Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tales of Monkey Island: Episodic Gaming at its Best

When I first started blogging on Bitmob, Toby Davis messaged me over gchat, asking if I owned a copy of the new Monkey Island series. When I said no, he gave me a code to redeem a free PC version of Tales of Monkey Island. Needless to say, I was stunned. A complete stranger was giving me a free game, for absolutely no reason. I accepted, half thinking it was some kind of joke thanks to my cynicism. Here's my review of the first two episodes.

Article original published on Bitmob.

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Launch of the Screaming Narwhal

How is root beer made? While hundreds of root beer brands exist in the United States, with no standardized recipe, the primary flavor associated with the beverage is the bark from the roots of the sassafras tree.

Complement the sassafras flavor with other roots and spices, such as cherry tree bark, licorice root, nutmeg, cinnamon, or clove; then add the concentrated flavors to some water from a seltzer bottle, and root beer is born.

Unfortunately, when your wife is being held captive by a megalomaniacal voodoo-wielding zombie pirate, and your only hope of saving her is by creating some fizzy root beer, you might end up taking some shortcuts. At least that is what Guybrush Threepwood would do, considering the beverage’s name perhaps too literally in assembling his ultimate weapon.

guybrush

Needless to say, such shortcuts end up backfiring for the simple-minded yet endlessly creative Threepwood in Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, the first episode in Tales of Monkey Island.

Telltale Game’s first entry into the Monkey Island series is ripe with character and humor as Guybrush attempts to escape an island he has been marooned on. Entangling himself in local affairs, Threepwood is forced to commit heroic acts of piracy as he meets characters, as ludicrous as they are enjoyable.

D’Oro the Explorer, as Guybrush calls him, sits in a jungle, content to play with his Porcelain Power Pirate dolls as he dreams of finding the extremely rare Dark Ninja Dave figurine, with Killer Karate Katana. The Marquis de Singe, on the other hand, is slightly more maniacal and ambitious, despite his copious amounts of makeup and flamboyant French accent.

marquis

The puzzles are just as ridiculous as the characters, with solutions that can evoke the complexity of a Rube Goldberg machine. While not maddeningly difficult, some puzzles can make the player feel exceedingly naive and remarkably clever, simultaneously. This is especially true when you have to place a lit cannon ball in laundry. Who thinks of this stuff?

Breaking all the rules of immersive gaming, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal does not present an everyman protagonist.

Guybrush Threepwood is far from the strong silent type, possessing a well-developed and idiosyncratic nature.

He threatens his enemy with a soft drink – “prepare to meet your frosty carbonated maker LeChuck,” and regards potentially life-threatening situations with a humorous nonchalance – “Would you mind releasing my wife? She gets a little cranky when she’s tied up for more than an hour or so.”

The Siege of Spinner Cay

Given the overarching story and strong characters, Tales of Monkey Island resembles a television serial more than a videogame at times. In keeping with the soap opera construct, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal ends on a cliffhanger, with a sword at Guybrush’s throat, being handled by an unknown assailant.

knife

Episode two in the series, The Siege of Spinner Cay, picks up immediately where the first episode ended. Making full use of the episodic release system, Telltale Games presents a new and welcome environment filled with androgynous mer-people, who are not shy about their attraction towards Guybrush.

Despite the new environment, old characters return to develop ongoing storylines and introduce new themes. Guybrush is forced to confront and cooperate with his arch-nemesis, who has inexplicably charmed his wife.

Basic gameplay devices also return, as items Guybrush obtained in the first episode are put to use in the second. A locket with no purpose in Launch of the Screaming Narwhal serves its triumphant purpose in The Siege of Spinner Cay.

However, possibly the most enjoyable aspect, and best use of the episodic model, is the reference of jokes from the previous episode. Having fooled D’Oro with a reference to Dark Ninja Dave in the first episode, Guybrush attempts the same tactic again in the second episode, albeit against pirates who should not understand the reference.

Popular culture references also run rampant throughout both episodes, with the aforementioned “D’Oro the Explorer” contributing only a small part. Guybrush must make use of a glass “U-tube,” contact an informant code-named “Deep Gut,” and peruse a library with books titled “The Old Man and the Sea Gull” and “A City of Two Tales.”

merpeople

Lair of the Leviathan

While games in the Tales of Monkey Island series can certainly be frustrating, that frustration is dwarfed by the brilliant character design and dialogue.

Luckily, chapter two in the series ends with a cliffhanger as satisfying as the first. The as-of-yet unreleased third episode promises to occur in another new and interesting environment, and continue the storylines and themes prevalent in the second chapter.

Never has story in a videogame been more anticipated.

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