We're sure that for many gamers, the Monkey Island series of adventure games is one of those 'near and dear' properties. Some may have started with the original pixelated stylings of The Secret of Monkey Island, created by Tim Schafer, Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman, while others may have been attracted to the series by the fluid cartoon graphics of The Curse of Monkey Island. The reason anyone stayed, however, is because of the consistently hilarious and witty scripts which each game provided, as well as memorable characters like Guybrush Threepwood, Stan and Murray the Talking Demonic Skull. After a nine-year absence, the developers of Sam & Max and Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, Telltale Games, have been gifted with this holy grail of adventure gaming and allowed to create a new five-episode series, dubbed Tales of Monkey Island, and beginning with Launch of the Screaming Narwhal. Can they truly live up to the high reputation of the series, or does it fight like a cow?
Launch of the Screaming Narwhal picks up at the climax of Guybrush's latest adventure, as Guybrush races with his new and expensive ship to rescue his beloved Elaine from the clutches of his nemesis, the evil voodoo zombie pirate LeChuck. Amazingly, this time he's come prepared, and with a voodoo-enchanted cutlass he can finally put an end to the villain once and for all. Unfortunately, being Guybrush, he messes up the enchantment which results in a lot of weird consequences, including blowing up the ship, turning LeChuck human and unleashing his voodoo juju as the 'Pox of LeChuck' upon both Guybrush and the seas. The game begins in proper when Guybrush wakes up on Flotsam Island, a place where the winds literally trap ships on its shores, with his left hand possessed by LeChuck and the spreading pox threatening to possess everyone else on the seven seas.
The plot, for the most part, is actually quite compelling. It's interesting how Telltale seem to be setting up this series, as usually they treat each episode as just that, a self-contained adventure, that sometimes hints at a larger arc that doesn't pay off until the final episode. However, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal feels like the first part of a much larger game. While there is one sub-plot which is resolved in this chapter, involving Flotsam's winds and an insane French Maquis, several major arcs are set up and left unresolved by a rather abrupt cliffhanger ending. However, that's not to say that this episode is short, as a matter of fact it's one of the largest Telltale episodes we've played, clocking in around the five to six hour mark (although being Monkey Island fans, we may have dawdled a bit clicking on absolutely everything).
So, first thing's first. Is the game funny? Well, it is. It's not on the level of the original two Monkey Island games, but it's got the general atmosphere down pat and there are a few laugh-out-loud jokes strewn amongst the proceedings. We'd definitely place it above the previous Escape from Monkey Island. There are a few things that aren't as funny as the game thinks they are, like a pirate glassblower who creates vowel shaped tubes (including a 'U Tube', get it?), and a few other swing-and-a-miss jokes, but fortunately the game doesn't focus on them for too long. Guybrush once again steals the show with his stupid charm. Most of the laughs in the game come from his banter, or from him breaking the fourth wall. He acknowledges that a decade has passed since we last saw him, although he doesn't seem much older, pointy beard aside.
Flotsam Island is surprisingly large. It's much larger than what we've come to expect from pilot Telltale episodes, which usually only feature a couple of locations and a street. Flotsam has several locations to visit, including a main town and a jungle full of ruins. While you'll explore and pillage most of the island in this episode, a few locations remain un-entered like the town courthouse and newspaper building, which we hope means there won't be a lot of recycled content in future episodes, and that perhaps Guybrush will return just to check out those buildings. On the whole, the puzzles in this first episode are great. We mentioned in our last Telltale review that the developers had seemed to learn how to make their games 'flow' better, rather than adhering to a strict 'one big-puzzle with three sub-puzzles' template, and Launch of the Screaming Narwhal continues this trend.
The obstacles you'll face are amusingly crazy and varied, and together with the large game area of Flotsam Island, contribute to the game feeling as if it's on a larger scale than other episodic games. If you've been a fan of Telltale, you'll also notice the puzzles in this game can be a lot harder than their other efforts, in a good way, of course. There are two puzzles that may annoy players, which basically involve moving from screen to screen in a specific order (lots of old games used to do this back in the day). That means, to complete the puzzle, you need to exit several screens in a certain direction, which sometimes means doubling back and making little sense. However, the game does provide ample clues to get you through this, it just may be jarring to adventure game newbies.
In addition, a hint system has been added, with five levels of helpfulness that can be set in the menu. However, we didn't find it to be that helpful at all, with Guybrush usually just stating his objective rather than suggesting a way to achieve it, for example, "I really need to get on that ship." Interestingly, Telltale have also added a 'combine' device to your inventory, which you place two objects in and can then combine them to create a new item. We're not sure what was wrong with just selecting an item and using it to click on another item, but the combining machine glows and sparkles, so we'll let it slide.
You're given two options for controlling the game. The first one involves using both the keyboard and mouse, working just like the Wallace and Gromit games, as you control Guybrush with the arrows or WASD keys, and select items and dialogue options with the mouse. This control scheme works fine, and is the way we recommend playing the game. The second option just uses the mouse. However, if you were hoping to use the mouse for pointing-and-clicking just like classic Monkey Island fare, you're in for a disappointment.
Controlling Guybrush using just the mouse is very strange. It involves holding down the left mouse button, then dragging the mouse in the direction you want to go. Whenever you hold down the mouse button, a small ring will appear to let you know which direction Guybrush is facing, and it spins around as you guide him. It doesn't help a lot though, as this control scheme is very finicky, and frankly doesn't work. Well, it works in the sense that it, you know, works. Technically. But there's no way you'd want to play the whole game like that. Implementing a simple point and click alternative, such as the recent Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper would have been a much better way to go.
The game's art style may divide fans. It's fairly basic and not incredibly detailed. We grew to like it, as it does allow for a lot of emotion to come through in all of the characters, making it more like the cartoon-style of The Curse of Monkey Island. Likewise, the animation in the game is quite expressive. On a side note, it seems that Telltale has just figured out how to make game characters snap their fingers. It's the only explanation, as everyone does it a lot, and noticeably at odd times. The voice talent is strong for this episode, with lots of Piratey-accents being thrown around, as well as some over-the-top French and New Yorker. Dominic Armato returns as the voice for Guybrush Threepwood and definitely gives the best performance. He totally gets that slightly-moronic arrogance Guybrush asserts himself with, as well as the character's tendency to get distracted mid-sentence by random thoughts.
Monkey Island fans should breathe a sigh of relief. While the game may not reach the hilarious heights of the series' high-points, it still provides a rollicking piratey adventure, with everyone's favourite idiot pirate who can hold his breath for ten minutes underwater. It provides a surprisingly large amount of content, a decent amount of in-jokes, and a lot of foreshadowing for future episodes. At the same time there are some hiccups along the way, and a useless mouse-control system. However, taking this episode as a whole and by measuring the amount of enjoyment we extracted from it, we walked away very happy indeed. If Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is anything to go by, and we hope it is, we're in for what could possibly be Telltale's best series yet, and a worthy continuation of the Monkey Island name.