"Well, that's familiar!". You'll be thinking these words quite a lot playing the final instalment of Tales of Monkey Island, Rise of the Pirate God. You'll be reading it a lot in this review too. Mostly it's familiar in a good way, but not always.
Familiarity is generally a good thing. Remember how delighted you felt back in June when Tales of Monkey Island was announced? The return of familiar characters, voice actors, composers, writers, gags. Rekindled memories. You'll still be feeling that delight five episodes in at the end of the season, without a doubt.
The opening scene of Pirate God oozes atmosphere; dark, gritty, emotional and more than a little scary. The lighting overall was fantastic. The game also uses telltale's most dynamic camera yet with daring sweeps, arcs, and cinematic close-ups. I watched the super-slow zoom-out in the opening scene too intrigued to bother clicking anything, just taking in the ghoulish panorama as it slowly revealed itself. Once you've stopped gaping at the scenery and freed Guybrush from his initial predicament you'll soon meet some memorable new characters, including a particularly gruesome looking fellow who is both highly confusing and highly amusing.
The first of the familiar items you're likely to come across is a classic Monkey Island Grog vending machine complete with a new brand, "Grog XD", a hilarious nod to the recent Argentinean non-scandal. While Grog XD was mentioned in passing in a previous episode, the joke was fully realised this time around. The in-jokes come thick and fast as you'd expect from a Telltale episode, and you don't need to be a long-standing Monkey Island fan to appreciate all of them; Lines from past, less-articulate, American Presidents. Being tantalised by a small box, given recent mutterings from within LucasArts. Addressing complaints from discussion on the Telltale Forums. Like watching the Simpsons, one can't help but wonder just how many in-jokes you're seeing, but simply not getting the reference. Some jokes may not even be intentional at all, (the Crossroads Center on a Caribbean Island, made me laugh. I don't know about anybody else on the planet though). That's how good these writers are, they're clever when they're not even trying.
Continuing with the game, you'll soon find yourself on a boat ride, the embarking platform with turnstiles like you'd see at a theme park, and the boat moves off with the familiar clank-clank-clank of a Disneyland ride, feeling like an affectionate nod to the Big Whoop theme park from Monkey Island 2. You'll meet a number of familiar original characters from the previous four episodes, and you'll find familiar objects from the past four episodes. And indeed familiar puzzles from the past four episodes given a new twist. There's even an unexpected but very welcome cameo of a very familiar puzzle from the classic LucasArts Monkey Island games that has been given a new and doubly clever makeover. And you'll get to visit at least one familiar location from previous Tales chapters.
The greatest new gameplay dynamic in this episode is the different undead manifestations of Guybrush, and the limitations each of them places on his abilities. However, fascinating plot device as they are, these limitations do lead to some rather annoying situations... though it must be said, also to some rather clever puzzle design. The puzzles themselves, while occasionally frustrating to complete are not too difficult. As you'd expect, they are at about the same level of the those in the earlier chapters, but perhaps without a showstopper like the "Lab Chair" in Episode 1 or the "Face Off" in Episode 3 that you'll be remembering back on fondly for years to come.
I've mentioned the sharp writing already, but it's the overall storyline that shows the true depth of the Telltale writers. The risks they've taken to change the characters relationships up into new territory and sew feelings of doubt in the player is quite remarkable. Who hasn't wondered if Guybrush would have been better suited leaving Elaine and starting something up with Morgan? Who didn't buy into good, human LeChuck, at least for a while? Is the Voodoo Lady really evil? Who'd have thought we'd be having such thoughts about those characters and relationships when the season was announced?
Given the surreal and boundary pushing twists and turns of the plot of the season so far, you'd think you'd be somewhat prepared for what transpires during the first major cutscene of the game. You won't be. From there the story gathers momentum, but unfortunately the pacing of the puzzles can sometimes be at odds with what should be a mad rush to the crescendo. Instead of feeling like you're caught up in a frenetic race to save yourself and all that you love at the climax of a game series you've been playing now for almost 6 months, you'll likely find yourself chasing the wrong object for a puzzle. Or chasing an uncooperative companion for no good reason. Or going round and round in circles as you don't have quite enough time to complete an action before being whisked away. So not only are there familiar characters, objects and puzzles, but some of the new locations will become frustratingly familiar as you experience them over and over until you can finally test out your plan and put it into action. To be fair a LeChuck vs. Guybrush chase is expected (I shan't say familiar) fare during the final battle in Monkey Island games and I guess it's the best way to force a sense of urgency and imminent danger, but after the 3rd or 4th time around the same couple of locations, it no longer feels that way.
So the storyline and writing certainly do not disappoint, the visuals are the best yet, the music and voice acting continues with the high standards we've come to expect, but there's still room to improve the pacing, which is a direct result of the puzzle design. Of course this is also a limitation of the genre - for example it's almost impossible to have a boss-battle in an adventure game that causes an adrenaline rush like you might experience in an FPS or other action style game, or even reading a good book or watching TV or a movie. The tension and sense of urgency needs to be artificially managed to try and elicit those same responses from the player, and I have no idea how that might eventually be realised in a game of this nature as a free-flowing set-piece. Rise of the Pirate God is not the perfect game, but with each episode produced it seems Telltale inch ever closer to that ultimate experience. Whenever Season Two of Tales of Monkey island is announced, it won't be soon enough.
Jon-Paul "Three-Oh" Hansen
8th December, 2009.