LTTP: Tales of Monkey Island
LTTP, or Late to the Party to break out the full name, is an occasional series that aims to cast a light on slightly older games that our contributors may have recently encountered after having missed them first time round. Due to the age of the games in question, as well as the more subjective nature of articles such as these, expect there to be story-related spoilers throughout. You have been warned!
Monkey Island. What a name, huh? Depending on your gaming background it either sums up everything you could possibly want from a game, or everything that you hated about gaming back in the 90s. Like many others in the adventure gaming niche, Monkey Island had a tough time of it as the millennium drew to a close, and although Escape From Monkey Island was widely well reviewed, year after long year passed with no hope of another sequel. Until Telltale got their grubby little mitts on the IP that was, and all of a sudden nine years after Escape players suddenly found themselves only again playing with Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate.
I’m ashamed to say that until recently I’d never actually got around to playing this latest game in the series, Tales from Monkey Island. I say game, as in singular, but it is, of course, an episodic series from Telltale consisting of five separate tales, each one progressing the story and ending on a fun little cliffhanger. I’m still not sure why it took me so long to get around to playing it – fear, I think, of a franchise I held in such high esteem from my youth being rubbished in a modern interpretation probably. In hindsight Telltale were probably the perfect developers to pick up the Monkey baton and run with it – before they become obsessed with narrative-driven interactive visual novels they were pretty good at creating proper adventure games for the modern gamer.
It’s annoying then that even when they took such a well-loved and fleshed out gaming franchise that Telltale still fell afoul of their bespoke ‘Slight Weaker First Episode’ curse. Launch of the Screaming Narwhal wasn’t a bad game per se, but it took far too long to actually feel as if it were going anywhere, and it wasn’t helped by much of the supporting cast appearing dull on first introduction. Even the over-the-top foppishly-crazed French baddie didn’t come anywhere near feeling like a character you could care about. This first episode was also the first time you had to endure the control system, with simple point-and-clicking being replaced by click-hold-and-dragging, which probably helped contribute to some of the caution around the title. As you progress through the episodes though the pain of the control system dissipates as you get used to it – it’s actually not that fiddly at all when you’ve spent enough time with it. Clearly the initial transition is what confuses your adventuring muscle-memory, and while it never shakes off a slightly janky feeling it’s not as devastating as some would have had you believe back at release.
And yet, it’s from the very start that Telltale were confident enough to mess with franchise convention – sure, as you’ll play through the episodes you’ll find maze puzzles, returning characters, and countless other references and homages to the earlier games, but almost immediately you’ll also find a kind, human LeChuck and a voodoo-infected Guybrush. Instead of being a well-meaning yet slightly shallow late teen, Guybrush has now matured, and has even learnt how to use a sword with some degree of skill. Alas, he also doesn’t pull gigantic objects out of his trousers anymore, but his pockets are still deep enough to carry around half the Caribbean with him.
However you feel about losing your pantaloons of plenty, there is one glaring issue that really niggles as you play. It shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the game, but it’s lazy, unnecessary and makes you question developed investment in the game – if you haven’t guessed by now, it’s the issue of reused character models through Tales of Monkey Island. Your main plot characters are safe, of course, with their shiny unique frames, but the supporting cast come in either a ‘fat’ or ‘thin’ pirate variety. Thankfully facial work and having different voice actors mitigates the effect somewhat, but it just looks lazy, and the reuse very quickly either becomes annoying or confusing.
This model reuse is balanced quite aptly by a superb new character. Of course, her clothes aren’t as shiny as Stan’s, her waist and other feminine features are far too exaggerated, and she has an annoying habit of hurting Guybrush. I’m talking, of course, about Morgan LeFlay. A mighty pirate hunter, Morgan delivers the kind of personality and growth that most videogame characters can only dream about. From her introduction she’s more than a match for Elaine, taking the player’s attention and holding it in every scene where she appears. It’s always difficult to add new characters to a franchise that’s been around so long, and especially one that is chock-full of loved ones that demand bit-parts and fan service, so Telltale really should be applauded for managing to create someone that not only fits into the world of Monkey Island, but also manages to affect it in such a positive way.
So, even as you plough through the (relatively uninspired) first couple of episodes playing spot the recurring character model, you should keep in mind that there is a definite upswing in quality from Episode 3 onwards. The difference between The Siege of Spinner Cay and Lair of the Leviathan is immense, and you not only get a feeling that the story is finally going somewhere, but you get to experience some of the finest set-pieces that Monkey Island can offer you. The wonderful combination of being trapped in a giant manatee, meeting Murray again and then having to act as a wingman for a lovelorn giant sea creature sets the Lair of the Leviathan far above the previous two episodes. Even better, the following two episodes manage to build on these foundations and provide excellent set-pieces of their own. There’s a wonderful moment of musical disconnect as you progress from The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Threepwood to Rise of the Pirate God, and your excitement begins to take on a more sombre feel as you realise the journey is creeping ever closer to an end.
Of course, what this all means is that if you ever plan to return to Monkey Island or, like me, visit this particular one for the first time, you’re going to have to stick it out through the first couple of episodes before you get to the really good stuff. The payoff is there, and it’s not as if you have to sit through actually horrible gaming or anything, but any gamer could appreciate how you might feel ambivalent towards putting the time in when everyone has a backlog the length of both their arms and half a leg. This is worth adding to that backlog, and it’s relatively quick enough to chuck it in towards the top end.
Ultimately then, Tales of Monkey Island is aging well. Annoying little blips such as the reused models and the odd (map!) puzzle that doesn’t quite feel right are blown away as the game gears up and enters its final chapters. It might not need to jump to the top of your backlog, but each episode provides a bite-sized chunk of adventure gaming fun, and the relative shortness of each individual episode ensures that the game is easily accessible both in chunks and mammoth sessions. The future isn’t clear for Monkey Island, and there’s no way of knowing whether we’ll ever get another one; Tales of Monkey Island might not entirely rival your earliest memories of Guybrush Threepwood but, if called on to provide this role, it will be a fitting swansong for the series.