|You can't seem to ever escape insult swordfighting|
|Reviewed by:||Mark Goninon|
|Release Date:||19 Sep 2022|
|Time played:||12 hours|
The Not So Secret History of Monkey Island
Before we go into the review proper, it's important to explain how we got to Return to Monkey Island in the first place (especially important to those of you who have never played a Monkey Island game before, although I suspect this percentage of the players would be quite low).
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the genre of point 'n' click adventures were all the rage and while it turns out many developers wanted to get in on the action, the two powerhouses in this arena were Sierra On-Line and Lucasarts (formerly known as Lucasfilm). One of the early success stories for Lucasarts was the 1990 point 'n' click adventure The Secret of Monkey Island designed by Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer. The game was heavily inspired by the historical fantasy novel "On Stranger Tides" and "The Pirates of the Carribean" ride at Disneyland so while the game is set during the Golden Age of Piracy, it also has a lot of supernatural elements such as voodoo spells and ghost pirates. In the game, you play the role of a wannabe pirate called Guybrush Threepwood who arrives at a place called Melee Island. Guybrush falls in love with the island's governor, Elaine Marley, but she is soon abducted by the undead pirate LeChuck. Guybrush then goes on a quest to defeat LeChuck and save Elaine.
The game was a critical and commercial success and a sequel was released only a year later called Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. In this adventure, Guybrush goes in search of a treasure called 'Big Whoop' but has to also contend with a vengeful LeChuck. While the sequel was also loved by the critics, it was deemed a commercial failure by Lucasarts. Ron Gilbert left Lucasarts around this time and started his own company called Humongous Entertainment which are well known for their point 'n' click adventures aimed at children such as Putt Putt and Pajama Sam.
Lucasarts weren't finished with the Monkey Island series though and a third instalment called The Curse of Monkey Island was released in 1997 developed by a new team led by Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley. In this game, Guybrush attempts to marry Elaine only to accidentally give her a cursed engagement ring that turns her into gold. He has to spend the rest of the game figuring out how to lift the curse while also dealing with LeChuck (again - I suspect you're starting to see a common theme here). The game had a similar animation style to Disney or Don Bluth cartoons, and it was the first Monkey Island to feature voice acting: Dominic Armato voices Guybrush Threepwood in this game and every Monkey Island game since. Just like its predecessors, the game was a critical success but wasn't much of a commercial success, at least in the United States. Commercially, the game fared much better in Europe, especially in Germany.
A fourth instalment of the Monkey Island series, and the last to be developed by Lucasarts, was released in 2001. Escape from Monkey Island was developed by a team led by Sean Clark and Michael Stemmle (who would later go on to found Telltale Games) and was the first 3D version of a Monkey Island adventure. In Escape from Monkey Island, LeChuck allies himself with an Australian property developer called Ozzie Mandrill that is evicting pirates across the Caribbean and turning it into one giant tourist trap. It's up to Guybrush to put a stop to their plans. Escape from Monkey Island, while not as well received as previous entries in the series, was still a critical success but was only a moderate commercial success.
It would be a long 8 year wait for Monkey Island fans before they got to see another Monkey Island game. Tales of Monkey Island, released in 2009, was developed by an entirely different studio called Telltale Games, a company that consisted of many ex-Lucasarts developers including Michael Stemmle who worked on Escape from Monkey Island. Like other Telltale adventures, the game was released over five episodes and it sees Guybrush yet again trying to defeat the pirate LeChuck but accidentally releasing a voodoo pox in the process. Guybrush seeks out a cure with the help of his wife Elaine. Telltale claims that Tales of Monkey Island was a commercial success and exceeded their expectations. The game was received well by the critics too.
It would again be a long wait until another Monkey Island game was released. Lucasarts, the company behind the Monkey Island games, was eventually shut down in 2013, after Disney acquired Lucasfilm for over $4 billion the year before. Ron Gilbert even asked if Disney could sell his Monkey Island IP back in a Tweet he posted in 2016.
Dear @Disney, now that you're not making games, please sell me my Monkey Island and Mansion Mansion IP. I'll pay real actual money for them.— Ron Gilbert (@grumpygamer) May 23, 2016
But the years kept passing by and it looked like the Monkey Island IP would sit dormant forever. Then earlier this year, on April Fool's Day, Ron Gilbert posts on his blog that he is working on a new Monkey Island game. Since it's on April Fool's Day, the fans are hesitant to believe that it's true, especially since there has been no indication beforehand that Ron even acquired the use of the IP from Disney let alone started work on a new game. But only a few days after that, Ron linked a trailer for the game and only a few months later, the game was finally released (13 years after the last Monkey Island game).
