Manatees are something of a theme...
Guybrush Threepwood. Swashbuckler. Lover. Mighty Pirate. And one of the most recognisable videogame characters this side of Lara Croft. It’s no surprise, really, because Lucasarts’ creativity and imagination seem to be drafted from a bottomless well. In this third episode of the fifth game in the series, Guybrush’s adventures continue in an unusual, mostly-situated-within-a-gigantic-sea-creature kind of a way. Nevertheless there are still the usual touchstones to fall back on to perpetuate the Monkey Island themes – recurring characters, oddball comedy, ludicrous puzzles… and the developers’ inexplicable insistence that every puzzle needs to see you gathering together the four whatsits in order to progress.
What is it with this? I blame the very first ‘Secret of Monkey Island’ game, where to prove yourself as a mighty pirate you needed to complete four tests. It worked so well it’s now seen as par for the course. If they don’t perpetuate it yet again in episode four, I’ll eat my parrot.
But that’s a minor gripe. This was my favourite episode so far. The characters are all excellent, and more than that, the voice acting is wonderful. So many games have been spoilt by utterly atrocious voice acting – Dawn of War, anyone? – that it’s really refreshing to come across a game that is actively bettered by the voice-overs. It’s not that they’re particularly deep or complex, of course, just perfectly pitched for this freewheeling style of game.
One, in particular, stands out. (Spoiler warning to all Monkey Island old-timers.) It’s really difficult to write about the merits of an episode of an adventure game without giving too much away, but I have to share this – Murray is back. What is it about disembodied skulls that make them such fantastic supporting characters? Turning up in a treasure chest in the belly of a giant manatee, he threatens, curses and terrorises his way through the episode up to, and including, the final credits. Without him, this would still be the best episode in what is shaping up to be a really fun series. As it stands, he has some of the best lines of the whole game – many of them delivered when you shut him away in your inventory.
There are, of course, a handful of new characters to get to know – not too many that they lose their individuality. The puzzles are, for my money, a step up from the previous two outings. Not only are they pitched at precisely the right difficulty level, they’re also really well thought-out and leave you thinking ‘well, I’ve never done THIS in a videogame before’. It’s that originality and imagination that made the originals so well-received. It’s also a good yardstick for sceptics who may be wondering if the new Monkey Islands are going to stand up to the test of time.
I've said it before and I'll say it again - the graphics are really not very good. "Yeah, but it's cartoony!" will only get you so far in my book. Sometimes, a good third of the screen will be filled with what is supposed to be a circular object and it'll be really jagged - like, pantagonal. That's not really good enough, given the system requirements which should be able to cope with more.
On a side note, this is the first episode that breaks from the traditional ‘island map’ view. In fact, in terms of raw acreage it’s easily the smallest of the episodes so far. I can only really think of about five different locations for the whole thing. Granted, some of them stretch longer than just a single screen, but it’s not about exploration this time. In my review for the first episode, I expressed some concern over the developers’ bravery to stray from the obvious path, and while this is nothing devastatingly dissimilar to what fans of the series have come to expect, it at least shows a willingness to explore some new territory. The obligatory sub-game, which without saying too much if vaguely reminiscent of the accumulation gameplay from the original insult swordfighting, is fun, comical and well-integrated.
So I suppose what I’m saying here is that it’s taken me three episodes to fully accept that they’ve not destroyed the series I grew up with. ‘Tales…’ is shaping up to be a better outing than either ‘Curse…’ or ‘Escape…’, and is a worthy addition to the series.
Fifty doubloons says Stan the used ship salesman turns up in the next episode.