Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal Review

7 07 2009

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There can only be one of two reasons why you’ve come to hunt out opinion on the first episode of Tales of Monkey Island. Either you’re worried that one of your favourite adventure gaming series is about to be dug up from its beautiful grave and repeatedly pummeled by a relatively new point-and-click studio, or you’ve heard stories of the great Guybrush Threepwood but never ventured into his world, and with this new title you’ve decided hey, why not start here?

I mean, it’s not feasible that you’ve never heard of the Monkey Island series.

Either way, let me begin by putting your mind at rest. I too was a little worried about how Telltale Games would handle Guybrush, LeChuck et al, so it gives me great relief to be able to praise their work and say straight out that Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is a lovingly nostalgic affair simply brimming with everything we came to love about the MI series.

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It shouldn’t really be at all surprising, considering that the development was headed by Dave Grossman, who worked on the original two Monkey Island games. Ron Gilbert, again a designer on the original games, was also involved and you can really feel it. The jokes are witty, sometimes even laugh-out-loudable and the situations are ridiculously brilliant. They’ve even dragged back the voice actors from The Curse of Monkey Island! It’s a Monkey Island lover’s dream come true.

The story is set a while after the conclusion of Escape From Monkey Island, but has been written in a way that it is freely accessible by both veteran and pirate-wannabe alike. All you need to know is this – Guybrush and Elaine are married, LeChuck is still trying to take Elaine as his wife, and both LeChuck and Guybrush are still as incompetent as ever.

Gameplay-wise, it plays out a lot like the fourth in the series. The transition to 3D in the fourth title received mixed opinions, but overall it seemed to work pretty well. Telltale have taken that original system and stuck their own tried-and-tested method in for good measure. Control of Guybrush is achieved either through the directional keys on your keyboard, or by grabbing him with the mouse and pulling in the direction you want him to go. The state of interaction, however, is solely the work of Telltale and is carried out simply with a click of the mouse. Guybrush will automatically decide whether to examine, pick up, talk or eat something.

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Another new idea comes from the inventory screen. Combining two items is nothing new, but now players must select the two items and put them into some sort of fusing implement. Not exactly breakthrough, but it seems like an odd addition to a seemingly simple idea. Still, knowing that Guybrush keeps everything he collects in his pants is sure to spark some reminiscent smiles.

I’ve really warmed to the idea of having separate episodes, too. Initially, like many others I’m sure, I simply didn’t see the point. Were Telltale releasing Guybrush’s next adventure in pieces just because that’s what they’ve done with all their past titles? If that was the case, I hated the idea. Having now played through the first chapter, I am still no closer to knowing exactly why they did it, but I can honestly say that it works like a charm. Any Monkey Island fan will know that each game is split into chapters with a title and the famous ditty to accompany each. All Telltale have done is split these chapters up and sell them individually. It’s actually pretty clever when you think about it. I mean, I definitely want to play the next one, so the job is done on me.

This method of releasing each chapter separately works in a different way too. In this first chapter, Guybrush meets a few past faces, but not many. This in turn makes me look forward to the characters I could potentially be meeting within the future releases. Here’s hoping Murray features in the next one – and let’s not forget Stan. Just imagining Telltale’s take on these characters is enough to make me long for the rest of the story.

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Graphically it’s all very much on a par with the rest of Telltale’s past work. They definitely have an art style which sears through all their work – not exactly what you’d call next generation, but at the same time no-one would venture so far as to say it’s ugly looking. Sure, they stuck a goatee on Guybrush and in areas there are more edges than are needed, but the world of Monkey Island really feels at home with the comic look and bright colours.

Now, one of the main concerns about Escape from Monkey Island was how some of the puzzles were extremely random and left you wondering ‘How on EARTH was I meant to work that out?’. Launch of the Screaming Narwhal’s puzzles feel like the love-child of all four titles combined. There’s bits from all of them in there, from Escape’s ‘getting lost in a maze unless you follow the right path’ to the second title’s learning a passcode to enter a door. All this mixed with the numerous references to past games makes for an extremely nostalgic journey which isn’t at all too vague to cut out the newbies. In general, however, the puzzles are a lot easier to figure out than the rest of the series. As long as you’ve grabbed every item and held every conversation possible, the answer is usually just a click away.

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But you know what? That didn’t seem to matter. I completed the first chapter over the course of one evening and, while shorter than I’m accustomed too from a MI title, I enjoyed every moment of it. Tales of Monkey Island feels like a series which has got it’s mojo back. It’s clever, witty, charming and, most importantly, an answer to the critics. As long as Telltale keep this up for the next four releases, this series is exactly what they needed to launch their little company into the mainstream.

Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is available July 7th 2009 from the Telltale Games site.

[This review can also be found over on Steamfriends].





Monster Trucks Nitro – An Independent Opinion

30 01 2009

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It’s Trials 2, Jim, but not as we know it.

Yes, after the success of their last physics-driven wheelathon, Redlynx has peddled out another one, this time revolving around monster trucks.

The formula for Trials is still there in it’s entirety. Set on a linear plane in a 3D environment, players race their beast across the level, dodging and destroying obstacles, launching themselves across crazy gaps and attempting to clear the finish line in a record-breaking time.

Where Trials 2 was all about skill and timing and resulted in many smashed keyboards through frustration, Monster Trucks Nitro is more about smashing your way through the level and obstacles are fairly easier to traverse. Skill, for the most part, has been replaced with speed and destroying stuff. Which, being honest, is what I want in a game.

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No longer can players die from tipping upside-down, either. A wonky monster truck will lie on it’s top for a couple of seconds before being sprang back up into racing position. Of course, it wastes valuable time so it’s not recommended, but it all adds to making the game more casual-gamer friendly.

See, that’s the thing – while Trials 2 was generally aimed at everyone to begin with, then reeled in the more hardcore players with later, ridiculously difficult stages, Monster Trucks Nitro never really gets that hard. Don’t get me wrong, I found myself restarting a good number of times on certain tracks towards the end, but at no point did I feel the anger (and subsequent joy) that Trials made me feel. MTN has definitely lowed the difficulty bar.

Now would be a good time to mention that ‘Nitro’ tag. Nitro canisters are dotted around some of the levels and, once picked up, provide a short burst of speed with the squeeze of the Ctrl button. There’s some pretty awesome jumps to be seen provided by these boosts, with plenty of air and crazy landings. A welcome addition, it works very well and allows for extreme speed/destroying which, as I mentioned, I do love a bit of.

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There’s plenty of levels to keep you occupied and getting all those gold medals is an extremely tricky job. I’m not the kind of person who does that whole ‘play the game through again but better this time’ scenario, but for those who do go for a bit of that, it’s all good.

It has to be said, too, that it is generally a very nice looking game. Backdrops are lush and detailed, while engines and nitro effects look the part. And, of course, being a Miniclips game, all the menus are very shiny and round. The sound is what you’d expect – engines roaring, explosions… exploding. The usual. The music, however, it rather dull and sounded extremely mediocre. From an indie game like this, I’d expect more.

What you’re looking at here is a fun little physics-based time-trial racer which is good fun for the most part, but just seems to be missing some kind of edge. It’s possibly a bit harsh to say it, but the flash version of Monster Trucks Nitro is easily as fun as this 3D remake – maybe even more so. In fact this version feels like it could quite easily be a free flash game… especially with that name.

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If you’re a big fan of Trials 2, you’ll probably find enough here to keep you satisfied, but that will most likely be coupled with a slight sense of disappointment. For everyone else, just decide how much you like speed, monster trucks and blowing stuff up and make your decision off that.

Verdict: A fun, if rather easy, time-trial-em-up racer. There’s plenty to be seen here and it all looks very nice, but it’s all pretty much been done before.





Pretty Platforming: Where is My Heart?

29 01 2009

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Not only is it full of striking colours and small, fluffy-looking creatures, it’s also extremely odd.

This is ‘Where Is My Heart?’, work of Bernhard Schulenburg another of the IGF Student Showcase winners for 2009. A platformer at heart (ooh good one!), WIMH features some of the oddest yet coolest gameplay I’ve seen in a while and I love it.

Taking control of 3 little tykes by pressing 1, 2 or 3 to correspond to each, it’s all about collecting the hearts scattered around the level. Hearts can be released from the blocks in which they are contained by doing an upside-down Mario. That is, slamming your head on the top of a brick. Releasing hearts opens up new areas to explore. Simple as.

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Or is it? With the 3 different characters comes the ability to make them work co-operatively, be it to stack on top of each other in order to reach higher areas, or to combine the 3 to create some kind of strange antler creature. Oh yes.

Then there’s other crazy goings-on. Certain head-butted blocks will give special abilities. One allows a creature to see hidden ledges which are normally inaccessable, and then allow both him and his friends to jump to areas they couldn’t before. Oh, there’s also a big tree which feeds on love.

