Impressions: Tales Of Monkey Island Episode One

By John Walker on August 25th, 2009 at 3:00 pm.

Oh Guybrush, you're such a flirt.

Due to adverse weather conditions and abnormal levels of volcanic activity, we’ve yet to bring you thoughts on the Tales of Monkey Island episodic adventures. Alongside the remake of the original by LucasArts, Telltale are currently producing five chapters of a brand new story for the hapless pirate, written and coded by many original LucasArts developers. The first of these, Launch Of The Screaming Narwhal, has been out for just over a month, and the second part has just appeared. (As Alec reported yesterday, you can now buy them individually in the US at least.) Here’s some thoughts.

Clearly continuing the saga is always going to be an enormous task. The fourth part, Escape From Monkey Island, I completely loved at the time of release but it’s been much derided since. I’m fascinated to go back and play it again, and intend to do so soon. It was, of course, created by Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark, the men behind Sam & Max: Hit The Road. And it’s Stemmle who’s in charge of this first episode at Telltale, writing and directing it.

The story follows all the right rules. Guybrush begins as a successful mighty pirate, now married to Elaine, with his own boat. But of course it all immediately goes wrong with the appearance of the evil Ghost Pirate LeChuck. Losing his boat, his bride, and naturally any shreds of dignity he may have scraped together, Guybrush not only inadvertently causes LeChuck to become human again, but manages to get his left hand possessed with some manner of evil ghost pirate voodoo disease. Shipwrecked on Flotsam Island, he discovers a town of washed up pirates (man, they didn’t think of that joke!) trapped by unhelpful winds that won’t allow any ship to sail.

Of course the Voodoo Lady appears.

So it’s off to complete a typical Telltale three-task-trial, then a couple of extended trials, before one last puzzle to finish. It’s a familiar pattern, honed through the mostly poor Sam & Max games, then refined in the splendid Strong Bad series. In this case, it works very well, pushing the game through to a good three or four hours (which isn’t much shorter than the original Secret Of, as it happens). And for the most part, the puzzles themselves are fun and smart.

However, there are problems. The first, and the most steamingly obvious, is the utterly awful control system. It’s completely mystifying, and if anything a mad-minded tribute to something that was definitely wrong with the fourth game. Moving Guybrush around the simple scenery is a mess. There’s two ways to do it, one a kerbillion times worse than the other not very good one. Holding down the left mouse will sometimes cause a circle to appear around our hero’s waist, with an arrow pointing in the direction he’ll move. Drag the mouse and he’ll follow it. Sort of. Hold down the right mouse and he’ll run. Until he hits one of the invisible barriers that stick out a couple of feet from every object in the world. This then doubles in awfulness when you change screen, and everything reorientates, and your holding down the mouse causes him to turn 180 and immediately run back out the scene. The other option is to use the WASD keys, which certainly improves things a great deal, but doesn’t get around the magical barriers, and nor another bewildering decision: to cover nearly every scene in fences. Ropes are strewn throughout the town, ensuring you can’t simply run from one side to the other when on one of the inevitable treks back and forth across the island.

Off on another trek then.

The other issue is the necessity to constantly retrace your steps to find a thing that might have changed. A locked door earlier may be open now. Someone who refused to help might offer up a solution later. Occasionally there are nudges, sometimes there aren’t, and there’s little fun to be found in charging around playing spot-the-difference. And retrace your steps you will, never more so than in the jungle. There’s something of a strange tradition in adventures where every wood, forest or jungle must have unnavigable pathways, where turning around and going back down the path from where you just came takes you somewhere completely different. It forces you to solve a couple of decent map/audio-based puzzles, but later when you just want to get places, it’s irritating.

Once you’re safely inside a puzzle, it delivers very well. There’s a lovely sequence with Guybrush trapped in a chair, only able to reach items with his feet. Piecing together what bells and pedals do what, and how to manipulate that to make good your escape, is tremendous. The largish puzzle at the end involving manipulating idols is similarly smart, with a lovely twist involving some cheese. A bunch of other highlights spring to mind that I shall not spoil, where fun ideas deliver, following the off-kilter logic traditional in such games.

