I like Bill Tiller, and I like his games, so it’s a bummer we get so few of them. While Telltale and even Double Fine appear to have no trouble getting their projects financed these days, it’s been seven years since the last output from Bill’s studio, Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island.
Fortunately, Kickstarter came to the rescue, as it is wont to do with this genre. The pitch was modest: a 2-4 hour point ‘n click pirate-themed adventure in the style of Autumn Moon’s previous efforts (which are in turn in the style of The Curse of Monkey Island). The campaign was a narrow success in 2014, but this year became a bigger one when the project attracted a publisher that decided to expand the bite-sized title into a five-part episodic series. What was once the whole game that the Kickstarter funded is now Episode 1 of a larger work.
It is convenient for me to think of Duke as Autumn Moon’s third game. It was instead developed under the label Venture Moon Industries, but only for clerical reasons; this was crafted in the same spirit, by the same people, and with the same engine (albeit recently converted to Unity) as A Vampyre Story and Ghost Pirates. For this reason, no introductions are required for Duke Grabowski’s gameplay; just think LucasArts adventure circa 1997 and your education is complete.
There’s another dimension to the familiarity. As a strategy to keep costs down, Bill decided to set this game in the already established world of the “Azurbbean Sea” - the setting of Ghost Pirates. This game is actually a spinoff and prequel to that game, sharing a number of ancillary characters as well as a major one in Captain Jane Starling. There is nothing about Duke’s plot that requires this knowledge, however, and it’s clear that Bill has created a world large and populated and captivating enough to justify going back to it.
The game’s title character is sort of a cross between the Hulk and Guybrush Threepwood. A muscle-bound, four-hundred-pound pirate as naive as he is intimidating, Duke is quick to weaponize his tremendous strength but is slower in other areas, and trusting to a fault. The game’s lighthearted tone is well encapsulated by the primary objective: to woo three ladies. (Like most adventure game puzzles that come in threes, this ends up being a fair bit more complicated than it seems at first blush.)
A premise like that seems ripe for bad humor, but Duke’s innocence is child-like, and the concept quickly morphs into Duke needing three women who will merely vouch for him. The objective itself is commissioned to Duke as a farce by his duplicitous shipmate Slew Face, who wants Duke distracted on a wild goose chase so that he might be voted captain, a vacancy created by an ill-timed drowning. The game quickly reveals itself as a good-natured little tale of improving one’s self-esteem and the foiling of a bully, rather than some ill-conceived pirate spin on Leisure Suit Larry.
The game is nicely self-contained, owing to its Kickstarter roots, but nevertheless leaves you primed for the chapters still to come. The puzzles are enjoyable and never strain logic to the point of cruelty, and there are a pleasing handful of locations to explore in solving them. Naturally, there are Monkey Island references abound, most noticeably a jail interior that is modeled after the one on Phatt Island in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.
As far as production values, Autumn Moon’s previous efforts are again a good guideline. The background paintings are excellent and worth the price of admission alone. The character models are more inconsistent, but they trade well on the appealing concept designs at their core and the performances that bring them to life. In addition to the explicit holdover characters, there are a few models that look like repainted clones of Ghost Pirates characters, though such deferences to budget do come with the territory (see Captain McGillicuty from Tales of Monkey Island). And look out for a “cameo appearance” by Dave Grossman and Larry Ahern, who pitched in for Bill in the game’s design phase and who, in the game’s best in-joke, appear in both likeness and voice as bickering patrons at a local inn.
The audio side also bears some artifacts of the game’s indie background. To keep costs down, all of the in-game tracks are recycled from Pedro Macedo Camacho’s score for Ghost Pirates. That music is excellent, of course, but seven years feels an unjust wait for a copy-paste job, though this will obviously not impact players unfamiliar with the source. On the bright side, the game was able to include wrapper cutscenes once it got publisher support, and those brief sequences are scored with brand new music by Telltale mainstay Jared Emerson-Johnson. Jared is a reliable composer not only for quality, but for his proven ability to contribute organically to an established universe.
Voice acting, led by Erik Braa (The Walking Dead) as Duke, is good across the board, but I found the actual sound fidelity inconsistent; some of the characters, like Dave and Larry, sound as if they recorded under less professional...acoustic circumstances?...than others. But the performances themselves are solid – as they must be with a story game that is so dialog heavy - and overall feel of apiece with Ghost Pirates.
And Ghost Pirates really is the reference point here. If you liked that game, you will like Duke (and vice versa). If you’re new to this world, Duke Grabowski’s initial episode is still an easy recommend to anyone looking for a snack-sized adventure game in the classic mold that bears every mark of a labor-of-love. Though it is modest in scope, it’s a charmer and a pleasure to look at and well worth the meager $6.99. The team lived up to their pitch. Buy it.Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler! (Screenshots)
Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler! (Concept Art)