By Marty Mulrooney
Thimbleweed Park is an old school point-and-click adventure game from the legendary creators of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. Together with the rest of Team Thimbleweed, they have created a video game experience that evokes the classic LucasArts adventures of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Players take control of five characters with absolutely nothing in common who have all been mysteriously drawn to a rundown, forgotten town. Yet, although they don’t realise it in the beginning, they all share a deep connection that will shake the very foundation of their shared reality. A dead body is starting to pixelate under the bridge… welcome to Thimbleweed Park.
Set in 1987, Thimbleweed Park is a neo-noir mystery that grips from the outset. Following the gruesome murder of an unidentified male, two FBI agents turn up – separately – to investigate. Agent Reyes and Agent Ray may look like Mulder and Scully, but that’s where the similarities end. They aren’t partners and neither agent trusts the other’s reasons for being there. They agree to work together simply because they have no other choice.
The interface is a refreshing throwback to classic LucasArts adventures such as The Secret of Monkey Island. Modern adventure games often limit interaction to ‘Look At’ and ‘Use’. Thimbleweed Park will let you ‘Open’, ‘Close’, ‘Give’, ‘Pick Up’, ‘Look At’, ‘Talk To’, ‘Push’, ‘Pull’ and ‘Use’… and rather than feeling archaic, it’s liberating. The game has barely begun and you’re already able to switch between Reyes and Ray at will. The sense of freedom is fantastic and the possibilities seem endless.
Regardless of which character you choose to control initially (hint: it doesn’t really matter), you’ll eventually make your way into town. This is the moment where you’ll realise just how ambitious this project really is. Although it supposedly only has a population of 80, Thimbleweed Park feels like a real town with real secrets. Beyond the town you’ll find a multi-storey hotel, a late-night radio station and a mansion. There is a Twin Peaks meets The X-Files meets True Detective vibe going on and it’s awesome. Reyes and Ray are a mystery, each carrying their own notebook with cryptic entries confirming their dubious nature. You can’t even trust the protagonists!
The town is really, really odd. Most of the shops are boarded up, the local plumbers are sisters dressed in pigeon costumes called The Pigeon Brothers and everything seems to be powered by vacuum tubes. Even more peculiar, the Sheriff and the Coroner appear to be the same person (just dressed in different clothes), although naturally they both deny the accusation when confronted. Although the premise of a dead body being investigated may sound serious, there is a deep vein of dark humour running throughout each and every scene. It’s a fine balancing act of the ridiculous and the straight-laced. There is also an unshakeable feeling of dread and sometimes, outright fear. The main characters are being watched. Thankfully, the jokes keep everything feeling light enough to remain enjoyable and fun. It’s an atmosphere unlike any other adventure game in recent memory.
As the adventure continues, new playable characters are introduced via flashback. Once their self-contained chapter is concluded, they join the roster of switchable, playable characters in the main narrative. For example, at one point the waitress in the local diner tells the story of Ransom the *Beeping* Clown, who was cursed by an old lady he insulted during his hit stand-up show. This resulted in him being unable to remove his clown nose and makeup.
His superstar status was dashed overnight and he now lives in an abandoned circus swearing to himself and being generally grumpy. He shouldn’t be likeable… but he is. They all are, which is why Thimbleweed Park is such a joy to play. Each new mystery is piled on top of the previous one to create a tapestry of absurd, hilarious and downright addictive storytelling. It manages to be extremely silly while still commanding your full attention and fuelling a compulsive need to uncover more.
The locations unlock at a steady rate and there is always something new to discover and interact with. Chatting with the locals is a blast too. The game comes with two difficulty modes – ‘Casual’ and ‘Hard’ – and this reviewer recommends anyone who is a fan of the genre to choose ‘Hard’ (‘Casual’ simply presents a lot of the tougher challenges already solved). The puzzles are plentiful and will often stump you, but they’re fair. You can also solve many of them in any order you please, which makes dead ends a rarity. There are five characters to juggle, each with their own inventory full of items, but it never feels overwhelming. In terms of mechanics and design, Thimbleweed Park is a triumph.
The voice acting is first rate, the soundtrack composed by Steve Kirk is lovely (especially the elevator music!) and the high definition pixel art graphics are delightful. Thimbleweed Park is how you remember classic adventure games being, not how they actually were. The end result is a very aesthetically pleasing experience that embraces the strengths of its forebears without ever falling into the trap of emulating their numerous weaknesses. Small concessions have been made for a modern audience. Hovering over a hotspot will highlight the suggested interaction verb – which can be immediately activated with a click of the right mouse button – and animations can be skipped. Each character also has a journal with a ‘to-do list’ to help you keep track of their unique objectives. Autosaves are plentiful. There is even some fine controller support that makes adventuring from the couch both a viable and enjoyable option.
The only downside to having so many playable characters is that you never really feel truly close to any of them. Specific instances aside, it doesn’t really matter who you’re controlling at any given moment. It’s only when a character disappears that you will realise just how much you enjoyed their company. There is plenty of fourth wall breaking and Thimbleweed Park often acknowledges it’s an adventure game. For some it will undoubtedly be far too weird, but for the most part it works really well. It isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but you will smile and chuckle often simply because the absurdity is so pitch perfect. This is a Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick game through and through.
At around 14 hours (that’s for ‘Hard’ mode), Thimbleweed Park’s asking price of £14.99 is an absolute bargain. The ending wraps everything up fairly neatly, before throwing a Marmite curveball that will either cement the game as a masterpiece or fuel accusations of pretentiousness. For this reviewer, it’s mostly the former. Thimbleweed Park is an experience that shouldn’t be missed by any self-respecting adventure gamer. They just don’t make them like this anymore… only now, they do.
9.5 OUT OF 10