When the industry dropped the adventure genre like a ton of bricks, there were few with the leverage to really challenge the unfortunate turn. Vindication has been a hard fought battle for the genre's advocates, and many have simply given up and moved on. While a handful of devotees have kept adventure gaming alive, the budgets have gotten smaller, as has the audience – something of a vicious cycle.
Telltale Games lost their jobs at LucasArts for their commitment to adventure gaming, and they've been slowly building up their audience with a string of licensed episodic games. Their partnership with LucasArts feels like a homecoming, bringing back fond memories of when the name stood for more than just movie licenses. The company that once rejected Telltale's vision is now turning to them to help rebuild their brand.
Tales of Monkey Island is the culmination of Telltale's years of hard work, and not just in the symbolic sense. While I'm fonder of the Sam & Max franchise than I am Monkey Island, this is clearly the developer's strongest effort in terms of writing and game design. Even still, these are big shoes to fill, as Monkey Island is arguably the most revered comedic adventure series of all time.
Like all of Telltale's efforts, Tales was released in monthly episodes, but the format is a bit different this time. Rather than a sitcom-like series of short, stand-alone adventures, this is an epic in five serial "chapters" that depend on each other both for plot and for the logic of the puzzles. TNL has declined to give review scores to the individual chapters after the first because they simply don't work as stand-alone products. The upside to this, however, is an overall package that more closely resembles the classic titles in the series. In fact, it feels like they could be joined into a single game with only some minor tailoring.
This is clearly the developer's strongest effort in terms of writing and game design.
You might think that this defeats some of the purpose of the episodic format, but it actually shows how strong it can be in different ways. By moving to a serial format, Telltale has forced themselves to craft a story with enough interesting twists in each chapter to draw players into the next. This means a more even pacing to the plot, and in some ways a denser narrative with better characterization – quite the opposite of what we've come to expect from Telltale's bite-sized adventures.
The story begins years after Escape from Monkey Island, as a somewhat older and wiser Guybrush Threepwood prepares to do battle with his ghostly arch nemesis, LeChuck. The mighty pirate bungles his attack and instead of killing his opponent, he restores his human form, and expels his evil in a sickly green cloud that spreads across the Tri-Island Area.
The former zombie pirate seems to be genuinely reformed and even helpful, if perhaps still a bit too friendly with Elaine, Guybrush's loving wife. In past Monkey Island games, Elaine and LeChuck were almost plot devices as much as they were characters, giving Guybrush an excuse to move from place to place. Here they get a lot more screen time and character development, and the additional insight into these characters really helps to endear them.
These relationships are complicated by the introduction of a new character, a buxom young pirate hunter named Morgan Leflay. The sexy swordswoman has been sent to smite Guybrush, but seems a bit smitten herself. At first this fangirlish affection seems strictly one sided, but by the end of the third chapter, she emerges as a well-rounded, complex personality and even Guybrush starts to thaw. As Elaine gets closer to LeChuck, Guybrush buddies up to Morgan, and the story calls into doubt the marriage that has been one of the series' unifying elements.
Of course, Telltale has the advantage of new technology to help sell their story in ways the previous games couldn't. The nicely animated, expressive models make for much better actors than the blocky robots of Escape from Monkey Island, and the moving camera and dynamic angles help accent the more cinematic feel. The biggest concessions are for the sake of maintaining harmony with Wii version. This means polygon counts are still a bit low, and animation meshes are often recycled between minor characters, leading to a number of pirates with strikingly similar proportions (but unique models). The Wii version has taken its toll on the music as well, which is a higher quality rendering of the console version's hardware MIDI tunes.
Despite this, the production values are high compared to other games in the genre. The music, compromised though it is, comes courtesy of Michael Land, who scored all the games in the series, and his work here is as memorable as ever. Telltale has also put together an impressive voice cast, featuring Dominic Armanto, the one and only voice of Guybrush, and Alexandra Boyd, who played Elaine (in her charming British incarnation) in Curse of Monkey Island. Although the first chapter launched with a new LeChuck, Telltale responded to fan outcries and brought back the great Earl Boen to reprise the role (and re-record the first chapter). Both the new and returning actors succeed, which is a good thing since this is the most dialog-heavy game in the series. It's also worth noting that the characters are given a much greater range than ever before, and Alexandra in particular gets to take Elaine in some fun new directions that were never possible in previous games.
Series veteran David Grossman heads up the design in Tales, and proves what a valuable asset he can be. Although the classic system of selecting different verbs is still long gone, Telltale has gone to great lengths to keep the puzzles varied and interesting. Players can once again combine inventory items, complicating things somewhat, and environmental and navigation-based puzzles are sprinkled throughout. Every episode has some clever and memorable challenges that are fun to get through. Despite this, the challenge level is very low. This could be attributed to logical design and good writing, but it's still likely to turn off experienced veterans of the genre.
But even those hardened vets will likely recognize that Tales of Monkey Island has exceeded all expectations, and stands shoulder to shoulder with the other games in the esteemed series – a feat many thought impossible when the game was announced. It's encouraging, too, that this has been Telltale's most successful game yet, and while we don't know what that means in terms of numbers, it's living proof that the genre is more commercially viable than many believed. Along with Machinarium, Tales of Monkey Island is one of the best adventures in years, and we can only hope it starts a trend.