guybrush_conceptRight off yet another adventure of gargantuan proportions, not paying attention to the storm clouds gathering above him, Guybrush “mighty pirate” Threepwood sets once again to fight the evil zombie demon pirate LeChuck off the shores of some odd Caribbean isle. They will fight ship to ship, wit against voodoo,  over Guybrush’s lovely wife – an adventuress in her own right – Governor Elaine Marlay. Yet in truth, the only way Guybrush can get in one piece out of this confrontation is by combining several strange objects he keeps handy in his pants… OK, this time he keeps them under his coat as well.

For 5 years now Telltale Games has been steadily producing new episodes of various adventure game series and in many ways continuing the LucasArts adventure gaming heritage on their own terms. From the distance I was cheering for Telltale’s  success – first of all they were keeping my favorite genre alive, secondly they pretty much beat everyone else in the gaming industry when it comes to providing real episodic gaming – that’s certainly something. However, from what I have personally sampled of the Sam & Max and Strongbad series, I wasn’t that impressed by the quality of those works. They were decent overall, but relying way too much on reused assets for each following episode (locations like Bosco’s shop just aren’t fun enough to constantly come back to). Also, they really FELT like created under very tight schedule, including the stories, puzzles and humor which very often fell flat. Nevertheless I kept hoping for Telltale improving over time and the suddenly announced Monkey Island sequel seemed like a perfect opportunity for them to expand their techniques beyond previous limitations.

The way I see it, Tales of Monkey Island is a game (or series of games) that has several things to prove – which is always good for making the designers try harder. First of all, in the gaming public’s eyes the title reads clearly as “The Return of LucasArts Adventure Game” – this is a game pressured to bring back the old days way more than Sam & Max ever were. Then there is the issue of living up to the quality of the first three games in the series, which are considered cream de la cream of their genre. Finally, there are so many veteran Monkey Island cast & crew members involved in making Tales – most notably the original creators/writers Ron Gilbert & Dave Grossman, and THE composer Michael Land – that none desperate enough to know those names by heart (like myself) can possibly take the new Monkey Island game lightly (as silly as it may sound not to). So having said all that, after all this teasing and deliberating, I present to you my burning report about Launch of The Screaming Narwhal – the first of five Tales of Monkey Island episodes which are said to encompass together one epic tale of Guybrush’s new beard.

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Guybrush in action - preparing a voodoo cutlass

First a slight disappointment: except a few of highlights the game is not as funny as you’d like it to be. If you’re one of those people who base their expectations on the first three games that is. Luckily, the designers didn’t try to force the laughs. What is to be found in the game comes very naturally and fits within the game world and characters (so don’t expect scenes like Guybrush suddenly doing an Elmer Fudd impression – one of typical moments of Escape from Monkey Island). And that’s fine by me, as I always thought of Monkey Island more as of an adventure and a story of pirate daring-do than a collection of gags. Humor is good, but it’s not the main thing that keeps you playing for many hours and loving the key characters. Tales is fun all the way through and hilarious on a few occasions  – that’s plenty (Where’s Murray though?! Bring back Murray!).

Too bad that the first episode’s most exciting plot-points have been spoiled in the press releases and previews – the spreading of a certain special pox over the Caribbean and the fact that LeChuck for his annual transformation turns into… yes, into a human being (the only other option at this point was having him evolve into a giant amoeba). By the way, the transformation scene has an interestingly understated reaction of him to being human again – apparently the character will surprise us a lot in the near future. Yet all this big stuff is established already  in the prologue. The rest of the episode is made of the usual slowly developing quests were you have several concurrent achievements to seize. Actually you have a whole big, new island to explore – which is neat. Among other things you’ll meet an old friend who is known for explaining it all until you can’t explain it any more, get introduced to a new key character that sets up the theme of magic (voodoo) vs. technology, and discover ruins of an ancient civilization (for all ya Indiana Jones lovers!). And at the very end of the episode there is a surprising event, followed by a sudden cliffhanger and introduction to another important character (all within 30 seconds or so).

Captain LeChuck back in human form - quite a friendly looking chap, isn't he?

Captain LeChuck back in human form - quite a friendly looking chap, isn't he?

What will irk old fans of the series is that the interface as in previous Telltale games is still limited to the one-click option over hotspots. At least we get to examine the items in the inventory and we are given back the important ability to combine those objects together. The puzzles are on the easy side most of the time, but well designed (meaning they’re logical, creative and give a lot of satisfaction upon solving). The few more difficult ones were mostly connected to (surprise, surprise) thinking in 3D and combining Guybrush’s separate reactions and animations in one’s mind. The episode was also surprisingly long (lots of gameplay) in a way that made sense.

The visuals, especially the animations are very well done. The windy Flotsam Island truly lives under the wind, as does Guybrush’s hairdo. It’s full of very nice seagulls too – Flotsam Island, I mean. The city could use some more dirt and rust in the textures of things though – it’s a bit too clean and neat for a pirate world. Well, nobody is perfect. Besides, the director Mike Stemmle uses the 3D to achieve cinematic scenes and editing like never seen before in the series. And I’m not talking about shaky camera effects and lousy recreations of scenes from the Matrix (Shame on you, KOTOR-MMORPG trailer extravaganza), I’m talking about real, honest, movie-like directing – composition, concept and all. Even the character designs and the 2D graphical elements stand out and are a pleasure to watch. Very impressive overall and will be even more impressive if all the assets won’t get reused in future episodes.

home of a nefarious scientist found at the outskirts of the city

home of a nefarious scientist found at the outskirts of the city

If you played Telltale’s games before you know that the ones that don’t have a Wii port for some reason have terribly compressed voice files like you rarely hear these days – hard to listen to really. Thankfully Tales is not one of those and the voices sound crisp and clear. Voice acting is top notch as well. Dominic Armato is always great in Guybrush’s role, but it’s hearing the voice of Alexandra Boyd in the role of Elaine again that got me really excited. The relationship of their two characters is also a great improvement over the one from the previous game, where it was a bit unpleasant to watch. All characters are well written in fact and seem well-thought out in terms of their role in the greater scheme of things.

The music front is fully taken over by Michael Land and nothing else needs to be said about it, except that the new compositions are as good as the old ones. So in short the game would be worth playing even only to hear them.

The word count has just passed 1138 words, so it’s a perfect time to get to the point. This is a big step up in the quality of Telltale’s adventure games and a worthy Monkey Island sequel. Well, the first, very promising chapter of a sequel. It’ll be very interesting to see, how the 5 parts compare to each other, as I guess each one will have a bit of separate identity – something to make it special. And with episodes of this size it seems even like this will be the biggest of Guybrush’s adventures yet! Well done, Telltale. Really well done.

Igor’s Score: 4 of 5 starks

That's our hero... and his zombie hand

That's our hero... and his zombie hand

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