Is it funny? Well, that’s hard for me to say for you. But I didn’t laugh at any point. I smiled a bunch, and I think there was one “heh”. Like the original game, it doesn’t attempt big punchlines, but rather a constant level of absurdity and silliness. Threepwood is once more voiced by Dominic Armato, who does a fantastic job. Unsurprisingly he’s the stand-out character of the game. Disappointingly that’s because most of the rest of the cast are so bland. The baddie (who I won’t reveal) is at least a whopping great stereotype, but most of the islanders you meet are indistinguishable and disposable. Where’s a Murray? Or a Stan? Of course the Voodoo Lady appears, and she plays her regular part well, but the series is crying out for a new character.

This is a splendid puzzle sequence.

I fear it’s hard to avoid damning the episode with faint praise. But it is praise after all. If it weren’t so infuriatingly clunky, I imagine I would have warmed to it so much more. And I don’t know whether it’s just plain stubbornness now, but despite a more involved inventory that lets you combine items (although through another clunky interface, rather than just clicking them on each other – a system that seemed to work pretty well for the last twenty years), there’s still no option to ‘look at’ separate from ‘use’. This means sometimes left clicking will look at an object, other times it will have Guybrush pick it up, play with it, break it, etc. You look with your eyes, Guybrush, not your hands. Sure, it’s more dialogue, but it would at least create the illusion of choice. I cannot imagine a significant chunk of potential audience would be lost by the complexity of left clicking to use, right to look.

On the basis of this single episode it’s so hard to know whether it’s worth investing in all five. It’s a decent game, certainly. Were they individually sold outside of the States, then I’d say $9 was a sensible amount to try out four hours of smile-inducing puzzles. I think this will become more clear after playing episode two, on which I’ll report later this week.

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49 Comments »

  1. Xocrates says:

    “the mostly poor Sam & Max games”

    I assume you never played Season 2?

    Also, I really didn’t notice most of the issues you mentioned. But then again it might be I’ve become immune after playing so many Telltale games.

  2. Doctor Doc says:

    EP2 was a lot easier and shorter than EP1 and the running back and forth to the “store” sucked. Still miss controlling the game by clicking like in Sam n Max.

  3. The_B says:

    Xocrates – Err, I think he reviewed Season 2.

    I must say though John, I found Episode 2 to be far funnier than the first episode. That’s not saying Ep1 was bad at humour – far from it – but I found 2 to genuinely raise a laugh out of me at a couple of occasions.

    Oh, and for your looking at thing – are you still talking about the inventory? As there’s a magnifying glass icon that lets you purely ‘look’ at things in your inventory rather than use.

  4. Stephen Granade says:

    Add me as someone who really enjoyed Escape From Monkey Island, though I think it suffered from very difficult puzzles coupled with enough mis-steps that players didn’t trust the game to play fair with the puzzles.

  5. John Walker says:

    B – no, I’m talking about the game world.

    I’ve played some of season 2, but not all of it. I wasn’t asked to review some episodes by anyone, and there was no inclination to play them otherwise.

    The Strong Bad games, however. Let me champion them one more time.

  6. Lars Westergren says:

    Strongbad left me cold, but I really enjoyed both Sam & Max episodes… except Basco.

    Telltale: Ethnical stereotypes are not gutbustingly funny! Will you *stop* using them!

  7. Xocrates says:

    @The_B: I’m not actually surprised to read that, but it does seem odd. Season 2 were pretty good adventure games (and generally as good or better than Strong Bad). So deriding S&M as a whole felt very strange.

    He might not have liked them, but that is not a justification to call them poor.

  8. IdleHands says:

    I agree that they need a fresh new character, although my heart is warming towards Winslow after playing ep2. Just be glad they haven’t just paraded all the old characters before us each episode.

    I’ve enjoyed these episodes so far, but there is one thing that has bugged me and I’ve worked out what it is finally. It’s the fact you rarely have to work to get items. In the old games to solve a puzzle you would need x object, but to get x object you must complete another puzzle. It could get tedious but the puzzles were fun and inventive. While in ep2 I came across a puzzle that required prying, hmm where could I find or shape a prying tool? Oh there’s a crowbar right beside it. I’d like to have to work a little bit more for my items, you know?

