All Washed Up
After almost a decade of shore leave Guybrush Threepwood is at last hoisting the mainsails for a new piratey adventure, assisted this time by ragtag rabble of landlubbers Telltale Games and old seadogs, LucasArts. A handsome proposition to be sure, but is it shipshape enough to jibe with old buccaneers and aspiring young pirates alike?
Our story opens off Flotsam Island, deep in the Caribbean. Ravaged by lee shore winds and surrounded by razor sharp reefs, Flotsam is a notorious nautical black spot with a magnetic draw on vessels foolish enough to meander into its waters. One such vessel is that bearing Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate, preoccupied in a battle to free his wife Elaine from the clutches of zombie pirate LeChuck. Complications result in Guybrush being washed up on Flotsam, and the first instalment in the quest to escape its grasp and rescue Elaine begins.
The road from traditional 2D piratey adventures to the modern three dimensional cornucopia of polygonal Porcelain Power Pirates has been somewhat rocky, with developers struggling to exploit the freedoms offered by 3D technology within the restrictive confines of a traditional point-and-click adventure. Telltale's latest offering still bears the scars of a long and difficult battle with the third dimension, but overall comes out on top. The schizophrenic controls and sometimes eccentric camera seem insignificant quibbles when viewed against Tales' luscious environment and expressive, buoyant character animation.
Voice acting in Tales is solid, with Dominic Armato and Alexandra Boyd making a welcome reappearance as the voices of Guybrush and Elaine. One notable exception is Earl Boen as the voice of LeChuck. His replacement delivers a fair performance but doesn't have the dripping, sinister quality of Boen's reading in Curse of Monkey Island and the Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition. More unsettling is the absence of Leilani Jones as the Voodoo Lady, with Alison Ewing taking up the role and contorting her lips around a Carribean accent so offensively poor as to be almost racist.
Any aspiring pirate knows that survival on the seven seas depends on wits over fists. And the puzzles in Tales are as inventive as they are challenging. Telltale have mastered the art of structuring puzzles so that simpler, early puzzles reappear as components of later, more complex ones. Tales also allows you to combine inventory items, something Telltale adventures have lacked for much too long. This adds a bit of depth to the puzzles, the interface for using one item on another is a bit cumbersome and the combinations you have to make in this episode are pretty obvious, but as an introduction to the concept for newcomers they serve their purpose well. As with other Telltale games, a hint system is available to gently prod you in the right direction should you get stuck, but the majority of the puzzles should prove logical enough to overcome without hints.
The writing and characters in Tales should entertain anyone who didn't pay much attention to the Monkey Island games in the past, but fans of Threepwood's past outings may be underwhelmed by the seemingly scant character development and lack of playfulness and flourish in Tales. The pirates of Flotsam are somehow pathetic, bereft of saltiness. They all come across as kids playing dress up; simpletons with no strength of character, no threatening side. Perhaps this is intentional and they're supposed to be washed up, but if so the joke is too subtle. In previous games they would at least insult you back if you chose to insult them, but in Tales you're rarely offered smart ass dialogue options, and when you are it's highly likely that Guybrush will say something flaccid and cowardly instead of what you picked. One of the joys of The Secret of Monkey Island and The Curse of Monkey Island was getting fresh with pirates and receiving a well crafted insult in return, and this is sadly missing from Tales.
Overall Tales is a fair continuation of the Monkey Island series in the same way that The Real Ghostbusters saturday morning cartoon was a fair continuation of the Ghostbusters movie. It doesn't have the grandeur or flourish of the previous games and it favours pitiful, mockable characters over the affable eccentrics and the slightly unhinged ones you meet in Secret, Revenge and Curse. That said, the puzzles are more accessible and arguably better structured, the length is about right and the art style spot on. Since the only way to obtain Tales is to buy the whole series at once (no per-episode payments here), I would wait for some views on the next episode before committing to buy an entire series. The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition should fill some of the time between now and then.