Fate can take some interesting turns. Telltale Games formed from the ashes of LucasArts' adventure team after the Star Wars publisher decided that the market was "not appropriate" for graphic adventures. Now, a mere five years and several management changes later, LucasArts has eaten those words (with a side of crow) and hired Telltale Games to revive their flagship adventure game series for the first time in nearly nine years. It's a partnership we all wanted to see, but thought we never would, and for fans of the adventure genre, it feels like vindication.
While series creator Ron Gilbert is only involved as a consultant (which is more involvement than he had with the last two games in the series), the collaboration feels right. Designer David Grossman and writer/director Mike Stemmle are both veterans of the series, and Telltale's games have felt like an extension of the LucasArts tradition since the company's birth. They've even recruited Dominic Armanto to reprise his role as Guybrush Threepwood and composer Michael Land to write the music. Telltale's crew is as legit as any since Monkey Island 2.
...feels like an authentic sequel, not a licensed imitator.
The result is unmistakably Monkey Island. The first chapter, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, feels like an authentic sequel, not a licensed imitator. While the interface is similar to the one used in Wallace & Gromit, the developers have gone to lengths to include classic elements of the series like maps, dialog trees, and the ability to combine inventory items. Compared to some of the company's more streamlined games, this feels like a step toward the design of the old-school greats.
It's been a long time since Guybrush Threepwood has sailed the high seas, though, and a few things have changed. The world has been redesigned in 3D, thanks to the Telltale Tool, and with some improved lighting and a nifty soft focus effect, it's looking better than anything the company has put out so far, and quite unlike any of the older games in the series. It still has some fairly blocky models (a concession to lower end systems and the forthcoming Wii port), but on higher end systems it still looks quite nice. Naturally, some with fond memories of Curse of Monkey Island are going to grouse about the new look, but after playing for a little while, the new style sinks in, and by the end it feels natural. After all, the look of Monkey Island has taken a few sharp turns before.
The interface now features direct character control, but the interaction is still pure point-and-click. The combination takes a little getting used to, but it makes it easier to navigate the game's larger areas without the need to click off-screen. Unfortunately, this change also seems to have made thoughtful camera design less important, and Telltale has gotten sloppy in this regard. Too often the view shifts in close, putting Guybrush's feet out of view, which is uncomfortable in a third-person game. Other camera changes feel simply unnecessary. Despite this, you eventually get accustomed to it, and it's more of a niggle than an outright obstacle.
The episode kicks off with a dramatic, albeit very narrow series of puzzles as Guybrush attempts once more to rescue his beloved Elaine from the clutches of the ghost pirate LeChuck. This almost feels like a tutorial, introducing new gamers into the arcane logic of the graphic adventure. With that bit of handholding out of the way early, Telltale seems comfortable challenging players with some real head-scratchers. While I was able to complete the episode without hints, there were a few moments where I was stumped, and I had to come back later after my mind had cleared – as it should be. The balance feels right.
Guybrush, as usual, is separated from Elaine after the tumultuous opener, and this time he finds LeChuck reborn into human form, while his ghostly evil infests our hero's hand. He lands on Flotsam Island, an isolated isle with unnatural winds that prevent any escape. The 4-5 hour adventure will take you on a trek around the small town and the surrounding mysterious jungle, with a small cast of seven locals, including the return of the ever-present Voodoo Lady. While not exactly sprawling, there's a lot to do on the small island, and the adventure felt like a substantial first chapter, comparable to Curse of Monkey Island's Puerto Pollo.
The use of the word "chapter" is no accident. While Telltale is true to their episodic development model, this is not a self-contained bite-sized quest, it's the start of an epic five act adventure. Guybrush's daring escape from Flotsam leaves many questions unanswered, items unused, and dangers looming. This means you won't really be able to play one of the middle chapters out of context, but let's face it: How many of you were really cherry picking episodes of Telltale's series?
For those of you who have been hoping against hope for a true Monkey Island 5, this is it. Telltale Games understands this series and have done a truly impressive job dusting off the pieces and putting together something startlingly close to the series we remember so well. While it might not be able to trump Guybrush's 2D glory days, it's on its way to besting Escape from Monkey Island, and well worth the time for any serious fan. Telltale Games is finally living up to their promise as heirs to the LucasArts legacy, and Tales of Monkey Island could be their best effort yet.