  9. Vandelay says:

    I also liked Escape From Monkey Island. The only element that I found annoying (except the control scheme) was the Monkey Kombat system, which was complete infuriating and an absolutely atrocious replacement for insult sword fighting. I also seem to remember getting completely stuck with an early puzzle where you had to find your way in a swamp, but on the whole I have memories of very much enjoying the game.

    Having said that, I’m even weird in thinking that Curse was the best in series. Probably because it was the first one I played, but having recently replayed it I still love the art style used in it, which was most people seem to despise.

    Been keeping my eye on these. I’ve never been that impressed with what I have heard about the TellTale games, and my brief play of the free Sam & Max episode (season 1 ep 4 I think) I found it to be just ok, but very simple puzzles, but these sound to be better. Sounds like ep.2 has gone down quite well, improving on ep.1 which also seemed to be positively received. If the next episode is good then I might get the series.

  10. James O'Hare says:

    I’ve been playing them on and off during the occasional lunch break for the past few weeks. I think I might quite like the games if it wasn’t for the control scheme.

    The inventory system is infuriating and longwinded (what happened to right click to bring up the inventory? why do we have to drag two items to two boxes and then click another button to combine them? every single time you want to use an item on something in the world, you have to open it up and select the item again).

    Moving Guybrush is doubly infuriating. I can’t comprehend the circumstances under which a design team would sit down and decide that WASD or click-and-drag-only-sort-of is better or more intuitive than click-to-move-here, double-click-to-run-here. Unless they just couldn’t be arsed with writing some pathfinding AI. I understand the need for something that works on consoles, but adding in a traditional point-and-click control scheme for the PC wouldn’t be too much work, surely?

    Sadly, although the puzzles are good, the horrendous control scheme can regularly push the game from enjoyably entertaining far into the maddening realms of frustration. The sort of frustration you feel when bad AI or bugs cause you to fail rather than your own lack of skill.

  11. Thirith says:

    John having loved Escape makes it hard not to ignore his opinion here. After playing Escape, I felt that the series would have been better in every way without that entry. It just felt so lack-lustre. Can’t remember which review said so, but I agree with the opinion that Escape pretty much felt like being told the same (originally good) joke for the nth time and thinking, “Yup, I remember finding that funny.”

  12. Ginger Yellow says:

    “Unless they just couldn’t be arsed with writing some pathfinding AI”

    But they have pathfinding AI. When you click on an object or person, it usually walks you there. I found that the easiest way to move around was often to click on an object and then interrupt before Guybrush got there.

  13. Richard Clayton says:

    I’m enjoying the series so far. I do hate the arrow round the waist control system. What is wrong with the click to walk to traditional idea? It can’t be purely a pathfinding problem as the Telltale used it in Sam & Max.

    I also like my right click and double click to access look and use functions. If it was a case of not confusing new players to the genre then why not allow us to do both (why not on right-click simply change the cursor to a magnifying glass during the look speech). Double click to use is also natural.

    However is this all in the name of simplifying matters for the console versions?

    In terms of content I’m enjoying it immensely. Hoping that at least Stan and Murray make an appearance before too long… it feels kind of empty without them (particularly as LeChuck… well, you know…)

    I must give the Strongbad games a go one of these days…

  14. Pseudonym says:

    From what I understand, the reason for the control scheme is that TT wanted it to be possible to have screens where you don’t see the ground. Allowing for more interesting camera angels. I’m not sure it was worth it, but I got used to the WASD pretty quickly (maybe it’s because I cut my teeth on the original, no mouse, Sierra games).

  15. Dante says:

    “There’s something of a strange tradition in adventures where every wood, forest or jungle must have unnavigable pathways, where turning around and going back down the path from where you just came takes you somewhere completely different. It forces you to solve a couple of decent map/audio-based puzzles, but later when you just want to get places, it’s irritating.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong John, but I’m pretty sure that after you’ve found a location it turns up on the master map, and Guybrush will run (if quite slowly) straight there.

