Avast ye landlubbers! Tired of your life on land? Have a desire to set sail on the high seas? Ever wished you could find a giant voodoo-sucking sea sponge? (Oh, maybe not that last one.) Well, anyway, here’s your chance! Tales of Monkey Island is the fifth entry in the iconic and side-splittingly funny Monkey Island adventure series. This time, the series has a new (though highly-experienced) development team behind it. LucasArts has passed the torch on to Telltale Games, probably best known for their recent Sam & Max titles, and I’m happy to say they’ve done a tremendous job. Originally released over the course of a year in five separate downloadable chapters, Tales of Monkey Island has recently been combined as a complete retail package, just as it should be!
The Monkey Island series follows the adventures of Guybrush Threepwood, self-proclaimed Mighty Pirate™, the love of his life Elaine, and their encounters with demon-zombie pirate LeChuck. Tales of Monkey Island takes place a few years after the previous game and opens with Guybrush attempting to rescue his wife from the evil buccaneer. As might be expected of the ever-trying but clumsy pirate, Guybrush messes up the recipe for his voodoo cutlass and not only restores the demon pirate to a human body, but blows up their ship! After recovering from his unconsciousness Guybrush finds himself washed up on the shores of Flotsam Island where the winds only ever blow inwards! Worse, one of his hands seems to have some sort of infection and has developed a mind of its own! Now stuck on the island Guyrbush has to change the winds, find a ship, and get back to Elaine. His grand adventure will have him face off against a fearsome pirate hunter and an evil doctor, escape from the insides of a giant manatee, parley with gender-ambiguous mer-people, save all of pirate-kind from a horrible pox, defend himself in court, best his opponents in insult sword fighting, and put a stop to LeChuck!
For series veterans there are plenty of humorous references to earlier games and reappearing characters. Compulsive arm-waving salesman Stan is back with his bizarrely-coloured coat. Everyone’s favourite demonic and bodiless skull, Murray, is back as well! There are plenty of new characters too, but they’re generally in supporting roles. Most of them are quite funny and well scripted, but a couple of unimportant pirate supporting roles fall a little flat. Among the new characters central to the plot are Van Winslow, the captain of the Screaming Narwhal with a somewhat disturbing obsession with nautical maps, and Coronado DeCava, a crazy old Spanish explorer who used to date the mysterious Voodoo Lady. The pirate hunter Morgan LeFlay definitely takes the spotlight as the best new character, though. During Chapter 3 this hunter really shines with some great lines and a rather interesting personality.
Adventure games tend to be made up of reading dialogue, solving puzzles, and walking around. Tales of Monkey Island is no exception. Guybrush prefers his wit to his sword so, apart from a couple of memorable clashes, he’ll be using witty words and cunning contraptions to best his foes. Guybrush can pick up loads of different objects throughout the game which he conveniently stores in his coat and pants. Many of these items will need to be combined to solve puzzles. Combining is as simple as opening the inventory via the tab key or a mouse click and dragging two items into the appropriate slots. Figuring out which items actually need to be combined can be a far more challenging task. A very early puzzle has Guybrush needing to make a substitute for fizzy root beer with whatever he has on hand. So what does he combine? Some sloshing grog from a monkey coffin, some breath mints, and the root from a plant!
Unlike many adventure games, and even previous installments of this series, most of the item combinations and puzzles are quite logical. The level of difficulty for seasoned adventure gamers should be just right and rarely will a walkthrough be tempting. Only one or two item combinations come across as illogical. The game even comes with a subtle hint system built in where Guybrush occasionally makes a vague comment relating to the solution if he has been wandering around for a while. The frequency with which these hints are given is adjustable from the options menu. For those less experienced with the genre, the game may be more of a challenge and it may be beneficial to have a guide on hand for some of the more fiendish puzzles.
Many of the puzzles won’t require you to use any items in your inventory and rely on objects already in the environments. How does Guybrush force a glass unicorn-selling pirate to leave his post? Fire a cannon and use the inward-blowing winds of Flostam Island to his advantage! Another challenge sees Guybrush locked into an examination chair where all he can do is rotate the seat and use his feet. By examining the room, using the few body parts available to him, and even with a little help from a monkey who likes getting electric shocks, Guybrush will have to figure his way out! The majority of puzzles are clever, fun, and have plenty of humorous dialogue involved. Unfortunately, every now and then a more monotonous challenge appears. In the first chapter there is quite a bit of wandering through a jungle. It’s not all that interesting and, even with a few handy shortcuts built in, it can wear on you a little by the end. Chapter 2 has its fair share of puzzle pitfalls and is probably the weakest of the five, particularly when it comes to sailing back and forth to repair your mast and some trial-and-error conversations.
You can control Guybrush with both the keyboard and mouse, or you can use the mouse for everything. The latter of these control schemes is extremely clumsy and difficult to use. Unfortunately, the former is a little fiddly too. Movement feels like it would be better suited to a joystick than a keyboard. It’s not game breaking, but it can be frustrating now and then. Telltale Games have done a great job of making it feel like a more modern adventure game through the control scheme, but I occasionally found myself wishing it had been purely retro-style point-and-click.
Telltale has added their own flavour to the graphics too. The game is in full 3D with visuals similar to those seen in Sam & Max. Everything has a cartoony feel to it and this does a wonderful job of supporting the verbal humour. Plenty of bright colours are used and this goes a long way to creating a vibrant and interesting world. The highlight of the graphical engine is the facial expressions seen on characters, especially Guybrush. Sarcastic remarks, surprise, annoyance, and more are all conveyed beautifully through wide eyes, raised eyebrows and crooked smiles. It’s absolutely fantastic. During Chapter 3 this engine is used to its full extent in a pirate face-pulling competition – one of the funniest parts seen in any of the chapters. The graphics aren’t super-realistic, but they still work very well.
Supporting the facial expressions is the voice acting. One of Telltale’s best decisions was to bring in as many actors used in the previous games as possible. Dominic Armato returns to voice Guybrush Threepwood and gives a performance worthy of a standing ovation. In his role as Guybrush he does some of the best voice acting I have encountered in any video game. It’s clear he has a terrific understanding and love of the character he plays. Alexandra Boyd also returns to voice Elaine and does a terrific job, particularly with the humorous husband and wife lines between her and Guybrush. The supporting cast does a pleasant job, but a couple of characters here and there aren’t quite as good, especially when compared to the leading roles. Judge Grindstump from Chapter 4 was a particular disappointment as he simply does too much yelling.
Each chapter will take a few hours to beat, so if you’re planning on buying them individually you may find each one a little short. As a whole package, however, the length works out to be somewhere around the fifteen-hour mark, depending on how often a walkthrough was used. It feels like a perfect length and the story never feels artificially shortened or lengthened. Unfortunately, as with most games in the genre, replay value is non-existent. There are no side-quests or collectables and only a small amount of variable dialogue. Nonetheless it’s sure to be a game you’ll want to pull out again once you forget how to solve all the puzzles.
I laughed more during my fifteen hours playing Monkey Island than in any other game I have ever played. It’s consistently funny in a clever way and reminds us all why adventure games are so awesome. The writing is absolutely fantastic, but perhaps not quite as sharp as in a couple of earlier Monkey Island titles. Don’t fear the changes Telltale have made though – they’re few and far between and the developer has done an amazing job keeping the feel of the series intact. Their graphical engine does wonders for the Monkey Island world and with many returning voice actors it really does feel like the complete package. Tales of Monkey Island is simply not to be missed.