People are pretty crazy about Monkey Island, and with good reason. Though the series had its ups and downs, when the Monkey Island games were at their best, they were one of the high watermarks for how funny and clever a game could be. It's been a while since we've seen the continued adventures of Guybrush Threepwood, and now Telltale is at the helm with Tales of Monkey Island, a brand-new five-episode adventure, the first episode of which is available now. Considering the actual quality of the previous Monkey Island games, as well as the legend that people have built up in their minds during their eight-year absence, expectations are high. Luckily, Telltale is staffed to the gills with folks who were key players in past Monkey Island games, and they don't seem to have lost their touch with Tales.
Launch of the Screaming Narwhal initially catches our hero Guybrush Threepwood in the middle of another jam involving his wife and former governor of Mêlée Island, Elaine Marley-Threepwood, and the voodoo-ghost-zombie-demon-pirate LeChuck. After an ill-considered root beer incantation, Elaine is left in the clutches of a re-mortalized LeChuck, and Guybrush is marooned with a LeChuck-possessed hand on Flotsam Island, which is where this episode takes place. The title refers to the only ship on Flotsam Island, which Guybrush must wrest from a local pirate, though he also has to contend with a mysterious weather system that keeps the inhabitants of Flotsam Island trapped there as well.
This episode seems very deliberately designed to ease you back into the world of Monkey Island, and the events on Flotsam Island feel like a warm-up for the proper adventure. Elaine and LeChuck don't figure in too heavily just yet, allowing you to get familiar with the unique way in which Guybrush buckles swash, as well as the series' goofy, anachronistic, easy-going approach to the topics of piracy and island voodoo. There's still plenty of room for callbacks and references tailored for established Monkey Islanders, though it's rarely so inside that first-timers won't be able to find the humor in silly pirates and sillier names for pirate stuff.
There's a good amount of funny, well-delivered dialog here, and the story is propelled by puzzles that tend to focus on combining and using inventory items in unconventional ways, as well as the deciphering of treasure maps. As far as the complexity and obscurity of the puzzles, I only found myself stumped by Launch of the Screaming Narwhal once, and the solution ended up being far simpler than I had assumed. There's a subtle hint system to occasionally nudge you in the right direction, something you can adjust the prominence of or turn off entirely.
My only substantial gripe about Tales of Monkey Island so far is the way the hybrid controls handle. Rather than opt for pure point-and-click, you've got direct control over Guybrush using either the keyboard or the mouse, though you still have to use the mouse to interact with people and objects. Fixed camera angles and a certain lack of fidelity in the controls just make both control options feel like a little bit of a struggle. There's also some awkwardness to the way you open up your inventory and use items from it. It has no significant ill impact on the actual puzzles, but it's kind of clunky.
If this first episode is any indication, Tales of Monkey Island is shaping up to be Telltale's most visually ambitious game yet. Everything is nicely stylized with a palette that recalls the old Monkey Island games, and with few minor exceptions, the animation is all very lively. Though there's a nice little depth of field effect, this isn't going to win any technical awards. Still, there's just a jauntiness to the whole look of the game that compliments the humor really well.
I was really satisfied with the three or four hours it took me to get through Launch of the Narwhal, and the episode ends on a delicious cliffhanger that has me eager to see what happens in next month's episode.