Tales of Monkey Island: Chapter 1 Impressions

It's been a while since LucasArts' infamous trademarked pirate made his last appearance in 2000's Escape from Monkey Island. Now the adventure series has jumped ship to Telltale Games, with Monkey Island co-creator Dave Grossman at the helm of a new episodic effort. The pilot episode, "Launch of the Screaming Narwhal," begins with protagonist Guybrush Threepwood boarding the ship of zombie villain LeChuck to save his wife Elaine--a scenario that series regulars will be instantly familiar with. Guybrush is soon swept away to a breezy tropical island, trapped there until he can discover a means of escape.

Telltale is trying very hard to make these sound like authentic Monkey Island games, and in many ways "Launch" achieves that goal. Dominic Armato reprises his role as Guybrush, lending competent voice work to the dialogue. Jokes range from chuckle-worthy to cringe-inducing, with most falling somewhere in the middle--a sniffle here, a roll of the eyes there. Accompanying the conversation is a MIDI score from original Monkey Island composer Michael Land.

Unfortunately, outside of the crisp menus, Tales doesn't much look like a Monkey Island game. The title largely suffers from a bland, plasticine graphical style--a far cry from the warm, detailed art that established the franchise.

Secondary character designs are forgettable--two of three characters in town could be identical but for a mustache and a paintbucket color swap--but it's the bizarre appearance of Threepwood that is most offensive. The Satanic sharpness of Guybrush's goatee lends an obnoxious fratboy look to the character. Maybe it's the setup for a facial hair swordfighting joke, but in the meantime, it stands as an odd choice.

Players have the option of using the keyboard for movement, or a mouse-based "click and hold" solution. Neither feels like a perfect scheme, and I quickly yearned for a point-and-click option. Another quibble: the game's mouse sensitivity is painfully low, and there is no way to turn it up.

The puzzles are typical adventure game fare--"combine the juice with the thingy, then use it on the donkey"--and were mostly logical and satisfying. The episode's first major quest leads Guybrush to one of the episode's more amusing characters, an "expert treasure hunter" that reveals himself to be a Klingon-quoting action figure collector.

The collector quickly gives up a map, which leads to a familiar puzzle set in a Zelda-like maze that resets following a wrong turn. As a videogame puzzle it's immediately recognizable, but there are instances where the game fails to indicate that the player has diverted from the correct path, leading to some unnecessary confusion.

In fact, the word "unnecessary" came to mind more than it should have during my playthrough. It's likely that Telltale will improve some of these elements with later installments, as it did with the Sam & Max series. Whether another Monkey Island game is unnecessary altogether is another question.

There were few moments in what I played of Tales that took me by surprise. Instead, this is exactly what I imagined a Telltale version of Monkey Island would be like--a simple Telltale adventure game with a couple dozen hit-or-miss jokes. It doesn't quite recapture the essence of the original games, but it's not bad, either.

Of course, considering that games these days are dominated by humorless, blood-soaked treadmills, Tales' shortcomings may be easier to overlook than if the episodes had been released in 1998. If you're in need of a lighthearted change of pace from the open-world action genre, Telltale's latest is worth a look.

Tales of Monkey Island arrives tomorrow, July 7, on PC, with a WiiWare release coming later on.

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