makes up most of the gameplay.
In a sea of “favorite things” in this game, the tone of many quests earns a special place. Though an overarching theme of the game is enjoying play, it also frequently thrusts me into pensive situations. An argument (in the form of actual legal proceedings) uncovers one person’s need to belong and heart-breakingly relatable past. Another mission sees me helping a neglected child trying to gain the attention of her workaholic parent. The clever writing assures heavier matters never weigh down the story, but these moments often leave me thinking on the subject even while I shift focus to attacking a platoon of papery pirates.
The game’s finale takes up this trends as well. With support from my cosplaying crew, I deal head-on with my weakened relationship with my sister, the need to grow up and take others into account, and meeting people where they are, and not expecting them to bend to what I want.
It’s a touching ending that deftly works with the whimsical parts of the game rather than against them. I roll credits thinking over how much play brings us together — a theme near and dear to anyone that writes about video games for a living — and I can’t wait to jump back into the world. Luckily, the developers give players new tools to make Lil Gator Game‘s post-game even more enjoyable, and I pick up my comical sword once more.