I’ve been a big fan of point and click adventure games since I was a kid. Though I can’t quite remember what my first contact with the genre was, I seem to recall a certain wide-eyed youth renting a tiny game called Maniac Mansion for his trusty NES. It was all a little confusing at the time, but the concept was intriguing, especially on a console dominated by games where the A button usually made things jump. Fast forward to 20 years later and I’m now a handsome, sculpted male model and a highly acclaimed games journalist… or a fat dude rocking a desk job, cranking out reviews in his spare time. One of those statements is bound to be true, but I wouldn’t know, as I’ve been dodging reality for years.
While trying to decide what to review next, I came across this retro looking title by an indie studio I’ve never heard of. “Boy”, said I, “this sure reminds me of Maniac Mansion”. Little did I know how close I was. Thimbleweed Park can’t technically be called a love letter to Ron Gilbert’s work, unless Ron is the type of guy that likes to mail himself a card on Valentine’s day. That’s because this game came from the man himself. Fueled by nostalgia, Thimbleweed Park aims to take us back in time, and that it does, but is the trip worth it, or has the magic faded?
Act I: Story
I’ll start with a rant, so bear with me a moment. Thimbleweed Park has elements of both noir and parody, and an air of self-awareness to it, with the last being a little too prevalent for my taste. It’s not uncommon for characters to reference pixels or game mechanics and repeatedly break the fourth wall. This sort of tongue-in-cheek humor is great as the occasional wink and nudge to the ribs, but Thimbleweed hammers this in so hard it leaves bruises. It’s not completely unjustified, as a reason for this becomes more and more apparent as the game progresses, but even though I get it, I still didn’t care for how frequently it happened. With that out of the way, let’s get to the narrative itself. The game takes place in the late 1980s and follows an eclectic mix of characters, each in some way connected to the mystery of Thimbleweed Park’s closed pillow factory and its enigmatic, recently deceased owner Chuck. We initially take control of two federal agents sent to investigate a murder on the outskirts of town. They are eventually joined by Chuck’s niece Delores, her father Franklin, and, my personal favorite, Ransome the cursed insult clown. The game has some crude, adult humor to it, and no one drives this point home quite like Ransome does. Each of these characters has their own motives, and although their paths cross on a regular basis, they each pursue their own set of goals. As the story unfolds and we learn more about Thimbleweed Park, Chuck, and our protagonists, it slowly becomes apparent that not all is what it seems. Being incredibly intelligent, handsome, and modest, I soon figured out the inevitable plot twist that the game was building up to and… I was wrong. Oh, there is a twist alright, a great big mammoth of a twist, but it’s so out there that I’m still trying to decide whether it’s cringeworthy or brilliant. The ending is polarizing, and by the time the credits roll, you’ll either be grinning or scratching your head. At the very least, each character has an epilogue that wraps up their individual story arcs, which is a nice and very welcome touch.
Act II: Presentation
As a throwback to the games of old, Thimbleweed Park’s graphics are appropriately pixelated, though still ripe with color and detail. The game also offers the option to substitute smooth, modern fonts into their 20th century jagged equivalent. This applies to both dialogue text as well as the action menu verbs. It’s a little but very appreciated addition that I personally opted to enable straight away. Music is appropriately retro with a mix of funky and noir tracks. Voice acting is decent, for the most part, though I wasn’t a big fan of Agent Reyes (Javier Lacroix). He does a fine job, but something about his delivery just didn’t click with me. As a result, I opted to use the sarcastic Agent Ray (Nicole Oliver) whenever I could. Delores (Elise Kates) and Franklin (Alex Zahara) are both fine in their roles, but for me, the standout is Ian James Corlett’s Ransome, whose portrayal of the insult clown is pretty much spot on. It’s clear that a lot of care went into crafting the look and feel of the game, especially with the constraint of retaining a retro feel. In this regard, Thimbleweed Park succeeds in spades.
Act III: Gameplay
Thimbleweed Park plays like a classic LucasArts point and click adventure game. Controls are simple and come down to pointing and clicking, though the developers added controller support as well. Instead of having the usual all-purpose context-sensitive pointer, a verb menu lets us construct and assign actions to our clicks, be it look, give, use, push, or pull (though some of the more obscure verbs like push and pull aren’t extensively used). Puzzles themselves range from obvious to complete leaps of logic. The verb menu, several usable characters with their own specific traits, and items that sometimes have no purpose other than being comedy props or inventory clutter all serve to create a solid number of combinations and ensure that even seasoned veterans won’t be breezing through this adventure. The game offers a casual mode to make things a little easier, but I opted to play on hard mode, and such is the context of this review. Needless to say, I got stuck on several occasions. Unless there’s a specific event, we are able to switch freely between all playable characters. This mechanic comes into play often, as some puzzles require timed cooperation and specific characters to solve. Thimbleweed and its outskirts aren’t huge, but as more areas open up to explore, traveling from location to location can become a chore. Thankfully, the game eventually introduces a map mechanic that allows us to fast travel; this is especially handy when having to place characters in specific locations or trade items between their inventories. While the game mostly sticks to the formula used by its ancestors, it’s not afraid to shakes things up at least a little. This becomes especially apparent when Franklin comes into play, though because of the risk of spoilers, I’ll leave it at that.
Act IV: Backers
Thimbleweed Park became a reality thanks to the power of crowdfunding, and as such, there are plenty of nods to the people who helped make this game a reality. A vast (VAST) library populated by short texts penned by backers sits in the Mansion mansion’s library (no, it’s not a typo, that’s actually what it’s called), while the in-game phonebook offers hundreds of phone numbers that will play short messages recorded by backers when called. The amount of user content submitted is staggering, and deserves a mention based on scope alone.
Thimbleweed Park isn’t perfect, but it hits all the right nostalgic chords. Though, at times, the humor can be crude and a little too fourth wall breaking for my taste, the game achieves everything it set out to do and more. Filled with plenty of jokes and more references than I can wrap my head around, Thimbleweed Park is an enjoyable trip to the past that I’ve been looking for. It’s not a short romp either, as you’re probably looking at 10 or more hours of play. I hope Mr. Gilbert and company don’t stop here, and continue to bring us more adventures in the future.