Part three of Tales of Monkey Island is released today, but what can you expect once you enter the Lair of the Leviathan?
I'll drop the suspense and tell you at the start: you get an adventure game.
I know that sounds like flippant pun (and a bad one at that) but I really mean it. If you're looking for huge advancements in the over-arcing plot of this series, this episode isn't going to deliver for you. The simple fact is that for most of this game you are trapped inside a giant manatee, and as such the chapter serves as nothing more than a delay to the main story.
But the good news is that Leviathan is also probably the best episode so far, and certainly my favourite. By reducing the problem of exposition, which is invariably a non-interactive experience, this game is very involving. Furthermore, the slower pace allows us to explore some new characters in greater depth than previous episodes - something more subtle than it initially seems, but this is probably the first set of characters in the series that can interact with each other as a group yet still have totally unique personalities.
Coronado DeCava, the sponge-seeking adventurer, is perhaps the most interesting addition. Trapped inside the manatee for some time, he seems to have gone a little peculiar - and just try mentioning the voodoo lady to him... We skirt on some real Monkey Island conspiracy theory territory here, and the knowledge that Guybrush isn't the only person who she has dispatched on secretive voodoo missions is tantalisingly suspicious.
Other characters appear in the form of DeCava's crew, hiding deep in the belly of the manatee, and actually having quite a good time. The bulk of the gameplay takes place amongst them, so it's fortunate that they're all different enough to maintain your interest. But the fact is, it's difficult for any character to look interesting or funny when they're in the same room as... Murray.
It's true, everyone's favourite demonic talking skull makes a triumphant return here, and he quite possibly steals the game. I was actually taking notes to assist with this review when I played this episode, and I wound up writing down about eight lines from Murray that could walk into any top ten list of hilarious gaming moments - I won't share them with you here purely so you can enjoy them as I did.
So the humour is in the bag, but where does this episode fit in 'the scheme of things'? I suppose the answer to that depends on whether you're one of those who think Tales of Monkey Island fits with the earlier LucasArts games, or one of those who think it's made a departure. Personally, I've spent a lot of time trying to define exactly what makes a "Monkey Island game" a Monkey Island game, and I still don't really know. It's always seemed indefinable, and, ultimately, subjective. If there's anything we can all agree on, perhaps it's that the games have a feeling to them - humour, sure, and the music too - but there isn't a simple catch-all that I know of to put it in a nutshell.
Still, I'd prepared for the third game fairly confident in my assessment of the 'evolution' of the Monkey Island series, and the more sitcom-like nature of Tales of Monkey Island compared to games from the 90s. I laughed out loud numerous times during parts one and two, and that combined with Michael Land's excellent score to convince me I was playing a genuine Monkey Island game. Now I'm not saying I was wrong in that assessment, but nevertheless, episode three has reminded me of another aspect that makes these games what they are: the puzzles.
Lair of the Leviathan is all about puzzles. It's a static-location for the most part, and this benefits the game enormously. There's something old-time about it: you're faced with one main task to accomplish, but in order to achieve it you're forced to put all the tiny pieces together first. It's like finding the four pieces of the map in LeChuck's Revenge, or perhaps more appropriately the three trials at the start of Secret. In every case, your motive for doing the things that you do is to fulfil requirements for a greater task.
And whilst I think internal logic is incredibly important in fiction, the fact that everything Guybrush has to do in Leviathan makes sense is irrelevant unless those puzzles are intelligent and logical, whilst still being just the right side of difficult. They tick all of those boxes. This is a very hard thing to do - we tend to measure the difficulty of games like these based on completion times, which makes it easy for developers to trick a sense of difficulty by giving you a vast game-world and some simple, time-consuming item retrieval. But here the game-world is tiny; you can fully traverse it in far less than a minute, so the fact that I was playing this for over four hours without getting bored is a wonderful testament.
One good example is a moment where Guybrush has to trick Morgan into going on a date with one of DeCava's crewmembers - not a difficult puzzle by any stretch, but extremely amusing nevertheless. Later in the game you'll encounter another puzzle that's geared around DeCava's locket, and that one is even funnier, and much cleverer too.
As if that wasn't enough, we're also given one bona fide superb puzzle. I won't spoil it, but - well, remember how <i>Curse of Monkey Island</i> took insult sword-fighting from the first game and then altered the concept slightly to bring it back? Well, this game utterly reinvents the concept in a fiendishly clever, difficult and truly hilarious word-based puzzle that will leave you with no misconceptions: <i>Lair of the Leviathan</i> is a Monkey Island game.
Whatever that is.
29th September, 2009.