That’s right, fans, your sinister voodoo rituals worked, and the sacrifice of all those first-born Furbies was worth it in the end: Guybrush Threepwood is back again, risen from the depths of cult classic exile and riding on the crest of the wave of adventure genre resurgence with a new-found popularity, a fancy remake of his original outing and a new episodic adventure series, much to the rejoicing happydances of series faithfuls. And thankfully now PS3 owners can enjoy the fun that was previously restricted to Wii owners and PC gamers with rigs powerful enough to handle games more taxing than Solitaire, as the complete season of Tales of Monkey Island makes its way to the PlayStation Network.
As we join Guybrush, he’s mid-adventure, about to rescue his loving wife Elaine from the clutches of evil zombie/ghost/demon pirate LeChuck and vanquish his nemesis with a voodoo-cursed sword. Alas, as is Guybrush’s style, he screws up the ceremony, leaving LeChuck human and unleashing an icky pirate pox across the seas. Faster than you can say “Clatto verata nicto”, our intrepid hero’s hand had a nasty case of Evil Dead 2 syndrome, possessed with a sinister life of its own. Guybrush must set sail in search of a voodoo cure for the pox to set things right, all while evading a maniacal surgeon and a fiesty, beautiful pirate-hunter. Following a formula familiar to those who’ve played their Sam & Max games , Telltale have delivered a five-chapter episodic season, with each episode holding its own adventure while furthering the larger story arc.
The WiiWare version of Tale of Monkey Island was unfortunately plagued by frame rate issues, and like the highs and lows of a crashing sugar junkie, the game was prone to jumping from awkwardly jittering and stuttering around to sluggishly grinding to a slow crawl during transitions. It was perhaps a limitation of the WiiWare download system itself, with each episode expected to fit a tiny 40 megabyte file size, though Telltale’s excellent WiiWare Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People strangely never suffered from the same issues. PS3 gamers can breathe a hefty sigh of relief, however, as Tales of Monkey Island’s PSN package has taken a pointy cutlass and hacked away at those pesky visual problems – the game now runs perfectly, with animation running incredibly smoothly, characters and locations looking as crisp and detailed as intended, and while there’s a quick load time at certain sections of major islands, it’s mercifully brief, with none of the awkward pausing and choppiness of the Wii version. The audio, too, is offered up at a much higher quality, sounding infinitely better than the compressed and distorted sounds that graced the game’s Wii outing, meaning the glorious voice acting from The Curse of Monkey Island’s cast can be heard as clear as a whistle.
However, though the PS3 version vastly improves on the WiiWare version visually and aurally, the point-and-click controls aren’t as well suited to traditional console controllers. Naturally, the Wii remote is a perfect fit for the point-and-click nature of old-school adventure games – an advantage the PS3 controller doesn’t share. Controlling Guybrush is simple enough, with the left analogue stick pointing and walking him in any direction you see fit. Item and character selection is steamlined to a one-click interface – a red arrow icon indicates selectable items, and pressing ‘X’ will interact with whichever action is most relevant. It’s a clear and simple system, but the highlighting of items prove a tad irksome – the game automatically highlights the object nearest to Guybrush, but it’s not much use, as the tiniest movement causes the selection to flit to another object. Much handier is the ability to scroll through selectable items with the ‘L1′ and ‘R1′ buttons, but it too has minor issues – every item in an expansive location (including those far off-screen) is scrollable, which can make things chaotic and cluttered, while the rocking of a boat can cause the selection to jump between nearby items as the location tilts and bobs. That’s not to say the controls are bad – they’re mostly smooth, intuitive and easy for any pirate-loving gamer to pick up in the blink of an eyepatch-covered eye – but they do have their unfortunate troublesome foibles.
The story at large gets off to a slow start; coupled with the burden of having to set up a 5-episode story arc and reintroduce characters to franchise regulars and newcomers alike, the opening chapter doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders. Which it’s certainly enjoyable, filled with logical puzzles and an abundance of gags, there’s an over-reliance on familiar series jokes. Like a warm hug from an old friend and a shared in-joke, it’s fantastic to have Guybrush back, but there’s no need to stoop to the repetition of oft-quoted lines from bygone days to remind us that it’s him. The first couple of episodes also cherry-pick the least-beloved aspects of adventure gaming for the bulk of its gameplay, as traversing a lengthy and dynamically-shifting labyrinthine jungle can be tiresome, especially when you’ll be doing it three times over two chapters. While Guybrush, Elaine and the now human LeChuck are as awesome as we’d remembered, the game’s opening lacks the fantastic supporting characters that the series has grown so adept at crafting. Unfortunately Telltale’s tendency to recycle assets only highlights the aforementioned problem; character models for supporting pirates tend to be generic and awfully similar, with two designs – the skinny, lanky, long-faced pirate and the shorter, fatter one – reappearing throughout, with only minor tweaks, making the entire supporting cast indistinguishable from each other. There’s still a heap of fun puzzles and great jokes, including some great self-referential humour, like having to talk LeChuck through solving a point-and-click puzzle, or Morgan’s painfully cute escalating annoyance as Guybrush repeatedly examines his mast with a stating-the-obvious ‘That’s my mast!’, but it’s a flawed and unsure opening.