It’s some crazy stuff. I know where my heart will be when Bernhard finally releases the full version. For now, you can grab the demo from his site.





Tag: The Power of Paint – An Independent Opinion

27 01 2009

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I was planning on simply having a quick look into Tag as I have been doing with the other games in the IGF Student Showcase Category, but after giving it my time, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Such a beast of a game is surely worth more than a few paragraphs. So here goes my full-blown ‘Why You Should Play Tag: The Power of Paint’ wordathon.

Tag: The Power of Paint is a first-person paint-shooter (or FPPS for short… ok, I made that up). Armed with a paint gun, players can find and load three different colours of paint into their weapon and each colour has a different effect on the sprayable surfaces of the levels. The objective of the game is to reach the huge glowing orb of paint at the end of each progressing level.

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Each level begins pretty much barren of colour – of course, you can change all that. Paint sprayed onto any monochrome surface will stick and remain there until level completion – even if you manage to drop off one of the games many high-rise rooftops to your death void of colour, your artwork will stay exactly how you dealt it out. I found myself spending a considerable amount of time just colouring entire levels in to see the kind of mess I could create. It’s quite simply excellent fun.

And that’s not even the game yet – that’s just the nice ‘side-effect’ of the gameplay. As mentioned before, each different colour has it’s own power. Stepping onto a green surface will cause your played to spring up into the air, keeping the previous sideways momentum, making for some awesome building jumps. Incredibly, spraying green paint on the sides of objects has the same effect, only in a horizontal direction. You begin to see how endless the possibilities are. Mirror’s Edge, eat your heart out.

The red paint causes your speed to increase tenfold, allowing for some brilliant velocity-driven flights through the air. Combining the green and red paint… well, set sail for the other side of the landscape.

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Finally, the blue paint adds a whole extra dimension to play – stepping on a blue surface causes a player to stick to the platform. While this might not make much sense on a floor, firing a gun full of blue paint at a wall or ceiling… it’s an incredible idea and works so beautifully. Stick to a wall and the camera will turn on it’s side; With a ceiling the camera turns upside down. It’s all very Spiderman and is just fantastic to play. Puzzles combining the blue paint with both red and green will keep your mouth dropped in awe.

I say that with all honesty – I may have said the word ‘wow’ a good dozen times throughout my run and I laughed out loud at the intensity of some of the puzzles – ingenious doesn’t even begin to describe some of the leaps and dives I had to perform to reach my goal. It’s not exactly a difficult game and checkpoints placed throughout the longer levels keep it flowing, but you will savour every moment.

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The screenshots show how nicely the scenery is cel-shaded and the style mixed with the techno-style soundtrack all work perfectly together. Ironically the paint splodges that eventually splatter every wall make you realise how bland it was before, and it makes you want to spray even more. It’ll give about half-an-hour’s worth of play to see the end but, like me, you may want to give it another go just to make sure that it really was that good.

I cannot recommend Tag enough. It’s beautiful, it’s so clever, it’s perfectly designed and it well and truly deserves to be nominated for the aforementioned award. Hell, I’d go as far to say that it’s got a great chance of winning it. Pick it up from the official Tag site now and spend the good part of an hour with my mouth hanging low.

Verdict: An incredibly unique puzzler which will keep you stunned in awe from start to finish. The greatest use of paint ever conceived.





Dish Washington: Is That a Sud in Your Eye Or…

25 01 2009

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The 2nd of 10 winners from the ‘Student Showcase’ shortlist for IGF 2009 that I’m giving the check out and compared to City Rain – the first I gave a go – there really is no contest.

A mod for Half-Life 2: Episode One, the big hype-worthy point about Dish Washington is the fact that each of the parts which make up the game (e.g. the music, the graphics, the ‘storyline’) were developed by a different person from a different place in the world. Altogether 9 different people – collectively Dadiu – contributed to this extremely odd offering and it makes me wonder whether, separately, each submitted piece is technically nicely done… is it just putting them all together that made such a wtf situation of a game?

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I mean, I get humour. Haha, funny funny, chuckle chuckle etc. In Dish Washington players assume the role of a dragon-cum-crocodile who likes to rhyme and shout random words while boogying to the same piece of music over and over and OVER again. Gameplay revolves around taking dirty dishes, scrubing them to the beat, racking them up for drying, and repeat… and it’s apparently a PARTY.

The rhyming dragon-thing didn’t tickle my funny bone, nor did washing dishes. Maybe it’s just late at night and in the morning I’ll find it hilarious – I’ll update you if this is the case. But honestly, how this made the top ten submitted is beyond me. Graphically it’s pretty average, the music isn’t anything special and it lasts the whole of 5 minutes.

