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.
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.
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.
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.
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].