  16. postx says:

    Guybrush looks awful

  17. Sly_Boots says:

    I think I laughed properly out loud once during the first episode, I can’t remember at which point, though.

    That makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy it – I did, I’d certainly rate it alongside Strong Bad and above W&G in the Telltale catalogue.

    I don’t like how Guybrush looks, but as always Dominic Armato has nailed the voice.

  18. The_B says:

    Apologies John, didn’t have the issues to hand to check if you had reviewed Season Two at all.

    I agree with the gameworld look though, there’s some great look at moments in Episode 2, but at the same time there’s the feeling of objects can only either have a ‘look at’ or ‘do something with’ interaction, and not both.

    @Dante – I suspect he’s talking about the jungle part – there are certain objects within that maze you specifically need even after you’ve done the follow by sound puzzle, and agreed finding them again is a bit of a chore. Something about that didn’t sit too well with me in that episode.

  19. reaper47 says:

    The genuine aversion RPS seems to feel toward Telltale’s Sam & Max episodes always puzzled me. So much, in fact, that I cannot really use this article to form an opinion…

  20. Hermit says:

    Escape’s problem was that it blew plotholes in the continuity so wide that it nearly sank the good ship Monkey forever. Minor plot inconsistencies I can stand, but two massive reveals in the final stages of the game went entirely contrary to all previous evidence.

    Also, I found the whole quest for “The Ultimate Insult” to be a bit rubbish. If Mandrill was so rich, he could have just smelted his own random bronze, silver, and gold trinkets to make the McGuffin himself.

    Been enjoying ToMI thus far. It’s some of Telltale’s best work yet, but it’s clearly Telltale’s work – By which I mean if you’re not a fan of what they do, this isn’t likely to convince you otherwise.

    Given the presence of a proper plot running through the season (Unlike Sam and Max’s vague attempt to tie the episodes together), It’d also be nice to have the option to put it all together as a single game once it’s all out.

  21. jalf says:

    I just recently played Sam&Max season 1 a few weeks ago, and I was underwhelmed. I’d previously played two episodes of Season 2 (for free. One as some special promotion, and the other for preordering ToMI), and those seemed to hang together far better.

    Season 1 as a whole just didn’t really flow. Too many completely baffling puzzles. Too much running back and forth between locations, and stories clumsily stuck together with duct tape. I did get through it, which at least shows that they weren’t *bad* games, just… not very good either. I enjoyed the bits of Season 2 I’ve played though.

    Anyway, ToMI is great so far. Some of the puzzles in episode 2 had me stumped for far too long, but that might just be me getting old… :p

    I found episode 1′s puzzles to be almost perfect though. Hard enough to force you to stop and think, and occasionally get stuck for a short while, but there were always some clues pointing you in the right direction, and once you figured it out, it was obvious.

    Episode 2 seemed a bit more of a return to the completely random and absurd puzzles you only solve by using everything on everything else.

    Telltale have hinted a bit that Murray is going to make an appearance, and I find it hard to imagine a MI game without Stan as well (any guesses at what he’s going to sell?). Past that though, it’s hard to say how much we should expect.

    Episode 2 does introduce what *could* become a major recurring character, which adds a good deal of flavor. (And Winslow really shines in Ep2. I loved some of his lines)

    My main criticism of ToMI so far is that I wish they’d loosen up a bit on the quest structure. So far, it’s been far too much of the old “Three trials” thing. You need to do X, Y and Z before you can proceed. They’re always presented as one single quest (rather than having different people, at different times, ask for X, Y and Z respectively, or maybe introducing a W as well, or occasionally removing the Z)

    In Ep1 it was the newspaper guy’s three tasks. In Ep2 it was those three summoning thingies.

  22. Optimaximal says:

    I was under the impression the stupid control system was down to the Wii, where clicking and dragging Guybrush where you want him to go sort of makes sense, whilst the WASD implementation is for the inevitable XBLA release (ala W&G).

    I suppose, when I think about it, I don’t miss the click-to-move bit because it was so infuriating in Sam N Max & SBCG4AP as constantly clicking just to move the characters across the panning 3D landscape-o-rama was equally tiresome! SCUMM games always tried to keep the majority of the locations too a single screen and using the keyboard to move is much less annoying – I didn’t even have much trouble with GRIM or EMI.

