Thimbleweed Park is the game we were promised, the game we paid for, and the game most of us wanted. I say "most", as I‘m not entirely sure everyone expected a game as old-school as this. Its heart, soul, brain, and biceps are all rooted in the late eighties: This is a game that could have been released in 1989 and would have fit straight into the LucasFilm/LucasArts canon we follow here at Mojo.
It is, however, a lot more Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken than it is Monkey Island. With certain updates for 2017, certainly, but charmingly and bravely of a certain age all the same. In that sense, it is among games not as widely recognized around these parts.
Take the downright bizarre characters. The sheriff, mortician, and/or hotel clerk, all of whom can be so frustratingly annoying that you can‘t help but actually enjoy any interaction you have with them. You know, if you can get past the fact they‘re superbly annoying. It‘s the type of character(s) you saw in the very early LucasFilm games, and it‘s great to see Ronzo "Ron" Gilbert and Gary Winnick (aka Terrible Toybox) bring these kinds of Maniac Mansion oddities back.
And to digress for a second as far as spoilers are concerned: Any concrete examples hereupon will come from the first two hours of the game; anything broader and further out will not be spoiled, just described in some generality. (For those who wonder, two hours are a fraction of the game. Explore everything and everywhere, and I don‘t see how you can spend any less than 13 hours going through everything.)
Anyway! Speaking of Maniac Mansion… Early on you start questioning if the many references to that game are more than mere throwbacks. Are Thimbleweed Park and Maniac Mansion part of the same universe? How about Monkey Island? It kind of seems like that might be the case, and one can‘t help but wonder what Disney would feel about this if they cared enough to pay attention.
Either way, there sure are a lot of references to Gilbert and Winnick‘s earlier games, plus a lot of meta humor around adventure games. The latter might be a bit heavy handed, and after a while, it gets sorta old. The actual humor comes from the characters and the weird situations the story takes them through.
You are probably already aware of the plot, of course. Two FBI agents arrive at the game‘s eponymous town, investigating the murder of a German investor. I choose to believe any and all likeness to Bad Brain‘s Dr. Kierdorf is a coincidence -- similarities seem striking, mind you -- but the character is an example of the good, nay, excellent meta humor Thimbleweed Park can bring. (What with Germany being the epicenter of adventure gaming and all.)
The agents, meanwhile, are there for their own reasons. What are they? Well, we don‘t know. You can switch back and forth between them, and their interactions with the large gallery throughout the game vary slightly depending on which one you‘re playing. I say slightly, as the dialogue choices between the two are nigh identical, which is a bit of a bummer. Characters interacted with will not acknowledge that two different agents are coming in, asking the same questions, which is a bit of a drag.
Furthermore, as the choice of playable characters grow -- and you can choose between quite a few -- the ones you‘re playing can‘t always interact with the agents. It feels kind of odd having Ransome the Clown walk into the morgue and not be able to talk to whoever is there. Or, indeed, that the agents don‘t react to somebody strolling into a place of evidence.
It‘s not a huge distraction, but a bit of a letdown all the same. On the upside, you often have to use multiple characters to solve a puzzle, which adds a fun, varied challenge to various tasks.
Said tasks, too, are laid out in a more modern way than the older LucasFilm/LucasArts classics. Instead of the typical "three trials" structures, each character has a checklist of things needed to get done, often giving you twenty or so paths to follow. The puzzles might be as fiendish as the old games, but having such a good variety to choose from makes Thimbleweed Park less frustrating than it could have been.
I mentioned the game was funny, right? Because it is. The dialogue is of the quality one would expect from Ron. Those who were hoping for more of a Monkey Island-esque game, will at the very least find a lot of similarities to his magnum opus here. We often time geek out on who did what on the Monkey Island series, and if you need any proof that Ron‘s fingerprints were all over the dialogue, well, here you go.
Some of the jokes might come off as being a bit dad-humor lame, but for those of us who remember 1987 (when the game is set) will find it appropriate for its time. A lot of what you see and hear belongs to that time, and the throwbacks aren‘t ironic.
Ransome the Clown… Wow… He goes down as one of my favorite adventure game characters over the past 25 years. While in many games his cussing would be where his offensiveness would stop, here things are taken much, much, much further. His many insults (and implied run-ins with Thimbleweed Park‘s locals) might be less than subtle humor, but man I snickered. The voice-over is spot on, too.
As far as the general voice acting goes, we get a mixed bag. None of it is downright bad, and it all seems professional enough to never be overly distracting. Some characters come off as sounding a bit flat, though. Others are great. Most are just fine. And, if you want to play this old-school, you might just turn voices off all altogether.
Keep the music playing, though. Steve Kirk‘s soundtrack has a bit of an 80s vibe to it, yet subtle enough to add to the ambiance. Some of it even reminds me of Fabio Frizzi‘s work on various Lucio Fulci movies.
Circling back to the story: As expected, it also has a bit of an eerie feel to it, a la LeChuck‘s Revenge (hey, maybe the game is more Monkey Island-esque than I first thought). The David Lynch influences are apparent, and sometimes the strange humor elevates a dash of creepiness to what‘s going on in Thimbleweed Park. Those brief cut-scenes between each part of the game? Very Lynchian; very Inland Empire.
All of these are building blocks of what feels like a fully realized world. The graphics, headed by Winnick alongside old LucasFilm/LucasArts alumni like Mark Ferrari, capture the feel of the old games, enhanced by modern technologies. Lighting, animations, and effects are all very much of 2002-technologies. So still retro, I suppose. Which is charming.
Thimbleweed Park is a great game. It really is. You can, and probably will play through it multiple times to put different characters in different situations. Plus, you‘ll want to go through any scenario you could possibly put Ransome in.
It might not be for everyone, what with the true old-school charms, and there are some minor flaws here and there, but man… Thimbleweed Park is the game I‘ve been waiting a long time for, and it is one I enjoyed every minute of.
Now bring on a Ransome the Clown spin-off. Terrible Toybox owes that to us who actually paid for every Monkey Island game.