I melted the edge of my credit-card by whipping it out so quickly when tales of Monkey Island was first announced. Never before had I so willingly given a developer my money, and it was with great anticipation that I awaited the release date.
To prepare for the release, I re-read Treasure Island, Return to Treasure Island, Silver, and On Stranger Tides. I also rewatched the POTC movies, listened to the Monkey Island Soundtracks, and replayed Curse of Monkey Island.
Full Disclosure of Reviewer Bias:
I rate the original games, from worst to best, as follows -
Escape from Monkey Island - This bizarre entry in the series dropped the semi-serious nature of the storylines from the original games for full-on satire and social commentary. With a maddening interface, continuity botches (that were supposed to fix other continuity issues), and the most annoying minigame ever, this entry illustrated what NOT to do with the Monkey Island Franchise.
The Secret of Monkey Island - A classic that introduced the endearing characters of the Monkey Island Universe. With clever scripting, humorous dialogue, catchy themes and memorable characters, this game could have stood alone through the ages - thankfully, the developers had more up their sleeve.
The Curse of Monkey Island - A revolution in the Monkey Island Series, this game introduced painterly landscapes and characters, perfect voice casting and music, clever puzzles, and continuity fixes. Succesfully maintained the tricky balance between humor and dark undertones that existed in the previous entry.
LeChuck's Revenge: Monkey Island 2 - The gold standard. This game successfully evolved the series, giving much greater depth to the characters and their conflicts. Each of the existing characters had aged and moved on from their "Secret" origins, and technical enhancements changed the nature of how we listened to our games. The soundtrack was endlesslyl hummable, the puzzles devilishly sadistic, and the spooky/haunting undertones pervaded the entire game. The ending generated endless controversy, fueling speculation and discussions about the meaning of it all for years.
So how does Tales of Monkey Island: The Launch of the Screaming Narwhal hold up?
The Launch of the Screaming Narwhal uses a plot device as old as the hills to start off the action - starting at the end of the previous adventure. We're in familiar territory - Guybrush is about to foil the latest voodoo plot hatched
by the evil Poxed-Pirate LeChuck, and in typical Threepwood-fashion botches it.
The introductory sequence serves as a capable tutorial, introducing us to the new Telltale Interface and walking us through a few simple puzzles, before cutting to the opening credits, Monkey Island theme, and washing up on Flotsam Island, where the remainder of the game takes place.
The player is immediately given a number of tasks, and is rarely left standing around wondering what to do. Stuck? You've usually got something else to try.
In this regard, Narwhal is scripted tightly enough to allow the player to determine what order to tackle their challenges, and the story remains internally consistent.
Dialogue options might occasionally cause you to crack a smile, but few lines are laugh-out-loud funny. (Notable exception - "You've got spunk in you, kid! Pirate Spunk!" "Ew!")
Earlier games in the series seemed to offer more choice, and greater potential for silly or spooky options. Hopefully, more dialogue options will be available in future episodes.
The puzzles can be deviously tricky, but never felt cruel or unfair. (The one exception might be the Marquis De Singe/Messed up Idol puzzle, but it seems I had more trouble with this one than other folks.) While the map puzzles may feel a tad repetitive, this reminded me of old-school adventure gaming and didn't really bother me. All-in-all, solid effort in puzzle work.
Script - 2/2
Dialogue - 1/2
Puzzles - 2/2
The art direction REALLY shines in the introduction to the game, with a beautiful spooky storm, rain, and lighting effects. Character models are superb, and the environment gave off the perfect Monkey Island Vibe.
Unfortunately, this took a hit once we arrived at Flotsam Island. The brooding atmosphere is lost and replaced with a sunny locale. This can certainly work on a tropical island, but the 3d environments and characters when brightly lit, look plastic-y. This ends up evoking memories of Escape from Monkey Island.
Main characters are beautifully rendered. Guybrush calls back to his "LeChucks Revenge" wardrobe, LeChuck is the devil incarnate, Elaine and the Voodoo Lady are gorgeous, and the Marquis De Singe (a character I was skeptical about) fairly reeks with personality.
