By Marty Mulrooney
When Tales Of Monkey Island, and the forthcoming remake of The Secret Of Monkey Island, were announced at E3 this year, many adventure fans gasped in a mixture of shock and delight. Any adventure fan will surely tell you that adventure gaming, contrary to popular belief, never truly died. There have been some excellent adventures released in recent years, even if they have flown under the radar compared to the overwhelming explosion made by high-definition gaming and the PS3/XBOX360/Wii console dominance.
Yet the announcement that the adventure gaming series that every adventure gamer knows was being both remastered and expanded upon was a day many had thought would never come. The announcement that Telltale, consisting of many ex-Lucasarts employees who had already saved Sam and Max, would be helming the continuation of the story with downloadable episodes was also welcome news. The franchise was in safe, respectable hands. Even Lucasarts themselves were openly getting involved, whilst they also worked hard on their new Special Edition of The Secret Of Monkey Island (TM). Expectations were running high.
So, in the short space of a month, the first episode of Tales of Monkey Island is already upon us. Or rather, the first chapter. Any Monkey Island fan will know that each previous game consisted of a series of chapters. Tales Of Monkey Island may be the series’ first foray into the episodic distribution model, yet it has been claimed that when all 5 episodes (chapters!) join together, it will be as big and continuous a game as anything that has gone before. Early episodes of Sam and Max stumbled because Telltale made each of them self-contained and reused locations from one game to the next. It has been assured that this will not be the case here.
It sounds odd, but I was almost relieved when I couldn’t download my copy of the game on the 7th July due to the Telltale website crashing. Literally hundreds of fans were swarming the forums and the Telltale blog, bringing their servers to a standstill. Although slightly frustrating, these events did bring a smile to my face. It certainly bodes well for a resurgence of the adventure genre. Perhaps all of this has something to do with the talent involved. Creator Ron Gilbert apparently dropped by to help brainstorm with the team and give his blessing, and Dave Grossman (one of the original designers on the first two games) and Mike Stemmle (co-designer of Escape From Monkey Island) took the reigns thereafter, helping to write and design the new games.
I finally got my copy of the game at 1am the next day. (Technically day, it was basically the middle of the night.) Downloading and activating a game from the Telltale online store is a piece of cake. Upon loading the game, it is immediately apparent that Telltale has kept the style fans will remember and love, especially fans of the third game in the series, The Curse Of Monkey Island. Although these new episodes are in 3D, they retain the style of the old games with same great art direction and technical prowess. The main menu, shown in the screenshot below, is a perfect example.
The good news is that, although 3D may never reach the same level of quality and artistry as 2D The Curse Of Monkey Island achieved, Telltale have excelled here with their in-house engine. Building on the games they have made in the past, the visuals here are certainly a step up from what I had expected. The graphics never feels anything less than solid, and some of the facial expressions really sell the jokes, which can make or break such a comedic game as this one. Straight away the game shows some nifty effects, such as the voodoo glow of LeChuck’s beard and the heavy downpour of a Caribbean storm. These opening sections, with Guybrush running around his own ship, trying save his wife Elaine on LeChuck’s ship, really help players to get involved early on.
Initially I was disappointed with the way the opening was handled. Perhaps it all felt slightly contrived. Yet it soon built up to a satisfying crescendo, and I think new and old players alike will appreciate the chance to get to grips with the controls. After all, it isn’t long before our returning hapless hero Guybrush Threepwood makes a pig’s ear of things, ending washed-up on the weirdly windy shore of Flotsam Island, his hand infected with the ‘Pox Of LeChuck.’
The controls are certainly a controversial move, yet I actually ended up appreciating what Telltale have done. All of the usual commands are done with a click of the mouse. One click does everything, streamlining the interface yet also potentially stripping down the gameplay. This is counteracted somewhat by a new addition to the Telltale engine. Objects in the inventory can now be combined, and also examined. Movement can be done in two ways. The first is holding down the left mouse button and dragging in the desired direction. Sadly, this is cumbersome and somewhat mind-boggling. Why couldn’t they just use the traditional click-to-walk that has always worked in the past?
Luckily, the second control scheme is an acceptable compromise. The arrow keys can be used to move Guybrush around the scene, and the point-and-clicking still allows anything to be looked at or interacted with without having to walk right over to it (as was the case in Escape From Monkey Island, itself built on the Grim Fandango Engine, GRIME.) At first I was dissapointed at having to use this hybrid control scheme, yet it grew on me more and more. Without it, scrolling backgrounds may have caused problems, as would later sections involving a forest maze and being strapped to a crazy doctor’s chair. With the use of the arrows and the mouse, I found everything easy to control and soon forgot about any misgivings I may have initially had.
The music is great as always, evoking Caribbean beats and piratey goodness. Michael Land, who scored the previous games, returns here and his presence is certainly appreciated. As much as Telltale has nailed the look of the series, Land has certainly captured the sounds and nuances of the soundtrack. Even in the opening sections, a new take on the familiar Monkey Island theme will certainly have fans smiling and humming along as they play.
Of course, we also have the phenomenal voice-work of the previous games back with us. Dominic Armato as Guybrush is better than ever, elevating the game to a whole new level. You can clearly hear with every line that being involved with Tales Of Monkey Island means much more to him than a mere paycheck. He has a genuine enthusiasm in the role that is almost infectious. Alexandra Boyd, who voiced Elaine in Curse of Monkey Island, returns as well and she infuses her dialogue with shear sparkle and wry whit. The relationship and banter between Guybrush and Elaine at the beginning of the game is a joy, especially after the somewhat weak portrayal of their marriage in the last game. I look forward to seeing them reunited in future episodes, especially as Elaine (and LeChuck) take a backseat after the opening section. LeChuck of course is now voiced by someone else (Adam Harrington, replacing Earl Boen, who will strangely still voice the character in the upcoming Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition) but I do feel the new voice actor does a fine job, as do the rest of the supporting cast.
Stealing the show in many ways is the return of the Voodoo Lady. She is a staple of the series and has some great lines here. She made me laugh out loud several times, second only to Guybrush himself. The new actress (Alison Ewing, who surprise-surprise replaces Leilani Jones Wilmore, who is still voicing the character in the Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition!) should be commended on a job well done, evoking plenty of chuckles and her fair share of belly laughs. In fact, the whole section involving the exploration of her hut is where the game worked best for me. It felt almost 2D due to the layout of the room, and the large amount of hotspots was a joy to click through.
Still, apart from the mild spoiler of the Voodoo Lady (I decided it was okay because Telltale had pre-release screenshots of her on their site!) I refuse to say anything else; it really is best experiencing it all firsthand. The whole episode just works the way it should do. The puzzles are funny, reasonably challenging and adhere to a fair logic. The voice-work and character interactions regularly raise a smile and even a few full blown laughs. It could be funnier, but then it has a lot more content to offer before it is over and there is still great potential with regards to where the story can go. As an opening chapter, this is highly encouraging. Fans of the series, you have been served well. Newcomers, you will be able to join in the fun just as easily, as the game is very accessible and does a great job of getting everybody up to speed. I look forward to the new chapters. The golden years of the adventure game are finally back. Let’s hope they are here to stay!
9 OUT OF 10
As an alternative to this game, I will also be replaying the much loved 2D Curse Of Monkey Island, to be reviewed at a later date.