I'll satisfy your curiosity: yes, Tales of Monkey Island is good. Very good. In fact, the only negative thing I have to say is that I'll be waiting a whole damn month to find out what happens next.
From this point on, be aware of a few spoilers.
"The Siege of Spinner Cay" starts off with our (wannabe) hero confronting his mysterious adversary from the previous game, the charming but deadly pirate-hunter Morgan LeFlay. It's a great start, with a twist on the trademark insult swordfighting (there isn't any). Here's one battle you're going to have to solve with your wit alone, and snappy comebacks aren't part of the puzzle (not that Guybrush doesn't try it, with embarrassing results). Ten seconds in, you're smiling; soon you're there's the first belly laugh. It's a great start.
There's something that happens here, by the way, that seeps the game with heart. See, (remember, I said spoilers), Morgan does lose the battle against the "mighty" Guybrush Threepwood, but she makes off with his hand. Guybrush heads for the Jerkbait Islands in pursuit, but it isn't his hand he's going for, but Elaine; and it's van Winslow who reminds him that he should also be worrying about what a certain insane scientist is doing with his hand. It's a beautiful moment, especially because it's something that Guybrush has never done before. You have to remember that this is the same guy who forgot his golden statue of a fiance on the shores of a pirate-inhabited island.
You soon find yourself at your destination, a tri-island area with one large city and two smaller islands. It is the large city, Spinner Cay, that's important here. It is enchanting; the quiet voice acting of the merfolk inhabiting the place adds that extra touch. The lighting team deserves special applause, and Michael Land produced some of his best work yet (and he's done incredible work, so that's saying something).
Again, a heart-warming moment as Guybrush and Elaine reunite. I think I have to give Mark Darin his due here, as Darin directed and wrote this chapter. The hug between Guybrush and Elaine could have gone cheesy, or overly sentimental. It isn't. It is heart-warming -- but then she asks him what happened to his wedding ring, and it is a completely unexpected laugh. Monkey Island's always had heart, but not this much; and that it manages to make you laugh a second later is a great, great thing.
To go with that for a second, a lot of this game rides on Guybrush as a character. He's really struggling in this one, not least because he has to treat LeChuck as a friend and then work with him. Their back-and-forth relationship even extends to a neat puzzle that gives you an opportunity to make a little fun of LeChuck. Asking him to use "claw thingie" on himself was hilarious.
LeChuck is so much more involved in this episode -- a great supporting character, and here we see a side of him that we've never met before. He really works as a human. I'm not sure if it's how clueless he is, or how Guybrush is so completely tormented by the sight of him smiling, or if it's just an "Egad, you're LeChuck!" -- the voice acting adds a lot to it, sure, but it's a great package overall. So are all the other supporting characters. Anemone, Tetra, Morgan LeFlay, the MerLeader, McGillicutty and his crew: all fully realised characters with a few zingers thrown in. Even van Winslow, who was somewhat weak in the first chapter, becomes a lot more memorable. It's something that's been lacking from some of Telltale's previous endeavours, and it's great to finally see that they're learning how to do it without having a few years of development time.
I'm guessing that those among you with a more encyclopedic knowledge of Monkey Island would have raised your eyebrows at the merfolk: because project leaders Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley thought mermaids didn't fit in Monkey Island, the drawing of a mermaid was cut from the third game's credit sequence. But this is a Monkey Island in a post-Pirates of the Caribbean world, and it's been influenced by it. The Pirates movies are (kind of) obsessed with the sea and its legendary creatures, and this game certainly has that rub off it. Two of the game's funniest characters are something of a sampling from <i>Pirates</i>, even though they eventually leave that behind.
See, by doing merpeople the game is breaking out of its predecessors. Yet even though it's finally doing its own thing, the game is a little short on catchy quotes. There's an epic storyline at work here; that it mixes it up with great humour on such a regular basis is masterful. But I can't remember any porcelain jokes or a three-headed monkey.
I'm aware I'm nitpicking. I'm chastising the game for what it could have been, and not what it is. That it doesn't have its unique catch-phases isn't a bad thing; it shouldn't even be an expected thing. But I would really like to look back at it in a few years and start quoting lines off the top of my head, the way I do with the others, and not just remember my favourite moments. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe it hasn't been long enough for me to start talking about it (hell it hasn't been 24 hours). But it's something niggling at the back of my mind, and something I thought I would share.
There's also a small issue with the technology. Again, this is a criticism of what the game could have been, and not what it is. But the Telltale Engine, although great, is starting to age. I'm not sure if it's the character models that are lacking (they're expressive and interesting, but they also look like they came out of Sam and Max) or maybe the cut-downs they had to do for the Wii (as testified by a crummy "background" during a scene with the Marquis), but it struck me that Tales works best during its quieter moments. That's not to say that large battles or sieges are bad; they're not. But the tech does need work for future games.
I'm not going to pretend that these things removed any enjoyment from MY experience. The graphics engine may start to show some wrinkles, but it doesn't detract anything from the game. Don't take these things as flaws; I think that this is one of the best games of the year, and it's a testament to the talent that they managed to pull off such an engrossing experience. Telltale had limited space to work with (hey, thanks Wii!), and most teams wouldn't rise up to the challenge.
The fact of the matter is we have a classic in the making. It may have a problem or two if you want to nitpick (and people will), but the positive aspects will leave little for you to dislike. It's fantastic stuff. Telltale have outdone themselves again, and they should be proud of it. What else can I say? It's one for the ages.
20th August, 2009.