Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal (PC)
In some ways, I'm probably the worst person possible to review this game.
For one, I've never played any of the original Monkey Island games. Call me a delinquent game journalist if you must, but despite the never-ending seas of critical praise for LucasArts' classic PC adventure series, I've never bothered to figure out the Secret, cure the Curse, or try to Escape from Monkey Island (much less fend off LeChuck's Revenge).
While I've hung around enough gamers to recognize the name Guybrush Threepwood and the joys of Insult Swordfighting, I'm definitely not part of the nostalgia-influenced market Telltale is targeting with this remake. This worried me a bit going into this review -- I feared the game would be full of references to characters and events from a decade-old series I had no experience with. To Telltale's credit, while I feel like I missed a few obvious inside jokes directed at Monkey Island veterans, for the most part Tales of Monkey Island works well as an introduction to the series.
The second reason I'm the wrong person to review this game is that I generally hate adventure games. Well, that's not quite true. I start out liking most of them. I enjoy meeting the quirky and irreverent characters, clicking around the quirky and irreverent world, reading quirky and irreverent descriptions of everyday items, and picking up a bunch of quirky and irreverent inventory items and using them in quirky and irreverent (but somehow logical) ways. Things went along in this manner for a while in Tales of Monkey Island's first episode, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, and while I wouldn't call its puzzles especially challenging or interesting, it was at least mildly diverting.
My problem with adventure games comes when I invariably get stuck. It never fails: I'll be an hour or two into an enjoyable adventure, solving whatever comes with a few clicks and a few chuckles, until I come to a puzzle that just refuses the easy answers that have come so far. Usually it's a situation where I can understand generally what the game is asking me to do -- use a fresh fish to open the door, to pick a completely fictional example -- but I just can't figure out how the game wants me to do it.
In the real world, of course, I'd have options. I could go to the store to buy a fish. I could go fishing in the river. I could ask for a loan from my friend who happens to have an aquarium. In adventure games, though, I have to come up with the single, specific solution the designer has created for the problem, and this solution is always -- in my experience -- some overly clever, counterintuitive, quirky, irreverent, too-cute-by-half mess. Which is worth a decent chuckle when you stumble upon the solution quickly ("OH! I have to make the fish out of TOFU!"), but when you don't -- well, I hope you have some other interesting game to play.
I got hopelessly stuck in this manner twice in my few hours with Launch of the Screaming Narwhal. Both times I generally knew what was expected of me, but didn't know how to do it within the game's twisted logic and limited (read: point-and-click) controls. Both times I tried using the obvious items in my inventory with no luck. Both times I slowly got more desperate, running around the sleepy little island that provides the game's setting for hours, hours, using my items on everything in sight in the hopes that something, anything, would happen. Both times the solution involved clicking an on-screen item that I hadn't been aware was clickable -- despite running my mouse pointer over every screen this tiny little game had to offer.
Maybe this was my personal failing as a player rather than a failing of the game design. Maybe I would have been able to save myself the grief by using a FAQ, if I were playing the post-release version of the game (rather than a pre-release review copy). Regardless, my first thought wasn't "I can't believe I missed this clever but, in retrospect, logical solution," but rather "I can't believe I wasted so much time when it was just a matter of clicking that specific piece of scenery. I'll never get that time back again. I hate this stupid game!"
So, with Tales of Monkey Island's puzzles falling squarely in the "mind-numbingly easy" camp or the "mind-numbingly frustrating" camp, the appeal of the game rests solely on the story and world. Here, the game performs passably but not extraordinarily. The plot has enough surprising and plain bizarre twists to remain interesting, if not gripping. The characters are amusingly odd and presented with entertainingly stereotypical voice acting, but never develop into anything more than interesting props to use in solving puzzles. The writing forces cheesy jokes into practically every line -- the kind that your dad would tell if he were suddenly obsessed with pirates. The humor -- equal parts ironic detachment, pop culture references, slapstick and "Arrrrrr, pirates be soundin' funny!" -- is the kind that makes you grin more often than it makes you laugh out loud.
When the difficulty of some of these puzzles drives you to drink, it probably won't be the root beer shown.
The game does gain points for including the line, "It's amazing how many of life's problems are solved by indiscriminate cannon fire," which I plan to put on my epitaph. And by the time the first episode ends on a mild cliffhanger, you'll probably be interested and amused enough to want to see what happens in Episode 2. That is, if you've gotten that far without tearing your hair out in frustration.
But what do I know? I don't have any business reviewing this game anyway.
This review is based on a review build of the PC game provided by the publisher.