Guybrush Threepwood Sails Again!
Tales of Monkey Island: The Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is a Monkey Island game, or, at least, the first part of one. It looks like a Monkey Island game, it sounds like a Monkey Island game, it feels like a Monkey Island game, and it plays like a Monkey Island game. For many readers, that will be all the review they need.
For everyone else, however, a bit of perspective may be required. The name Monkey Island carries great weight in the community of those who love point-and-click adventure games. The Monkey Island series is arguably LucasArts’ greatest creative achievement that doesn’t feature a galaxy far, far away. The Secret of Monkey Island, released in 1990, introduced many beloved characters and story elements that have carried through the series, such as The Voodoo Lady, Stan the Salesman, Murray the Evil Talking Skull, Insult Sword Fighting, and, of course, the continuing mystery of Monkey Island itself. The third game in the series, 1997’s The Curse of Monkey Island, succeeded despite the absence of three pioneers of LucasArts adventure games: Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and Tim Schafer. However, the series’ first foray into three dimensions, 2000’s Escape from Monkey Island, did not fare so well critically or commercially, and the series has been left to the mists of memory and nostalgia ever since.
The first episode of Tales of Monkey Island does not pick up at the end of Escape from Monkey Island, but instead at the end of a hypothetical fifth game, one which will likely never be created. Once again, Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate(TM) must swoop in at the last possible moment to save his love, Elaine, from his archenemy, the zombie pirate LeChuck. Naturally, things go wrong, and LeChuck somehow winds up human, and his evil infects Guybrush’s hand. The characters are scattered, Guybrush washes ashore on Flotsam Island, and the real game begins.
The first thing you’re asked to do on Flotsam Island is create some news stories for the editor of the local newspaper by starting a bar fight, seizing a ship, and finding buried treasure. Only after you have done these three things can you progress in your quest to right things again. If the idea of solving three related puzzles before progressing the story sounds familiar, there’s good reason – the mechanic has been used in many LucasArts, and now Telltale, adventure games before it. Also, Tales of Monkey Island will require the player to combine inventory items, an aspect common to many old LucasArts games but absent in more recent games. These things, and others, make this game feel like a true entry in the storied Monkey Island series.
Another aspect of the game that will bring nostalgia rushing back to anyone familiar with the series is the sound of the game, especially Michael Land’s music. The music of Monkey Island has always been a high point for the series, and it is obvious that Tales will not change the series’ reputation in that respect. Also returning for the episodic series is Dominic Armato, who might be the biggest Monkey Island fan of all time, as the voice of Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate(TM). Also returning is Earl Boen, voice of LeChuck, and Alexandra Boyd, who provided the voice for Elaine Marley in The Curse of Monkey Island. The rest of the characters in the game are all voiced well, and the incidental sound effects enhance the Caribbean atmosphere.
The episodic series has a markedly different visual style, especially for the characters, from all of the other games, but even that seems to fit in with the rest of the series, as the only two games so far that look anything like each other are the first two. The Telltale Tool, used previously in the Sam & Max, Strong Bad, and Wallace and Gromit series, translates Monkey Island’s version of the Caribbean into three dimensions much more attractively than Escape from Monkey Island did, but it doesn’t seem to capture the charm of the art style of The Curse of Monkey Island.
One thing that differentiates this episode from previous Telltale and LucasArts adventure games is its difficulty, or, rather, its lack thereof. Anyone accustomed to the ways logic works in adventure games will be able to breeze through the episode without becoming stuck for any longer than a moment of pause, even without the available hint system. Should you require the hint system, however, don’t expect anything more than a nudge as to which puzzle you should be solving at the moment, and not how to solve that puzzle. The game provides some moments of cleverness, but there aren’t any leaps of tortured logic, and there shouldn’t be any barriers for an experienced player to progressing the story.
The story, setting, and dialogue are, of course, the reason that the Monkey Island series is so revered. All of the previous games in the series are known for their humor, although memory and nostalgia may make them seem funnier in retrospect than they really were. The tongue-in-cheek wordplay is entirely present in The Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, and a number of comical conventions from the series are brought into the new game. Many recurring characters from the series do not make an appearance in Screaming Narwhal, but since this is only the first chapter of five in a continuous storyline, there’s no reason to think they won’t show up eventually. The new characters created for the game are memorable and idiosyncratic in their rights, and the dialogue is good for a handful of hearty chuckles. The game likely won’t have you rolling on the floor, but it will definitely leave a smile on your face by the time it’s all over.
It is rather appropriate that Telltale Games should bring about the revival of the Monkey Island franchise, not only because the majority of their employees, especially Dave Grossman, also worked on the previous games of the series, but because the company is largely responsible for the renaissance of the point-and-click adventure genre as a whole. They have proven that the episodic format can work for them and for their customers, and the fact that they brought Ron Gilbert in from Hothead Games to consult on the series speaks to how serious they are about maintaining the feel and quality of the series.
Tales of Monkey Island: The Launch of the Screaming Narwhal may not be as funny or difficult as your memories of the series, but it is a Monkey Island game, or, at least, the first part of one. Fans of the series can’t ask for much more than that.