Unfortunately, lesser characters are standard Telltale NPC's - Mr Potato Head models with fairly generic traits. Their names are easily forgotten as soon as their purpose in the story is exhausted.
Main - 2/2
Secondary - 1/2
Environments - 1/2
The music of Narwhal has the familiar Monkey Island themes going on, but felt strangely derivative of the original themes. While the old standbys are good, I couldn't help feeling that the original music didn't feel...erm...original. Hopefully later episodes will have more standout themes that I can whistle in the shower.
The voice work in the game was excellent, thanks for the welcome return of Dominic Armato. Other voice actors also filled their roles well, particularly the actor providing the voice of the Marquis De Singe.
Sample quality could have been improved, but overall this game stands up well.
Music - 1/2
Voices - 2/2
The game was unfortunately marred by a few technical issues. The new interface (necessary to navigate the 3d interface), while serviceable, was not a joy to work with. The "click-and-drag" mouse option was difficult to use, and the keyboard option is not particularly friendly. A true "click-to-move" option such as the old Monkey Island games or the more recent Sam and Max games would be a welcome addition, "Cinematic-Display" be damned.
Also, a number of users (myself included) ran into technical issues with the display either upon startup or after resuming the game after making settings changes.
Fortunately, Telltale support was able to find a solution to my problem within 20 minutes of submittingthe ticket. Kudos to the Telltale Support staff!
Issues 1/2 (with 2 indicating no problems)
Judgement, Overall (NOT an overall Average): 1.4/2 (or 70%)
What worked Best:
The introduction had exactly the right tone.
Please give us more night scenes! Monkey works best when it's dark and spooky.
The puzzles were definitely Monkey Island, and I'd love to see more brain-teasers like the "Ninja Doll" puzzle and the "Cheese Wheel" puzzle.
Despite my skepticism, the Marquis De Singe was a show-stealer - give us more memorable characters like this!
I can't even begin to describe how much I loved the Flotsam Island Map - the zoom-out is a beautiful touch!
Inventory combination also worked great. Thanks for bringing this back!
General Advice to Telltale:
The story is serviceable to start with, but needs to ground itself more in "pirate reality." Monkey Island works when it's a serious pirate story with bizzare anachronisms (like Grog Machines).
It's harder to buy into when the spooky/voodoo atmosphere is lost, or when pirates don't feel especially piratey. (For examples of GOOD Pirates, see Mancomb Seepgood, Esteban, or Largo LaGrande. Bad examples include Ignatius Cheese, Davey Newspaperman, or Crimpdigit.)
The art direction seems solid, but could stand to have more
memorable "Lesser" characters. For an example of how to do this right, look at ANY character from LeChucks Revenge or Curse of Monkey Island. You could look at any of the background characters and know that they had a piratey backstory. Pirate Glassblowers are hard to take seriously.
The interface needs serious work - at no point did I enjoy guiding Guybrush through the TOMI world - with the exception of the map screen, which was point-and-click.
Greater Dialogue Choice/Snappier Lines will make future episodes more memorable.
What was Missed:
Memorable Background Characters. (Men of Low Moral Fiber, REAL Pirates in Bars)
"Meanwhile" scenes...(seeing developments going on elsewhere keep the idea of LeChuck front-and-center, and build anticipation of a future confrontation)
Whistlable Music - paying homage to the past is great, and all of the themes that need to be there were...unfortunately, the music called back a bit *too* much to previous tracks. I'd like to see something new.
Screaming Narwhal is a fun diversion, but doesn't quite stand up to Sam and Max Season2, where all cylinders were firing.
If anything, the episode suffers most from being the "First Episode."
The greatest thing that could benefit future episodes is an examination of the "Tone" of the first 3 monkey island games.
In this episode, I feel like Telltale was aiming for a combination of "LeChucks Revenge" and "Curse", but instead achieved a combination of "Secret" and "Escape."
Still, a fun ride that leaves me anticipating more!