Now please, leave me while I attempt to scrub all remnants from my hard drive.





Mayhem Intergalactic – An Independent Opinion

24 01 2009

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The ‘Student Showcase’ award at the Independent Gaming Festival always plays host to a nice selection of student-developed indie games from that year and, while not all can win the grand prize, for all the student winners it must be quite an honour.

Indeed, while Mayhem Intergalactic did not scoop the grand prize in 2008, sole creator Chris Pelling aka Inventive Dingo definitely must have felt proud. Now, more than a year after his space-based strategy game was released, it’s still proving to have plenty of life left in it, with a release on Steam this week.

I don’t know if this says something about myself or the usual layout of games in general, but the main thing I noticed after booting Mayhem Intergalactic up was the distinct lack of a Campaign Mode, or any ‘main’ mode for that matter. The game simply offers a single player a choice of either a ‘Quick Game’ or a ‘Custom Game’, and it doesn’t take a gaming god to guess what each of these entail. I let it slide though – it’s the gameplay I’m interested in.

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And the gameplay is interesting indeed. What at first seems like quite a daunting task quickly shows itself to be one of the simplest setups I’ve seen in a while for a strategy game. A turn-based saga (much like how the Civilization series works), the action all happens at the end of the turn.

The game begins with a mad rush to grab as many surrounding planets as possible and then, once borders with other players have been established, it’s time to decide whether to build those borders up or go in for the kill and try to take more planets. Each planet owned will provide extra ships each round, and battles to take planets take the course of a ‘Risk’ style conflict – attacking a planet which has 10 ships defending it with your own fleet of 15 ships will most likely result in a win – although it’s not a certainty, as the 10 might get some lucky shots in. Yes, it’s completely down to luck (and hidden mathematics) but if you stick a considerable amount of attacking power to the enemy, your chance of prevailing will be greatly heightened.

And this is pretty much the entire game explained. There are other minor points – for example players can set up convoys so that planets which are never in use can have their ships moved automatically to more useful areas – but the basic concept really is that… basic. While the simplicity in gameplay is great for beginners and casual strategists, more hardcore players will find MI really isn’t for them – there really is just not enough there to justify paying for it, especially compared to the majority of other games in the genre.

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I did keep playing for quite some time, however, for the simple reason that I just cannot resist achievements. Mayhem Intergalactic has 21 of its own and attempting to make them your own is, of course, extremely addictive.

So while the simplicity of Mayhem Intergalactic is a huge plus for beginners to the strategy world and casual gamers, it’s also its biggest downfall as far as ‘real’ gamers are concerned. If you can grab a couple of friends and get some rounds of multiplayer action going, you’ll have a blast, but it will most likely be only the few times. Hats off to Chris Pelling for the inventive idea, but personally for me there just isn’t enough depth to keep me playing.

Verdict: Casual gamers will have a blast annihilating their friends in space, but more hardcore strategists won’t find much here to interest them.





If Sim City and Tetris Had a Love Child: City Rain

23 01 2009

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Every few days I’ll be giving 1 of the 10 ‘Student Showcase‘ games nominated for the IGF 09 a look-in and ‘City Rain – Building Sustainability’ gets to go first.

The official City Rain site (which is in the process of moving) gives it a description as follows: ‘a game that can be used to teach players urbanism, ecology and sustainability notions and entertaining them as well.’ I don’t know about the first 3, but entertaining it certainly is… maybe for the wrong reasons.

City Rain asks you to place buildings down on a square map, but there is a Tetris-urgency about it, as the building fall to the ground slowly. The normal town-building rules apply – don’t build houses next to a factory, build a good spread of police stations/hospitals/parks et cetera et cetera.

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While the game itself is good enough fun on it’s own, it must be said that the translation gives it quite the edge. I do have to wonder sometimes why developers who don’t speak English as their first lanuage don’t just get an English-speaking individual to comb over their product and make sure it doesn’t sound completely barmy.

This is exactly what the creators of City Rain failed to do and, as the narrator reads each line out, it’s impossible not to smile at some of the lines. Want an example? On the title screen, the main game is called ‘Campaing’. Were they wanting to say ‘Campaign’ or ‘Campaigning’? Maybe we shall never know.

However, do not let the hilarious translations scare you off – it’s a decent enough experience that has clearly had a lot of thought put into it. Check out the trailer below and then give it a go.