Tales of Monkey Island Chapter 1 Review
It's been nine long years since the last Monkey Island game. With the bitter departure of LucasArts employees after the cancellation of 2004's Sam 'n Max and LucasArts' subsequent abandonment of its adventure game roots, there seemed little hope that Guybrush Threepwood would ever again buckle a swash. Then last year Telltale Games, a company founded by former Lucas employees, managed to bury the hatchet with Uncle George and the result is a new lease on life for Monkey Island. The new series, “Tales of Monkey Island” is being released on PC over a five month period in episodic format, and starts with Chapter 1: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal.
This first chapter represents a family reunion of sorts for the Monkey Island team. Headed up by Dave Grossman, the only remaining member of the original Monkey Island design triumvirate that included Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert, the development team also contains members of the original art team as well as Dominic Armato and Alexandra Boyd, the actors who originally did the voices for Guybrush and his wife Elaine. And if that isn't enough to inspire confidence in the series, get this; the music for the episodes is being done by veteran Monkey Island composer and steel drum expert, Michael Land.
Now it wouldn't be a Monkey Island game without Guybrush's nemesis, the dastardly pirate Le Chuck. At the start of Screaming Narwhal, Le Chuck's got the lovely Elaine tied up on his ship while he prepares to extract the mystical monkey magic that will enable him to rule the seas. Thinking Guybrush is dead, Le Chuck's unprepared for his sudden appearance which enables Guybrush to attack him with a rootbeer-dipped voodoo sword. Just when it looks like Le Chuck is no more, things go horribly wrong and Guybrush is blown overboard and marooned on Flotsam island. He heads to a nearby coastal village on the island and soon finds he has a lot in common with the peculiar pirate inhabitants of Flotsam, all of whom have been marooned indefinitely on the island due to the never-changing, ever-inland-blowing winds. Desperate to find a way off the island and back to Elaine, Guybrush sets out to discover both the source of the abnormal wind patterns and a ship to commandeer, thus outlining the episode's overall objectives.
The gameplay of Screaming Narwhal is made up of the familiar adventure game triad: exploration, character dialog and puzzle-solving. Guybrush needs a ship and goes looking for access to one by exploring the village and the surrounding jungle. Here's where the game earns its first thumbs down. You move Guybrush around either by moving the mouse while holding the left mouse button or by using the WASD keys. Neither method is particularly easy or comfortable and begs the question—in an old school point-and-click adventure, why not move by point-and-click? It doesn't make sense but thankfully, other old mechanics are preserved, like clicking on objects and hearing Guybrush make funny remarks about them as well as collecting objects then combining and using them.
For many gamers, the best part of the Monkey Island games is the writing. Whether it's Guybrush's witty inner monologue or absurd exchanges with various characters, it's always good for a laugh. True to form, the lion's share of the entertainment in Screaming Narwhal comes from meeting the pirate residents of Flotsam island: an abrasive news reporter, a doll—er...action figure obsessed treasure hunter, an insane French doctor, Winslow, the smug captain of the Screaming Narwhal, and others, including an old friend you'll find holed up in a jungle shack. No doubt you'll find yourself smiling throughout the game and laughing out loud in several especially ridiculous circumstances.
Speaking of ridiculous, Monkey Island is known for its creative puzzles and sometimes ahem... unlikely solutions. Aside from the classic “insult dueling” and the infuriating monkey combat, puzzles in the series are generally 90% situational, related to Guybrush getting himself out of sticky situations. The puzzles in Screaming Narwhal fit that old school mold in that they're clever and inventive, but as an indication of better things to come, noticeably free of rubber chickens. No word yet, on whether we'll get to insult duel or engage in monkey face-offs since in this chapter we did neither.
In terms of writing and gameplay, the new Tales of Monkey Island is shaping up really well. Now if only the graphics were on par with those. The Monkey Island series' art style is so distinct and full of charm that fans can't help but expect the latest in the series to uphold that stylistic singularity. Unfortunately, it just isn't happening. While the environment models do some justice to the Monkey Island legacy, the textures and lighting feel really flat. Most of the characters also feel generic and unfinished and with the big bags under their eyes, look like they haven't slept for a week. And as a final, personal pet peeve, I'm just not down with the longer-nosed redesign of Guybrush's wife Elaine. Luckily, the expert animation makes up some for the blahness of the character models (I especially love watching Guybrush's evil hand punch him repeatedly in the face) as does the exceptional voice acting.
The sound in Screaming Narwhal is one of its best aspects. As said at the beginning, the original Guybrush and Elaine are back, and they're surrounded by a first-class supporting cast that's so good, you hardly miss the original voice of Le Chuck. Original composer Michael Land also adds his considerable talents to the pot, generously sprinkling a laid-back Caribbean mood all over the game through the brilliant use of flutes and steel drums. I'm not ashamed to admit I got a little misty during the title screen when the Monkey Island theme first started playing.
With Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, things are looking up for the Monkey Island series and for adventure games in general. Although this first chapter is part of a larger storyline and of necessity ends on a cliffhanger, it functions well enough on its own to be a satisfying gaming experience. And in spite of some underwhelming graphics, this expertly written and designed chapter promises great things for the chapters to come.