    Also, I hated Escape… I was so stoked for its arrival then totally put off by its graphics style and the horrible liberties it took with the setting.

    Monkey Island originally worked as a parody of how we thought the Caribbean might have been – when they started introducing crappy pop-culture references it was just dire. I know Curse also had them, but they were subtle, whereas Escape just threw ‘It’s Starbucks, BUT WITH A PIRATE THEMED NAME’ at us, expecting a laugh.

    Also, Denny Delk is apparently recording Murray VO for a later episode, though I’d have preferred him too appear in every episode as an easter egg (especially as it worked in Curse as he tried to explain the latest ludicrous reason for him being where he was).

  23. Nero says:

    Having only played the demo from Ep1 I too was annoyed with the controls and inventory could have been handled better. But I’ll probably pick it up at a later point, since generally it seems well done. I quite liked both S&M seasons.
    But yeah, game needs more Murray.

  24. jalf says:

    Escape just threw ‘It’s Starbucks, BUT WITH A PIRATE THEMED NAME’ at us, expecting a laugh.

    And the sushi restaurant! Don’t forget that.

    Although to be fair, I did enjoy MI4 when I played it (back when it came out). It’s just one of those games that, afterwards, when seen next to the rest of the series, isn’t remembered too fondly. It was fun at the time, because hey, it’s Monkey Island. But once you take a slightly more detached view (for example as someone who hasn’t played it for a few years), all its flaws become a lot more apparent.

  25. robrob says:

    I think you have overlooked an incredibly strong character introduced in episode 1: the pyrite parrot of Petaluna. It is this generation’s Murray!

  26. Xercies says:

    I really laughed in Episode 1, some of the jokes were quite funny actually(none of them in the trailer) Episode 2 I thought was a little to short but it was very entertaining as well…though it kind of got on my nerves that everytime i went past some people i heard the same unfunny lines over and over again.

    Anyway I actually recommend this, and also Stan was hinted at in Episode 1 so I think he will appear later on. If he doesn’t I will burn Telltale.

    Also Winston is great

  27. Ginger Yellow says:

    “Telltale have hinted a bit that Murray is going to make an appearance, and I find it hard to imagine a MI game without Stan as well (any guesses at what he’s going to sell?). ”

    Pretty much every time you click on any skull or skeleton in TOMI, Guybrush asks if it’s Murray. And there’s a reference to Stan (not by name) in the first one. So I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see both of them turn up.

  28. Saul says:

    Just completed Ep 2 and loving them, mostly for the puzzles, but they do (almost) capture the charm of the originals. The controls are rubbish, it is true, but the single-click thing really doesn’t bother me. A couple of times I’ve become stuck through not spotting items, which is annoying.

    Also, the hint system is quite good, although needs a bit of refining based on player actions. Helped me in Ep 1, not in Ep 2.

    For the record, I played S&M season 1 almost to the end before giving up and being very, very over it. Bought Strong Bad and didn’t get it at all (humour or puzzles).

  29. jalf says:

    Oh by the way, the manatee in Ep2 was *brilliant*, and a nice throwback to MI3. Seeing Guybrush dance if you use it multiple times really cracked me up. :D

  30. Vinraith says:

    OK, coupled with the new art style, that’s enough to wave me off completely.

    I should go try a demo of Strongbad.

  31. Sabre says:

    When you get to Ep2, Morgan La Flay provides said memorable new character.

  32. Igor Hardy says:

    Ep2 is a strange mix. It is much funnier thanEep1, had excellent characters and made the storyline promising, but it is much shorter, weaker as far gameplay goes and there is nothing to look at in terms of locales.

  33. Andrew Dunn says:

    I personally felt the first episode was funnier, but hey, it’s humour. Your mileage WILL vary.

    For me, the first episode was stronger in pretty much every respect, although as Sabre says, Morgan is fairly memorable!

  34. jalf says:

    OK, coupled with the new art style, that’s enough to wave me off completely.

    What is? That people generally like it?

