(Casual Mode Review) Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick and Co Create What Feels like a Classic, LucasArts Adventure Game
I have an attachment towards Rob Gilbert’s games that is perhaps much more different to others. What I mean is that I never got to play classic point and click adventure games like Maniac Mansion or the Monkey Island series, games that put Gilbert and LucasArts on the map in that genre. Weirdly enough, I’m fonder of Gilbert’s work during his Humongous Entertainment days. This was after he left LucasArts and helped co-founded Humongous to make kid friendly adventure games like Putt-Putt, Pajama Sam, Freddi Fish and Spy Fox in “Dry Cereal”. These were adventure games I grew up loving at a really young age, but I never got to play one of Gilbert’s LucasArts classics. Thimbleweed Park is a game that’s meant to pay tribute to those adventure gems of the late 80’s and early 90’s from the similar SCUMM inventory system to the character designs. As I played through Thimbleweed Park, it gave me that old feeling of anxiously wanting to solve puzzles while appreciating the modern game design choices to make an old genre feel fresh again. Plus it’s giving me the craving to play Gilbert’s older gems.
The game starts out having you play as a man with a rather outrageous German accent and has a message to perform simple tasks, only to eventually be the victim of a murder. Then the game transitions to two of the playable characters who are working together to solve the crime. One of them is Agent Ray, a veteran FBI agent who wants nothing more than to get this case over with. The other is Agent Reyes, a new face in the FBI who plays the good cop to Ray's bad cop. The comically named duo then investigate T.P. and meet a bunch of oddball, Twin Peaks like characters. These characters range from a sheriff and coroner who happen to look and sound the same to two plumbing sisters who dress up as pigeons. You don’t play as both at the same time as you can swap between both Ray and Reyes.
Later both Ray and Reyes will talk to certain NPC’s that will trigger playable flashbacks for other characters to learn about their backgrounds. One of these characters is Delores, a game designer who went against her Uncle’s wish to run his pillow factory to pursue her dream making adventure games. There's also Delores’ dad Franklin, who gets assassinated and turns into a ghost after trying to turn the pillow factory into a teddy bear factory. Finally there’s Ransome the beeping insult clown, a potty-mouthed comedian who got a curse to never remove his clown makeup and have his life ruined after insulting an occult member at one of his shows. He’s also the closest thing we’ll get to a Krusty the Clown point and click adventure. Not to mention with these other characters playable, you learn more about the events of Thimbleweed Park as well as the plot. You’ll learn that Delores’ uncle, Chuck Edmund, has passed away. Most of the Thimbleweed Park community has mourned over his death because he was the beloved Pillow Factory owner who gave the town some kind of fame. Chuck was also a successful inventor of countless machines with 3000 at the end of their title. You learn that Ransome is constantly reviled around Thimbleweed Park thanks to him being a Grade A jerk to the Thimbleweed crowd for a show of his 10 years ago.
As you walk around Thimbleweed Park, you’ll definitely notice a look that might be familiar to you if you’ve played Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s earliest games. The characters all look like 16-bit versions of Maniac Mansion characters as they have a similar head to body proportion to the cast of M.M., but are much more detailed. The world itself has a nice 16-bit look as you’ll walk through the town and find different buildings to enter and communicate to new characters to get more clues or quests. Not to mention the atmosphere itself appears to take place at night so you’ll be traversing in a dark environment outdoors. But perhaps one thing that needs to be pointed out is that despite the 16 bit look, the game itself takes place in 1987 (Year Maniac Mansion came out). There’s many pop culture references to 1987 and while it’s fitting considering this game’s inspiration, the look doesn’t line up to me because T.P. looks like a game that came out in ’91 or ’92.
As for the audio, the music is serviceable for the tone this game is going for, but nothing super memorable. As you walk around the town of Thimbleweed Park, you’ll get a light jazzy, detective music. If you’re walking around Ransome’s abandoned circus grounds, you’ll get circus music that sounds both circus-y and intentionally crude. The Edmund Mansion is where you'll hear some somewhat somber piano/guitar music. I wouldn't call any of Thimbleweed Park's music super catchy, but they serve their purpose in adding to the atmosphere of the different areas within the game. But the most notable element of Thimbleweed Park's audio is the voice acting, which for the most part is decent. Agent Ray’s voice actress brings a good, tough FBI lady voice with an annoyed attitude that brings out here reluctant character. As for NPC’s, Delores’ uncle Chuck Edmund has a great cartoonish, wealthy tycoon voice that fits the tone of the character perfectly. There are some moments where the voice acting undersells the significance of some moments. (Light spoilers in this next sentence if you don't want to know) There’s a moment in Delores' flashback where she gets a letter from MucasFlem (get it, a parody of LucasArts) after she worked hard to apply for a job there. When she finds out she gets the job, her voice sounded mildly enthralled over the news when she’s suppose to be excited beyond belief. In general the voice acting is solid, but moments like that made me wish the V.A. were more consistent.