Very familiar but don't get too comfy
Originally, I thought Return to Monkey Island would be a sequel to the last Monkey Island game Ron Gilbert was the lead designer for, Le Chuck's Revenge. Ron said as much in a post he made in 2013 where if he were to work on a new Monkey Island game, he would continue where he left off.
"It would be called Monkey Island 3a. All the games after Monkey Island 2 don't exist in my Monkey Island universe. My apologies to the all talented people who worked on them and the people who loved them, but I'd want to pick up where I left off. Free of baggage. In a carnival. That doesn't mean I won't steal some good ideas or characters from other games. I'm not above that." - Ron Gilbert
This would've resulted in much lore built on by other teams being excluded which would have been a shame. Thankfully, Ron seems to have had a change of heart and included all the other games as canon: there's even a recap of the events from the previous games which is told via scrapbook and this is accessed from the Main Menu.
The game will feel very familiar to veterans of the series with similar puzzles, and a whole bunch of returning characters like Carla the Swordmaster, Wally the Cartographer and Murray the Demonic Skull (I don't need to mention Elaine and LeChuck, they're a given). However, don't get too comfortable because Ron has thrown in a couple of curveballs in there. The game occasionally toys with the knowledge veterans have of the locations from previous games, including Monkey Island itself, so just when you think Guybrush will come out unscathed, it's not always the case (it provides one of my favourite twists in the game).
Mod Cons Galore
The game has a very streamlined and intuitive user interface similar to many modern point 'n' click adventures and the game has two difficulty settings: one for the casual player and one for experienced adventure gamers. I figured since I was a veteran of the series, I'd pick the harder difficulty setting but there was one time, close to the end of game, where I was almost stuck, only because I went into the puzzle headfirst without a plan of attack. Thankfully, the puzzle was still solvable in the end albeit with brute force. So, I feel the hardest difficulty is definitely recommended for the veterans of the series and point 'n' click adventures in general, but the game is very accommodating to new players too. In fact, the game even has an in-built hint system if you happen to get really stuck.
The only annoyance I found with the gameplay was there happened to be a lot of backtracking towards the middle of the game. In adventure game terms, the entire Caribbean becomes one large room with rooms within rooms which does make things a bit trickier, especially when there are some rooms with nothing to advance the plot.
|Otis in jail. What a surprise.|
High quality visuals and audio
Prior to the game coming out, there were some Monkey Island fans that were quite vocal about their distaste for the new visuals. Ron almost decided to stop providing updates about Return to Monkey Island on his personal blog as a result. But frankly, I like the new visuals. While pixelart from the first two games and the cel-shaded cartoon style of the third are my favourites, I'm glad they decided to go back to 2D for this game and to also try something different with respect to the art style. If you like the art style from Double Fine titles like The Cave or Broken Age, I think you'll like this one too.
Audio is a treat too, with many returning voice actors from previous games including Dominic Armato as Guybrush Threepwood, Alexandra Boyd as Elaine Marley, Neil Ross as Wally the Cartographer and Denny Delk as Murray the Demonic Skull. The soundtrack was composed by the original team of Michael Land, Peter McConnell and Clint Bajakian and is a real treat so definitely no complaints in that department either.
So… about that ending
The game does employ an unreliable narrator trope which is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it allows Ron to add references to all the stuff from previous Monkey Island games he didn't work on and say "did this stuff really happen or is Guybrush just making it all up?" You do run the risk of a "Wizard of Oz" style ending though, one which might leave some of the audience unsatisfied because it was just all a dream. I won't go into any more specifics but if you've played Ron's previous games like Le Chuck's Revenge or Thimbleweed Park, you might not at all be surprised by what is in store. My only recommendation is to sit and wait for the post-credits scene since this changes depending on what choices you make towards the end of the game. But ultimately, this is one of those games where you derive your own meaning from the ending. I have mixed reactions about it all. I'm not a fan of "it was just all a dream" endings but I think you have more leeway when it comes to games since you can still have fond memories of playing the game regardless of what occurs with the plot. Although if you're actively seeking a reward for solving puzzles, it might have the opposite effect and amplify the disappointment since at least if it occurs in a movie, you're a passive observer. I can see where Ron was going with the ending but it doesn't make me feel any better about it.
Return to Monkey Island is a quality, modern point 'n' click adventure that should appeal to fans of the Monkey Island franchise and newcomers alike. An intuitive, easy-to-use interface, an easy difficulty setting and an in-game hints system will be welcome to those unfamiliar with point 'n' click adventures and everyone can appreciate the crisp visuals, professional voice acting, beautiful soundtrack and funny humour.
The ending is the only thing I had mixed feelings about. It doesn't detract from the fun I had playing the actual game but I did feel it could've been wrapped up better (just don't ask me how).
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