Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal

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Only a month ago, the landscape of PC adventure gaming seemed a desolate and barren place, Telltale’s episodic offerings being the only visible remains of one of the bastions of traditional PC gaming. Since then Lucasarts had confirmed that they were returning to work on _Monkey Island_, one of the most infamous of adventure gaming franchises. Indeed, it was soon confirmed that not only were they working in collaboration with ex-Lucasarts staffers on development of a quintet of new _Monkey Island_ episodes, titled the _Tales of Monkey Island_, but also on a special edition rerelease of the first _Monkey Island_ title, the _Secret of Monkey Island_, resplendent with both a graphical overhaul and new voice acting. Only hours before this writer put fingers to keyboard, Lucasarts further announced that they would start releasing their back catalogue of titles on the digital delivery system Steam, starting on Wednesday with a selection of ten titles ranging from _LOOM _to _Battlefront II_. Perhaps adventure gaming could be stirring from its long forgotten ashes?

The first of these Monkey themed releases is the _Tales of Monkey Island_, whose five monthly episodes begins today with _The Launch of the Screaming Narwhal_, which I’ll be looking at here.

Fans of the series need not worry: this is very much _Monkey Island_. Crucially, the humour is spot on throughout; in fact, the jokes seem to continually improve as you progress through the game. I found Launch much funnier than any of Telltale’s previous episodic titles, which suddenly seem rather dry by comparison. The developers have also drafted the considerable talents of Dominic Armato who, along with other actors who lent their voices to characters in _Curse of Monkey Island_, thankfully reprise his role. Dominic as Guybrush is a delight to listen to.

The puzzles in the game are similarly up to task. Whilst they’re generally noticeably easier than the calibre of puzzles generally found when _Monkey Island_ was first released, there are still a number of real brain burners strewn liberally throughout the episode. The puzzles thankfully have little reliance on “rule of three” tasks and hold a good variety of problems and tasks whose solutions remain, with only rare exceptions, generally logical and relevant.

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Launch begins where few gamers dare tread: at the end of a game, with the mighty Pirate, Guybrush Threepwood finally dealing with his arch-nemesis LeChuck once and for all, attempting to enchant a Voodoo sword, rescue his wife and save a number of rather bemused looking monkeys in the process. Somewhat inevitably, all does not go to plan and Guybrush is soon stranded on an unusual island. In some ways, _Monkey Island_ titles have always been somewhat suited to being episodic content as their story has always been divided into somewhat discrete chapters and similarly each of the _Tales _can be approached in the same way: as a different chapter of a single game. Whilst Launch undisputedly is only the first part of a much larger, overarching plot, the episode’s story is still distinct to itself, with a definite objective and endpoint. In true episodic fashion, concluding with a cliff-hanger (of sorts) really whets the mouth with anticipation for the second episode.

The game does draw heavily from previous Telltale titles, using the same engine that has been employed in every episode since _Sam and Max_; and the control scheme is a modified version of _Wallace and Gromit’s_ somewhat controversial choice of using WASG to move the primary character around. Here, this has been altered so that it is also possible to click and drag with the mouse in the direction that you’d like to move, allowing the game to now be controlled entirely with the mouse. That Telltale seems to have entirely done away with point-and-click movement is likely a nod to console gamers, but this is unfortunate given the somewhat cumbersome implementation of the click and drag mechanic. Additionally, some of the previous limitations of the engine used in _Wallace and Gromit_ are still apparent; in particular the camera’s positioning is occasionally questionable.

In many respects _Launch _is vastly improved over its stablemates with the action taking place over a much broader variety of locations than _Sam and Max_ or _Wallace and Gromit_, and I’m hopeful that there will be only a minimal recycling of environments over future episodes. Previous Telltale episodes have really suffered from reusing near identical environments time and time again, and I really hope that this doesn’t blight future episodes. The environments themselves are lushly depicted and probably the main strength of the game’s artistry. Unlike some previous games in the series, they’re almost all brightly coloured and cheery. Unfortunately some of the characters seemed under-developed and bland, with two pirates in particular appearing almost precisely identical. This and occasional shockingly low texture quality are unsightly blemishes on otherwise perfectly acceptable presentation which if you’ve ever played a previous Telltale game, will be of exactly the standard that you expect. This is not a graphical tour-de-force, but it should also just about run on your netbook.

It’s worth noting that in the build of the game that I played, there were two puzzles which would have been virtually impossible for a deaf or hearing impaired person. I hope that Telltale have fixed this issue for their final release.

_Launch of the Screaming Narwhal _was a game that I immensely enjoyed playing from the moment that I first loaded it. It has decent humour in spades; puzzles which are challenging, accessible and satisfying; a promising storyline and some memorable characters all at a very appetising price for a single episode. As a Telltale game, it is their best release yet. As a _Monkey Island_ game, Launch is very much a product of 2009 with all of the hallmarks of a Monkey Island game carefully included. The lack of point-and-click might upset the purists, but Tales has reworked the franchise for a new audience whilst still doing well to appease those that have been enjoying it for nearly 20 years. The future of adventure gaming is once again Monkey shaped.

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