"Still, this rebirth is in the hands of the adept Telltale Games, who recently revived Sam & Max, brought Strong Bad to tremendous interactive life, and rendered the quaint British tales of Wallace & Gromit in a mostly pleasing fashion. Aside from the original team, if anyone could successfully revitalise the Monkey Island franchise, it's these guys."
Monkey Island's been away for so long that it's difficult to remember why it's so loved. Almost any adventure fan playing in the 90s would list it among their favourite games, but there's always the risk of unfounded nostalgia.
Still, this rebirth is in the hands of the adept Telltale Games, who recently revived Sam & Max, brought Strong Bad to tremendous interactive life, and rendered the quaint British tales of Wallace & Gromit in a mostly pleasing fashion. Aside from the original team, if anyone could successfully revitalise the Monkey Island franchise, it's these guys.
Whether or not they've fully managed to do so is debatable. Telltale have certainly captured the spirit of the original games, but those expecting an Earth-shattering rejuvination of the adventure genre may be disappointed. This first episode of Tales of Monkey Island is strong and confident, but rarely more than that.
Those who never experienced the series in the 90s will find a lot to love, especially compared with the deluge of mediocre-or-worse adventure games in recent years. The problem is it's clearly one for the fans. Though Launch of the Screaming Narwhal marks the beginning of a new, self-contained story, it assumes a certain knowledge of the series' characters and what happened before. While newcomers are likely to find it exquisite adventuring fun, they're equally likely to be confused by certain plot elements; and series veterans may be troubled by those rose-tinted spectacles.
After an attempt to kill arch nemesis LeChuck goes hideously wrong, Guybrush Threepwood finds himself stranded on a desert island where the wind only blows inwards. It means you're stuck here until you can find a way of setting sail. It's all typically silly fun, and though the story never really reaches any dizzy heights, the cross-series format should work considerably better than Wallace & Gromit's slightly awkward cramming of a full narrative into each episode. Importantly, everything retains the wit and charm of the original games, with Guybrush's sarcastic asides to camera, as well as an abundance of clever pop-culture references and welcome in-jokes. Though it takes a while to reach its peak, it's often genuinely funny, and it's great to see the irreverant humour back in full force.
Puzzles are serviceable. They're generally okay, with a few stinkers thrown in - but then again, Monkey Island has always been a bit like that. It's from an era of adventure games when logic wasn't always a necessity, and this translates slightly clumsily to modern expectations. With a little sideways thinking, progress is rarely halted for too long, but a couple of the more obscure solutions still grate. And the less said about the duo of 'follow the map' puzzles, the better. They're tedious and irritating, with any wrong moves depositing you way back at the start of the trail, completely unnecessarily. Is Guybrush incapable of simply turning round?
Telltale have also made a bit of a pig's ear of the controls. While the keyboard is managable, mouse control has been inexplicably altered. Tales of Monkey Island is no longer a point-and-click adventure. It's a point-and-click-and-drag adventure. You position the mouse in front of your character, then drag in the direction you want to move. It's irresponsive and overly fiddly, and it's difficult to imagine the purpose of the alteration. Sometimes, a genre convention is in place for a reason - and control mechanisms are usually included on that short list.
They're only minor problems, but they're problems nonetheless - especially when the game seldom does anything that could lift it to the status of the original series. There is, however, one splendid sequence just past the half-way mark, which really shows Launch of the Screaming Narwhal at its best. Cuffed to a chair in a maniacal surgeon's operating theatre, you find yourself spinning around, manipulating objects with your feet, and playing a bizarre reward game with a captive monkey you previously helped escape. It's joyous, hilarious, and - most importantly - completely sensible in its logical progression.
That's the level Tales of Monkey Island needs to be aiming for throughout. If it can manage that, it's on to a winner.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (July 08, 2009)
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