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LucasArts' Secret History: Escape from Monkey Island: Our Review

23 Feb, 2010

The turn of the century was a dark time for LEC creatively. With the release of The Phantom Menace still a fresh memory, the company passed up no opportunity to capitalize on the ever more relevant Star Wars name, putting innumerable tie-ins out in lieu of original titles. It was a strategy that generated high revenue but drove off a sizable chunk of longtime creative talent. Between 1998 and 2002, literally three LucasArts releases were not Star Wars related. Those games were Grim Fandango, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, and their final adventure game, Escape from Monkey Island, headed by two of the few in-house genre veterans remaining, Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark.

Being its most successful adventure franchise by number, it's not entirely surprising that LucasArts management would commission a fourth Monkey Island game, whose Fall 2000 release left a much more reasonable gap between installments than fans had to endure with the wait for The Curse of Monkey Island. It came as even less of a shock that the game would not follow in the costly and attractive hand drawn style of its immediate predecessor. Instead, Escape from Monkey Island is powered by a slightly spruced up version of the GrimE engine, bringing the series for the first time into "scurvy-inducing 3D" (or Grim Fandango's pre-rendered flavor of it, anyway), a decision that was naturally not met with the greatest warmth from fans, from whom illustrated backgrounds and point ‘n click controls would not be wrested without much gnashing of teeth. However, the track record of the game's capable pair of project leaders instilled a degree of confidence that the end result would deliver on all other fronts, even if the art would be inevitably less stunning.

Stemmle and Clark were probably the best choices to take on the next Monkey Island even if they were also pretty much the only ones. Both were longtime fixtures at the company, joining between 1989-1990, putting them in the Schafer/Grossman generation. Together they got their proper start in graphic adventures with Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis before they helmed Sam & Max Hit the Road, no doubt their most notable collaboration. Clark went on to be the project lead on the released version of The Dig, while Stemmle was the mind behind the SimCity-inspired Afterlife, an underappreciated if confusing original title, and subsequently a cancelled project called Justice Unlimited. Technically speaking, this wasn't even either designer's first exposure to the Monkey Island franchise, although their prior contributions were minimal – Stemmle was a tester on The Secret of Monkey Island, while Clark lent a hand with the same game's CD conversion.

Speaking about this game in terms of fan expectations is appropriate, because it has become measured by its reception in the circle of the Monkey Island loyal more than any other metric. An objective view of Escape from Monkey Island tends to be heavily obscured by a fog of harsh fan criticism and even some outright hostility from the same crowd - the game has definitely earned the title of the black sheep of the series for all the "controversy," both deserved and undeserved, that has stemmed from it, at least amongst the more vocal of Monkey Island die-hards. At the end of the day though, LucasArts' final entry in the adventure genre to date (though not, it should be said, the last put into production), and fourth in the legendary series may not be the company's strongest release, but it is nonetheless well worthy of both logos it bears. (After all, even when the presence of the Golden Guy wasn't as unequivocally assuring an emblem as it had once been, its connotations of quality when it graced the cover of a graphic adventure was always pretty consistent.) The game isn't perfect, but it suffers as much from the inescapable pressures of being a member of an improbably beloved series as it does from its own legitimate shortcomings.

The storyline of Escape from Monkey Island kicks off a few months after The Curse of Monkey Island ended, with the newly married Guybrush and Elaine "Marley-Threepwood" returning home to the perpetually nighttime Mêlée Island following their honeymoon. After a brief and improbably explosive battle on the high seas, the ship arrives safely at the Mêlée docks, where Elaine is surprised to find that in her long absence she's been legally pronounced dead, and a sleazy politician named Charles L. Charles is poised to be her replacement.

While Elaine mounts her own campaign against Charles, Guybrush is tasked by the missus to sail to the Lucre Island bank to retrieve her grandfather's heirlooms, among them the deed to the Marley mansion that will put the kibosh on a demolition order. On Lucre, Guybrush meets an Australian land developer named Ozzie Mandrill, whose sinister reputation had preceded him back on Mêlée. Guybrush learns that the bitter and ambitious Mandrill, whose home declares an affinity for walking sticks and stuffed mammals, is bent on eliminating the "undesirable pirate element" of the Caribbean. Equipped with strong-arm buyout tactics and an uncanny expertise at insult-based competitions, he intends to turn the world of fun-loving buccaneers into the heart of the corporate tourist industry - clearly the grimmest threat it has ever faced.

