Tales of Monkey Island Episode 1: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal
Sometimes Telltale's games felt tiresome. Sam & Max was enjoyable, but it felt, to me, like something I had to work at. I would arrange for Sunday afternoon to be free so that I could get through more of the story. Entertaining, yes. But sometimes tedious.
Tales of Monkey Island is different: it made me feel that everything else in life is a bothersome distraction. I didn't play the game to get through the story; I was in the story itself, living the experience of being Guybrush Threepwood once again. It's been nine years... and it felt like I'd never left.
The game pulls you in like a drowning sailor. There's just time to notice the Curse of Monkey Island style menu and inventory graphics before you've become submerged in the action. Never has Monkey Island looked better or played more dynamically. The storm booms: the waves heave: the camera swings dramatically back and forth. It's like Peter Pan on drugs.
Some of you may accuse me of hyperbole. "Monkey Island has never looked better"? I stand by this statement. There is some talk on the forums of inadequate graphics, but to me this is like spending a weekend mountain-climbing with Harrison Ford and complaining that he has a mole on his bottom. To my eyes, the graphics could not be better. I don't play many modern games - I'm still excited about the quality of DVD, let alone Blu-ray - so it is possible that I'm missing faults that more trained eyes can see... but to be honest I think people might just be acting spoiled. What does it matter how many polygons are in Guybrush's beard? If you're thinking of questions like that when you're playing the game then you should be shot. You're already dead to me.
The control system is keyboard and mouse, and it works very well. Being direct-control means a more involved experience: a section when you walk over a bridge, the camera floating close to Guybrush's face, would have been impossible with traditional point 'n' click. There's also a second control option, involving dragging the mouse and swinging it around like a madman - but it is as alarming as it is useless, and was soon forgotten about.
I played this episode - delightfully titled "Chapter One" - on a machine that is actually below Telltale's recommended specifications. They say they need a 2.0 GHz + processor (3 GHz Pentium 4 or equivalent recommended), 512MB of RAM (1GB recommended) and a 64MB DirectX 8.1-compliant video card (128MB recommended). I played it on a 32mb card with 480mb of RAM, and it still ran bearably well, though I wouldn't exactly recommend the experience. On the lowest graphics setting and 800x600 resolution the graphics were still gorgeous (partly thanks to the strong art direction), but the frame-rate in some areas was jarringly low. There are a few environments that have a lot of background animation, and I'm sure it looks stellar on a real computer, but be prepared for slow-down if, like me, you bought your laptop four years ago from a Cornish woman called Dawn.
The graphics settings go all the way up to 9, and the differences between both ends can be seen in these two comparison shots:
The principle difference, as you can see, is simply one of lighting. The biggest effect it has is on character's eyes, which look comparatively dead without the Shiny Glint Technlogy.™
What is even more impressive than the graphics is the animation. Telltale have added a new facial expression feature to their game-making tool in <em>Tales</em>: the result is that characters are noticeably more reactive in their dialogue. Detail hitherto reserved for cut-scenes is now available in the main game, helping the jokes and fleshing out the characters.
The game is funny. It's very very funny. I haven't laughed this hard since I last played a LucasArts game. Dominic Armato is on top form as Guybrush Threepwood, and I'd say he's been able to flex his acting muscles more so than in previous games, putting on different voices and conveying a larger range of emotions. Jared Emerson-Johnson, the composer for Sam & Max and Bone, proves himself to also be a talented actor in the role of the French doctor, the Marquis de Singe.
The soundtrack was composed by Michael Land, who's worked on the music of all the previous Monkey Island games as well. Is it any good? Oh yes. It's like sex. Sex in my ears. It actually sounds very Monkey Island 2, being a bit more stripped down and synthesised than you get in most modern games. The music for Flotsam Island town isn't that far from Woodtick, especially when the iMuse kicks in, changing the instruments as you walk from one side of town to another.
The reason I find Guybrush so endearing is his child-like nature. He projects his own personality onto the external world and seems unaware of the subjective limitations of his mind. It's a joy to be inside his head. It is a glorious moment when the Flotsam Island map first spreads out before us. My cursor hovers greedily over the locations. My adult mind interjects with a criticism - "why isn't there any music in this overview?" - before being shut up in a box and locked away in the sub-conscious. (Incidentally, overview music has apparently been added into the final version, just not my rubbish reviewer copy, along with a host of other last-minute changes.)
Occasionally my imaginative self would become frustrated, though. A puzzle involving sound frustrated me with a need to be "activated" first - a pedantic insistence I felt to be unnecessary. Later on in the game I was stumped with finding a substitute nose. The answer made me go "wtf!?" rather than "omg lols o/c." The hint system was unhelpful, even when turned turned up to full power. "Mmm... lovely flowers!" murmured Guybrush as my fat red face loomed angrily over the monitor.
And yet... maybe this is how it should be. I remember being equally puzzled with the previous Monkey Island games. Past Telltale episodes have sometimes been criticised as being too easy. I doubt people will say the same for this.
Ultimately, the greatest compliment I can pay this game is that it is, purely and simply, Monkey Island.
And it feels so good to be back.
7th July, 2009.