Andrew Bryant, Mighty Pirate™, returns to the Caribbean to tackle a new Monkey Island game!
Game Title: Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal
Publisher: Telltale Games/LEC
Developer: Telltale Games
Format Reviewed: PC (also on WiiWare)
Following the collapse of LEC’s adventure game department and Telltale’s rise from the very same ashes, a renaissance was apparent – After a few fairly decent but low-key releases (including games based on the long-overdue-for-a-sequel Jeff Smith serial, Bone), the company managed to snag the license to produce games based on Sam & Max from their creator, Steve Purcell, after LucasArts took their eyes off the ball and the rest was, pretty much, history.
Several series later (including episodic ‘seasons’ featuring Homestar Runner & Wallace & Gromit) and Telltale struck gold. A change of management at the top-end of LEC, including a CEO who just happened to grow up on the companies older products, landed them one of the hottest and most revered point-n-click properties available – Monkey Island! X marks the spot indeed!
A little over a month after the initial announcement and Telltale have released the first episode in a five episode series that, released as a whole, would in theory make an entire Monkey Island sequel. As a result, the episodes are not self-contained like Telltale’s previous efforts, instead forming a continuous narrative – bold ground for developer & publisher alike then, taking an old property that has long since been forgotten by the masses into a new market.
Anyway, onto the game… Launch of the Screaming Narwhal starts in pretty much the same way as the other later MI games – The vile zombie (wasn’t he a demon last game?) pirate LeChuck has once again captured Elaine Marley and Guybrush Threepwood is, once again, on his way to rescue her – things inevitably go absolutely tits up through the course of the tutorial & the star of the show finds himself stranded on a wind-swept island miles from the real action. Plundering, pilfering and other humorous misdeeds swiftly follow.
Firstly, in order to find information on a journalists contact (who may indeed be a returning core character from the series), Guybrush must wreak havoc across the island in a peculiarly easy pastiche of the Three Tasks from The Secret of Monkey Island. Sword Fighting, Thievery & Treasure Huntery are replaced by the less satisfying Start a Fight, Seize a Ship and, erm, Treasure Huntery. Unfortunately, only one of these three initially challenges represents any actual challenge, a fact that Telltale seem to have recognised by making you repeat it twice (with slight changes) and the rest of the episode plugs along at a steady but ultimately disappointing pace as you fend off a mad French aristocratic doctor in order to escape the amusingly titled Flotsam Island.
As noted in earlier Telltale reviews, the first episode of the season often serves as an entry point for the series, so expecting really difficult puzzles is probably too much, but the MI games have never really taken any prisoners with regards to difficulty outside of starting tutorial segments, so hopefully Telltale will push the difficulty up more as the series continues.
Being based (yet again) on the T3 engine, the visuals are what you’d expect – colourful, bubbly and animated characters feature clever texturing & subtle animation flourishes that cover up recurring problems with Telltale’s output such as deficiencies in texture quality, poly-counts & re-used assets that date back as far as Texas Hold’em. Hopefully the constant changing locations across the series will bring much needed variety, something which all the developers previous output has failed to manage consistently.
The visual style is destined to divide opinion right up to the end of the series, but it’s a clever mix of early & late Monkey Island – Guybrush has the same coat that he wore in LeChucks Revenge but, being 3D, the visual style owes more to Escape than earlier examples. The backgrounds are rendered in three dimensions rather than hand drawn, losing that immense level of detail that made the first 3 games as stunning too look at as they were too play, but easily beating the strange computer rendered images that made up the background in Escape, itself based on the Grim Fandango engine. The audio is faithful Monkey Island fare, with series-stalwart Michael Land’s steel drums & reggae sets providing a backdrop to the same voice actors that have propelled us through Curse and Escape (and now Secret: SE).
The control system, however, doesn’t hold up next to the games other exacting standards, featuring a hybrid of 3-4 different control systems. Firstly, there’s point-n-click, which can be used to move Guybrush between hotspots, providing they’re visible. On top of the old-school method is a strange Mouse-dragging system presumably meant for the Wii. Then there’s direct control, pilfered from Wallace & Gromit, which is clearly designed for gamepads but has an annoying lag and the usual problems regarding changing camera and inaccuracy of control. Basically, it’s a mess, but liveable once you pick a scheme and stick with it.
Other omissions include a complete lack of insult fighting (something that would have been nice for the one-click-and-it’s-done Fighting mini-quest – hopefully this will be featured further down the line) and the overall dearth of interesting characters to interact with, something the series has been suffering from after the game universe moved from its Pirates of the Caribbean-esque setting to a pop-culture/social commentary pastiche somewhere after the third game.
Tales from Monkey Island is a solid entry into the series canon – It’s not perfect and its problems stem from more than just it being in 3D with a crappy control system. The puzzles are not hard enough, the supporting cast unimpressive and the episode storyline just doesn’t grip. It is, however, a very good groundwork for the series to build on.