  35. Vinraith says:

    @jalf

    John’s impressions piece didn’t exactly encourage me, and no one’s said anything in this thread to change that. I’m glad some people are enjoying it, but it sounds like it’s probably not for me.

  36. Velvet Fist, Iron Glove says:

    honed through the mostly poor Sam & Max games, then refined in the splendid Strong Bad series
    Didn’t the Strong Bad series come out before Sam & Max?

    There’s a lovely sequence with Guybrush trapped in a chair, only able to reach items with his feet.
    That was a really fantastic set of puzzles: it put the player in a completely unfamiliar control system, forcing you to think creatively to escape from certain death. I think it’s got to be one of the best puzzles of the whole series. Also, the scene with the monkey just after Guybrush finally escapes from the chair made me laugh aloud.

    I also particularly liked the opening scene puzzles of both games.

  37. The Colonel says:

    God I’m getting annoyed at having to play a bit of the game at a time already, and it’s only episode 2. You can count me firmly on the side NOT in favour of episodic gaming. I totally agree with the assessment here about character. Controls and environmental niggles aside (we’d be happy to overlook these if there was something overpoweringly good to talk about, right?), the games a fairly solid, good puzzlers.

    The problem for me started before I’d even got a chance to charge Guybrush headlong into a fence. The dialogue and characters in this game are so utterly devoid of any kind of spark. The dialogue is just about functional for guybrush, and little more than informative from other characters. In an age where the Bethesda blokes (who wouldn’t know good writing if it soliloquised past them holding a skull) can pack GBs of dialogue into their games, we expect more than just a bunch of “that doesn’t work” equivalents and “hi let me give you a list of things you need to do to make me go away/give you something”. Where are the incidental lines? Where is the new Murray? Presumably out desperately trying to introduce Bethesda to William Goldman.

  38. The Colonel says:

    EDIT: the game’s a fairly solid, good puzzler.

  39. Gutter says:

    Guybrush is a washed up hipster? Who would’ve thought…

  40. jarvoll says:

    This will be my second nitpick for the day, but… there’s no such word as “orientate”. The verb is “to orient”, so above should read “…when you change screen, and everything reorients…”

  41. Xocrates says:

    @Velvet fist: Both S&M seasons were released before Strong Bad.

  42. robb says:

    Elaine looks awful!
    Though I’m not sure i want to spend 10€ for the wiiware version (I’m on a mac, so the wii is my only option to play this)

  43. g-eJ says:

    @The Colonel:

    You could wait untill they’re all out and then play them all at the same time.

  44. g-eJ says:

    @jarvoll

    Also to be nitpicky orientate is in the Oxford Dictionary of English and has its origins in the mid 19th century. It is a back-formation but it is also a proper word, it isn’t listed as slang or anything like that. From what I’ve summised it seems to be a British versus American thing in terms of how acceptable it is.

  45. cw8 says:

    Well, Murray will definitely make an appearance eventually. Denny Delk was the narrator in SMI:SE. And I think Telltale confirmed that Denny Delk will be working with them for current and future projects. Most probably they will get him to voice Murray again and people are speculating DOTT episodes/ remakes.

  46. Down Rodeo says:

    I really enjoyed the first tale. I am playing the second and it seems good as well. As far as the control scheme goes I find it OK, it could deal with changing scene better but on the whole I don’t have problems. Also the bookshelf in the Voodoo Lady’s hut is hilarious.

  47. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Fair review this. I thought the WASD controls were fine meself though, however it is a bit of a pain not being able to control the game with just the one hand.

    Both episodes have been good fun, with some nifty recurring jokes and genuine laugh out loud moments. It’s also quite pleasing that the emphasis is firmly on these episodes being small chunks of an over-arching plot rather than being largely self-contained escapades like previous Telltale adventures, although having over a month between cliffhangers does stretch that a tad.

  48. The Colonel says:

    @g-eJ: Yes, of course.

  49. bildo says:

    “Threepwood is once more voiced by Dominic Armato, who does a fantastic job. Unsurprisingly he’s the stand-out character of the game. Disappointingly that’s because most of the rest of the cast are so bland”

    Most of the voice actors are the same….so do you not like the voice acting in the previous games? They sound the same!

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