As far as the game plays, it aims to play what you might remember classic point and click adventures were back then. There is the classic SCUMM engine that lets each character hold a number of items that may or may not solve a puzzle. Not to mention each character has specific actions that can also effect the gameplay. Actions include opening and closing doors, picking up items, pushing and pulling others, look at something for the character to say something about it, talking to or giving items to other characters and using items. If you have played these old LucasArts adventure games, these actions should be incredibly familiar. Admittedly it took me a while to get used to the system as in certain instances, I kept forgetting to click open and then click on the door when I wanted to just enter a building. It soon became second nature once I took enough time to get used to the setup. These actions only pertain to 4 of the playable characters as Franklin the Ghost has his own set of actions. He can’t pick up items, but he has skills like freezing items, zapping electronics and moan in order to scare the living. Though one gameplay component that makes the game more manageable is that every character has a list of objectives they must complete. It’s always in your item inventory and you can always check on it to see which objectives you cleared and which ones need to be finished.
Also like a classic adventure time, you’ll find yourself endlessly wandering around different environments hoping to find an item or solve a puzzle to progress. Early on you’ll be doing a lot of wandering within the town thinking where on Earth you need to go and how you’re supposed to complete a certain task. This might be a turn off for those who simply don’t have the patience to play through a point and click adventure. Thankfully much like the objective lists, the game comes up with some modern game design decisions to help speed up the game. One of the earliest quests is printing copies of Thimbleweed Park’s map in order to investigate the entire area of the town. Once you complete this task, you can fast travel to any of the key locations within the game. Plus you’re allowed to talk on the phone and this will be mandatory for certain quests, but one number that will help you get out of some jams is the HintTron 3000. I beat this game on casual mode and even then I got stuck and had to call that number in order to get some hints on what I’m suppose to do. Calling the HintTron 3000 may give you some spoilers, so perhaps use it under your discretion. There are definitely some hand holding moments in this game, mainly in casual mode. However once you do solve a conundrum by giving an item to the right person or performing a specific action, the sense of gratification feels sweet. Of course that’s part of the appeal of adventure games. You collect items or try to say the right thing as a means to solve a puzzle and that jolly sensation of knowing you succeeded won’t outstay its welcome here. Briefly on the puzzles, I found some of them to be somewhat abstract and hard to understand at first, but after enough exploration I understood how to solve them.
Perhaps one of my favorite things about Thimbleweed Park is how it embraces this silly, humorous tone. Normally when you click on the “Look at” option on an item, the character will either come up with a witty comment or a hilariously endearing statement about what they’re observing. When you are in Delores’ flashback you can look at her library of books in her room and say, “This is where I keep my Kirk/Spock slasher fiction.” It’s a comment that comes out of nowhere, but is quite funny when you hear it as you learn something strange about Delores’ love for Star Trek. Also many of the interactions with the NPC’s are normally comical. You might tell everybody that the town’s sheriff and coroner are the same person, but they’ll all disagree and say their eyes have a resemblance if anything. There’s also plenty of humor that not only makes fun of 80’s pop culture but also pokes fun at nerd culture in general. In Franklin’s flashback, you’re trying to convince some hip kid to take his glasses/mustache mask so Franklin can enter in his hotel room undercover. In order to do so, you're tested on your knowledge of 80’s slang by picking the right sequences of sentences that a cool dude from 1987 would say. Also in that hotel, there’s a nerd convention going on called ThimbleCon and you’ll see a guy in a dragon suit making statements like “SHUT UP IN THERE! They're going to make Star Wars prequels and they’ll be amazing!” This type of humor is found all over the game and it gives Thimbleweed Park an undeniable charm. There’s even a funny self awareness by the cast knowing they’re in the game early on as Agent Ray comments to Agent Reyes that the body “is starting to pixelate.”
As far as how everyone is utilized in the campaign, most of the 5 playable characters had scenarios where their actions contributed to the progression of the plot. The story will mainly focus on Agent Ray, Reyes and Delores as the two agents are again, trying to solve a murder mystery while Delores returns to town to try to make sense of Chuck Edmund’s cryptic will. Franklin as a ghost also has his moments where his spectral powers are put into good use to solve some quandaries as well. It’s Ransome who feels like an afterthought in the causal mode of Thimbleweed Park. To my relocation, he only had a couple of specialized conundrums that contributed to the story’s development, but it’s clearly much less than the other 4 characters. Not to mention that there are certain puzzles that any characters can decode, and I felt obligated to make Ransome the hero in those spots. I didn’t need Ransome in particular to solve those puzzles. I could have put someone like Agent Reyes in those roles and could have gotten the same result. Keep in mind I haven’t touched hard mode of this game, so Ransome’s role on hard is probably much more significant than it was in casual.
Perhaps I’ll give hard mode a try at some point since it seems like that is where a lot more meat to the game is. When Googling Thimbleweed Park pictures, I got to see locations and characters I never got to see on my casual play through and I guarantee those components will add a lot to the play through. That said, I still had a really good time on casual mode and thought Thimbleweed Park was a good return to form for Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. If you are someone who’s nostalgic for classic point and click adventures and are itching to play a new game in the genre, I think this will satisfy your craving. If you’re someone who wants to get into the genre, I think Thimbleweed Park is a good starting point. It maintains many elements of traditional point and click adventure games as well as add more contemporary gameplay elements that will entertain both newcomers and veterans of the genre. I mean, before this the last Ron Gilbert game I finished was Putt Putt Saves the Zoo WAY BACK when I was a kid. Thimbleweed Park had me laughing and pleased for every funny piece of dialogue I got and for every puzzle I fathomed. Now I have a greater appreciation for games of this genre back in their hay day in the 80’s and 90’s.