Despite the slow and slightly uneven start, the third chapter – Lair of the Leviathan – suddenly finds an harmonious balance between staying true to the series’ roots whilst forging its own path and crafting a new and unique story, all while capturing the gleefully daft wit, memorable and endearingly crazy characters and inventive puzzles we’ve come to expect. Ditching the well-worn island beaches and jungle mazes for a more unique location (the belly of a giant manatee) and replacing the cloned character designs with unique, diverse and incredibly funny characters, Chapter 3 captures the series spark flawlessly, and often feels like a lost entry in LucasArts’ classics catalogue. New scene-stealing characters get ample time to shine, most notably the fearlessly fiesty and irresistibly adorable pirate hunter Morgan LeFlay, who has a Knives Chau-esque fangirl obsession with Guybrush. The quartet of pirates Guybrush encounters are also an amazing addition, and though given stereotypically broad personalities – there’s a portly nerd and a shaggy-haired surfer – it feels more like a throwback to the dynamics of Day of the Tentacle, while every mention or reaction shot of their legendary (and quite dead) pirate pal Santino with his skeleton jaw agape is hysterically funny. There’s a noticeable shift towards more inventive, fun and clever puzzle design, too, with a ‘scary pirate face’ challenge a great reworking of the Insult Sword Fighting formula, while communicating with a manatee with a tourist phrasebook provides an equally great slice of dialogue-focused puzzling. Topped off with a laughter-inducing credit sequence narrated with snarky malevolence by a fan-favourite sinister skill, which harkens back to the gag-filled credits of the original. Lair of the Leviathan marks Telltale settling in comfortably to its inherited shoes and gliding around in them with effortless ease.
In contrast, Chapter 4 – The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Threepwood – feels like a regression of sorts; the story jumps back to Flotsam Island, with Guybrush yet again wandering the jungle more than John Rambo, with the generic pirate placeholder characters making an unfortunate return. Thankfully though, Telltale’s team doesn’t quite lose their footing, and there’s still a wealth of humour hurled out liberally. Guybrush’s stint as a pirate-at-law, acting as his own attorney, opens the door to some incredibly gigglesome gags as Guybrush interrogates himself. Most importantly though, Telltale carry over an incredibly wonderful sense of character development that helps justify the episodic nature of the plot. It’s a component most evident in the presence of Morgan LeFlay; she’s a tremendous character, and her interactions with Guybrush are the highlight of the season, with a wealth of incredibly funny banter that hits the core comedy of the Monkey Island series, but there’s a shockingly deep (well, for a wacky adventure game series about zombie pirates, anyway) character progression, too. The relationship between the two shifts and changes with natural growth over the course of the season, and manages to be funny, sweet and surprisingly touching. It’s a testament to the talents of Telltale’s team (alliteration abounds!) that this added resonance fits so gracefully into the series, and while the game itself never hits the dizzying highs of the originals, it’s bestowed with an effective emotional weight that the series has never had before.
After an unsure and shaky (though entirely enjoyable) start, Tales of Monkey Island soon hits its stride with the effortless panache for witty humour that Telltale Games have grown so adept at, channeling the momentum of the sublime third chapter through to a satisfying conclusion. Some minor issues and a comparatively weaker first couple of chapters keep the game from reaching the perfection of the beloved original games, but Telltale have still thoughtfully crafted a gaming experience that’s crammed with more fun and rewarding puzzles than you could shake a splintered peg leg at and laced with hilarious gags sharper than a lovingly-polished hook-hand. Thankfully, Tales of Monkey Island does the franchise justice, earning a well-deserved place in the series while adding a new dash of heart and character, and is certain to leave fans clamouring for a second season.
Tales of Monkey Island: Season One is available on the PlayStation Network now.