Thursday, July 16, 2009

everything old is new again – tales of monkey island: launch of the screaming narwhal

mighty pirate So! Here we are! The Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal review spoken of in legend.

Narwhal is the first fifth of the fifth game in the venerable Monkey Island series, which kicked off in 1990 with LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island. Of all the LucasArts adventure games from that Golden Age, Monkey Island is one of the most fondly remembered. The games have always been known for their puzzles and clever dialogue, and I’m glad to say that this first chapter of Tales continues that tradition, for the most part. Find highs and lows enclosed after the jump for your perusal.

In the interest of full disclosure I should probably tell you – before this, I hadn’t ever played a Monkey Island game. Very briefly in 1999, my family had a computer that was modern, if low-end – the few years before and after were a dark time, filled with hand-me-down 486 towers, 33.6k modems and disappointment. Point being, I was a Console Kid, and I didn’t play none o’ them Starcrafts or Mechwarriors which so excite my erstwhile counterparts.

I did, however, do a good amount of reading on Wikipedia in preparation for the review and I can tell you that Tales appears to pick up where the last game in the series, Escape from Monkey Island, left off,  at least insofar as the plotlines in any of the Monkey Island games segue into one another. One thing I learned from Wikipedia is that the games maintain a loose continuity without telling an overarching story. Wikipedia knows a lot of things.

This is one of Telltale’s first problems to surmount – it has been nine years since the last entry in the franchise, and while they’ll be selling this new game to some of the people who have been playing since the beginning, they’ve also got to play to a new crowd, perhaps those hooked in by the studio’s recent Sam and Max and Strong Bad efforts, or complete newcomers to the point-and-click genre. How to accommodate these disparate groups?

Luckily, this is one of the areas in which the game shines. Inside jokes, in the form of references to Insult Fighting and events of past games, are used sparingly and inoffensively. Established characters are generally identified in a way that provides ample context  (my dearest wife Elaine; my nemesis LeChuck). Gameplay is similar to most of Telltale’s recent efforts, and since those games themselves have their roots in the original Monkey Island games, I’m guessing that people coming back to point-and-click after a decade of inactivity will be at home among its menus and environs.

I’ve more to say about the gameplay, though, which was a little underwhelming. Most of it is perfectly entertaining adventure game fare, involving lots of clicking and exploring and talking to characters to solve puzzles and progress. I don’t think, though, that this first chapter of Tales has yet found the perfect balance between holding the player’s hand and letting them explore on their own.

A certain amount of vagueness is good for an adventure game, or any game – the player definitely needs to feel a sense of accomplishment when they figure something out. Tales strikes this balance occasionally, but much more often I found myself doing a lot of trial-and-error clicking to see whether the items in my inventory and the surrounding environment would interact with one another. I did make it through the puzzles eventually, but the jungle maze section of the game in particular was an exasperating bit of try-and-try-again that should have been better handled.

Graphics and sound are well-executed, if not precisely groundbreaking. Of the most note is the voice acting, which brings back much of the talent that voiced the last couple of Monkey Island games, minus Earl “Dr. Silberman from the Terminator movies” Boen as LeChuck. The dialogue in the game is mostly well-written and clever fare, as good as you can find in most video games, and the voice actors deliver most of their lines ably – there are some truly masterful, groan-inducing puns in here, which I was very excited about.

The visuals are clean and the character design is suitably cartoonish - If you can run earlier Telltale games on your computer, you’ll likely meet the requirements for this one. I had little problem running it on my aging-but-technically-still-midrange desktop, though Craig’s Intel integrated graphics spluttered and chugged and Rob’s copy kept crashing to the desktop. My copy also did this once, when wandering between areas. Hopefully any known issues will be patched accordingly. This is the road PC gamers must walk.

This chunk of Tales of Monkey Island is a welcome resurrection of a long-defunct series that hits enough of the right notes to keep fans and newcomers happy. Along with the rest of Telltale’s catalog, the excellent Phoenix Wright games, and bold experiments like Hotel Dusk, Tales helps to usher in what may well be a second Golden Age of the time-honored, well-worn adventure game.

Telltale Games Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is currently available for Windows from Telltale’s Web site and from Steam for $35. That price includes not just Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, but the four subsequent chapters of the game which are due to be released on a monthly basis. Purchasing from Telltale’s Web site will also get you a DVD copy of the game, once it is complete, for the cost of shipping. Played chapter to completion.