Tales Of Monkey Island review
Episode 1: Launch Of The Screaming Narwhal
In its five years of existence, Telltale Games has proved itself the master of imitation. Working with a different licensed IP for each of its adventures, the developer has adapted from comics (Bone, Sam & Max) and animation (Homestar Runner, Wallace & Gromit) but now finds itself working on a property more at home with videogames. And with Monkey Island, the developer is sailing in dangerous waters, working with a venerable franchise practically worshipped by gamers. Fans who will no doubt approach this five-episode series with no small amount of trepidation, hoping that the magic can be recreated but fearing the worst all the same.
But Tales Of Monkey Island isn’t actually an exercise in imitation at all; it’s the game that finally sees many of the original creators reunited with their estranged franchise. Ron Gilbert was only available to lend a few words of advice, but at the helm of the new series is Dave Grossman, whose placeholder dialogue for Secret Of Monkey Island proved so funny that Gilbert left it in, transforming the game from a relatively serious adventure to a comedy masterpiece in the process. On writing duties is Mike Stemmle, co-designer on the underrated Escape From Monkey Island and a rising Telltale talent responsible for translating Homestar Runner’s juvenile internet humour into the more accessible Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People. Stemmle, Grossman, and friends are on top form in Launch Of The Screaming Narwhal.
Perhaps conscious that the first episode has a lot to prove, the team has packed the two-to-four-hour-long game with more laughs than any previous Telltale game we care to remember. Physical comedy and witty banter abound, but you’ll also find subtle visual gags, in-jokes and references aplenty. And even when you’re wandering around in a confused state, as is typical of the genre, characters in the background will call out to you rather than wait to be engaged. And though many of their lines repeat eventually, some are so funny that they stand the test of repetition.
The interactive element is also used to great effect. Background details, for example, can be examined multiple times, the on-screen description changing with each click to keep the humour flowing even when the plot isn’t. Guybrush’s dialogue trees, meanwhile, showcase multiple potential jokes that often aren’t used when clicked on, voice actor Dominic Armato instead delivering an unseen line that gets the intended point across while raising laughter that would have been diminished had the joke been spoiled by the selectable text.
Special credit should be given to Armato, actually. Here is a voice actor who arguably knows his character better than any of the writers. A huge fan of the series for years before he landed the role in Curse Of Monkey Island, Armato’s understanding of Guybrush is critical to Tales. Potentially dull exposition and subtle jokes that would fall flat in less experienced hands are brought to life by Armato, his naive yet likeable Guybrush enhancing the humour of the script and delivering humour where none existed on the page.
Other major returning characters are also done justice, with the Voodoo Lady in particular receiving some excellent lines. The series’ new characters are, however, the only place where Narwhal slips. Though each character is justified by its funny dialogue alone, their visual designs leave something to be desired. Drawn in the developer’s now-recognisable style, most look like they could have appeared in any previous Telltale game and don’t feel distinct to the property. It’s a subtle point but an important one nonetheless, since it almost threatens to break an otherwise carefully recreated universe.
As paradoxical as it might seem, though, getting into character isn’t just about the characters. A good Monkey Island needs to play in a certain way and Telltale has deviated from its usual formula to accommodate the licence. The studio’s previous adventures have always featured over-simplified puzzles in order to keep accessibility high, but a Monkey Island without challenge just wouldn’t be a Monkey Island at all. So, for the first time in Telltale’s history, inventory items can now be combined and the gameplay feels deeper and more involving as a result.
Thankfully, however, those combinations never stretch the boundaries of plausibility as they were prone to do in the SCUMM days, each solution making perfect sense within the reality of the fiction.
If there’s one area in which Telltale’s puzzles have always shone, it’s in those imaginative set pieces that most episodes tend to have: those self-contained, locked-room puzzles that give the player a chance to breathe while also showcasing a particularly original idea. Sam & Max: Situation Comedy had its improv TV comedy sketch, and Launch Of The Screaming Narwhal has its surgery escape sequence, in which Guybrush, tied to an operating table, must free himself without the luxury of movement. The scene is easily the most entertaining puzzle and, outside the script itself, the highlight of the episode. Reassuringly, it’s moments like this that show that Tales Of Monkey Island isn’t just a response to nine years of demand for a sequel but also a great new episodic adventure in its own right.