Fri 23 Oct 2009
Our Tales of Monkey Island Episode 3 review comes a bit late, however, this has allowed me to already get some notion of what other people thought of it. Actually, the review statistics show this has become the highest rated episode of the series so far. Quite interesting considering the fact that its directors/writers Joe Pinney and Sean Vanaman (excellent interview here) are by far the least known designers in the Telltale team. Personally, I really dig the fact that all kinds of people get to lead the design of individual episodes and in doing so bring a bit of their own flavor to each one. Lair of The Leviathan certainly feels different than the previous chapters, yet I’ll go against the trend and say that I was unhappy about some aspects of the taken direction, even though in the case of some other ones it has undoubtedly topped what we’ve seen before.
As everyone who finished The Siege of Spinner Cay already knows, our heroes (Guybrush and Winslow) and villainesses (Morgan) ended up being swallowed by a giant manatee. A few minutes into Lair of The Leviathan the fantasy mood of the previous episode is completely broken. We quickly realize that we were never meant to meet any true Gods of The Sea. No, really, the manatee is as godly as it is going to get and Davy Jones stays in his locker. The game even pokes fun at the recent atmosphere of mysticism through showcasing the true function of those cute, mystical creatures that were supposed to lead to La Esponja Grande – extremely demystifying (and funny). Still, Guybrush’s predicament seems to be taken straight from Pinocchio‘s grand adventures, so the player needn’t return completely to his jaded normal self .
The belly (and other parts) of the beast setting in a way seems very convenient for game designers to work with. You put some meaty looking textures on some irregularly shaped models and you have a convincing representation of animal insides already. And the highlight of browsing through those is finally finding Coronado De Cava – the long lost Spanish explorer – who proves to be quite a character and might be actually my favorite character introduced in TOMI. Or at least he’s competing brutally with Winslow and Anemone for that title. Coronado is something of an older, insane version of Guybrush mixed with character traits and looks of Don Quixote. His the vision of an adventurer like Guybrush whose inventory items combining schemes grew so complex and sophisticated that they take years to realize and reach the level of real science. One of the most fun parts of Leviathan is how De Cava and Guybrush keep topping each other with mad problem-solving skills on different occasions. Great new and literally frantic tunes by Micheal Land additionally help to spruce up the tension between them.
The pre-chapter-screen scenes are perfect. Guybrush already manages to get into a strong argument with De Cava. Meanwhile Morgan faints which allows the player to try all possible means to wake her up, as she needs to be convinced to pose as Guybrush’s wife, which consequently puts Guybrush again in a position where he must fight not to succumb to the charms of his biggest fan. Well, at least at the this point he still seems to have some interesting chemistry with her. Anyway, the episode’s teaser is exciting, funny, and has really strong puzzles. But then Guybrush moves deeper into the manatee…
Numerous little spoilers ahead…
The interiors of a giant sea creature can be red and a bit dark at times and the theme of the whole episode is announced to be treachery and deceit. Nevertheless the atmosphere turns out to be all about wacky craziness again – the nasty, gritty pirate McGillicutty from Spinner Cay is sorely missing. In fact for a lengthy bit the situation turns into a kind of high school party, and the only “pirates” you can meet are the archetypes of: The Dude, The Nerd, and The Bully who form a certain hedonisticly inclined brotherhood. In their vicinity Guybrush becomes this straight, typical student character, plus there is also Morgan, who introduces the Hot Girl element to the community. Dating methods are debated, then put into action, Morgan starts to think Guybrush is a wimp and throws out Guybrush’s autographed photo, The Dude doesn’t care and is only looking for sweet oblivion, and The Nerd when not salivating over Morgan focuses on playing the drums. At one point he also lends Guybrush a handheld containing a copy of Secret of Monkey Island… Well, not really, but he offers him a copy of a nicely printed manual for The Brotherhood membership.
Overall, I must say I found this stuff a bit too much for a Monkey Island game, not to mention evoking tired TV shows in contemporary settings. Also, The Dude and The Nerd characters were plain repulsive, much more than the manatee insides. I would definitely not enjoy playing through this segment too much if it were not for the excellent puzzles and the return of Murray. It’s good to have Murray back, although he didn’t manage to cheer me up as much as I had hoped. His entrance in the game is quite weak (where is the surprise element?) and his lines seems to be too similar to the ones from Curse of Monkey Island. Maybe it’s true that the character needed to be reintroduced because of all the Monkey Island newcomers, but in consequence he comes off too much like a one routine character with little new to contribute. His role gets better as the story continues, but then again his presence in the game’s world is somewhat inconsistent and artificial. Initially, if you show Murray to other characters they will think you’re playing a trick on them and you can’t convince them that you have a genuine talking skull, but later on when Murray starts impersonating this dead silent skull which was lying around no one finds that strange at all – they converse with Murray like he was always there. This comes off quite a bit fake.
The Good, The Bad and The Nerdy Bits
As for the excellent puzzles’ highlights I thought the pirate face-off mini-game was superbly thought-out and presented – it is something of a new version of insult-sword-fighting and is just as fun. There is also the excellent bit late in the game were Guybrush gets to manipulate magic with some really surprising results which I’m not going to spoil. He manages to ridicule a venerable character in the process, but I guess it was worth it. Finally, there is the puzzle that demands of Guybrush learning and using an exotic language which again feels fresh and provides a lot of fun. Overall, the puzzle design sees a tremendous improvement over Spinner Cay which despite liking a lot I criticized for having lackluster puzzles.
Too bad that Lair of the Leviathan despite the great characters of Murray, Coronado and Morgan is struggling to offer anything comparable to the previous episode storywise. On the outside it seems to tell the straightforward tale of getting over a few obstacles before discovering the place where La Esponja Grande lies hidden, but thematically the story ends up focusing on romantic relationships which shouldn’t be mistaken for it having some great depth. At one point Morgan gives a truly cringe-worthy metaphor-laden speech about her feelings which is made even more cringe-worthy by the fact that Guybrush doesn’t notice what is she really talking about. In fact, Guybrush turns into a rather cold-blooded character in this episode. And a goody two-shoes. He always yearned to be a mighty pirate, he proved to be an excellent sword-fighter in the previous episode, but now he won’t use violence because “his mother told him” so? The game is also very unconvincing when it comes to the numerous physical confrontations between characters. People get captured or knocked down, but those events don’t seem to follow any rules of plausibility – they happen the way they do because the story demands to give the upper hand to another character at those points.
I can see that this review ended up having me ranting about a lot of things, but this doesn’t mean I don’t consider this chapter to have its merits and providing a fun experience. The tight and fresh puzzle design should be especially lauded and applied to all future chapters. Nevertheless, I start to worry about the series storyline and writing a bit – I want to have lots of pirate stuff again, and a bit more of a period piece approach towards it, and not sentimental high school reunions, nerds and teenager conversations about dating.