After being sidetracked by a frame job orchestrated by a local no-nosed thief, Guybrush returns to Mêlée and learns more about the significance of Grandpa Marley's heirlooms with the help of the indispensable Voodoo Lady, and it doesn't take long before it's discovered that Ozzie and Guybrush's longtime nemesis LeChuck are in cahoots. Their grander motives explain their unlikely alliance – the two creeps intend to uncover a mystical and powerful voodoo device called The Ultimate Insult, a three piece talisman which Ozzie can use to turn the Caribbean's inhabitants into submissive, mindless zombies, while LeChuck can use it to destroy his enemies, claim hellish reign over the Caribbean, and of course, finally marry Elaine. To thwart LeChuck and Ozzie's evil plans, Guybrush must gather a ship and a crew, sail the Tri-Island area, assemble his own Ultimate Insult, and maybe even conjure an escape from the most inescapable of titular islands in the process.

That storyline sounds Monkey Island-y enough, so where does all the griping come from? Well, the devil's in the details, and although EMI reprises all of the mandatory fixtures you'd expect see in this series (and a lot besides), several longtime fans were less than impressed by the fact that the game's overarching themes had more to do with politics, the legal system, and a biting commentary of capitalism run amok than with, well, pirates.

Take one part of the game, where Guybrush visits a town square comprised entirely of send-ups of real-life food chains, from "Starbuccaneer's Coffee" to "Planet Threepwood" (a restaurant themed around the exaggerated exploits of Guybrush himself). True, the Monkey Island games are no strangers to self-referential comedy, pop culture references, or even some downright bizarre story twists, but there are times when Escape from Monkey Island seems maybe just a little too convinced that the world it exists in is nothing more than a façade. That may be what we know it to be, but many of the reminders EMI is happy to give us are bothersome because they seem thrown in for the sake of it. However humorous, gag-filled, and whimsical it has always been, the Monkey Island series has always done a fairly good job of painting a rich and well-realized world that doesn't need to be joked at so much as in, whereas here the interest is at least as much in, say, making jabs at consumerism as capturing the essence of a genuine swashbuckling tale. It's occasionally distracting and tips the balance toward overt self-awareness.

Much like the Pirates of the Caribbean films that these games are so often compared to, the ever-present humor in Monkey Island is more often than not laid on top of a worthy and even somewhat serious supernatural pirate yarn that would probably work well enough, if much less entertainingly so, on its own. The influences and inspirations (seafaring mythologies, Tim Power's On Stranger Tides, etc.) are as important to Monkey Island as the one-liners and more off-the-wall ideas like surreal, anachronistic carnivals. By being largely a satire of corporations, tourism, and to some degree, itself, EMI is not any less a funny or worthy game as it otherwise would have been, but it does feel on some level like it makes a slight misstep in its obligation to follow in the spirit of the series. It is this, I suspect, that rubs some veteran players the wrong way, even if they tend to vocalize their grief in rants against some of the more superficial aspects, the inclusion of a giant robot, or toward the mostly underrated Monkey Kombat section. Neither the story nor storytelling of Escape from Monkey Island is really on a lesser level than it predecessors, but some of the narrative decisions it makes have a way of making the game feel like it's drifted a mite too far from the mother ship.

Ironically, despite being the group that ended up giving the game the hardest time, Escape from Monkey Island goes to desperate lengths to appease longtime devotees of the series. The game reeks of fan service, which is obvious from the get-go when Guybrush and Elaine set foot on Mêlée Island, explorable for the first time since The Secret of Monkey Island. Not only are The SCUMM Bar, the governor's mansion, and the Voodoo Lady's original International House of Mojo all back, but Guybrush also has run-ins with all the significant Mêlée Island citizens from the past, most notably the entirety of his original crew, who only make up a portion of the game's cameos. Just when you think you've seen every character or situation from the first game, large or small, made reference to, you're immediately proven wrong, making a playthrough of this adventure feel almost like some kind of family reunion, in both the ways a family reunion is pleasant and in the ways it is awkward.

EMI is so filled to the brim with in-jokes and references to Guybrush's previous adventures that it makes the nods in CMI seem subtle – and this is with the acknowledgment that the rampant employment of knowing winks is a staple of the series. For the die-hard Monkey fan, the callbacks are a boon, and it's fun to catch up with old friends, but it gets to the point where at times EMI seems too insecure to carry on with its own plot without slavish adherence to well worn templates. It's disturbingly hard to tell, for instance, if the customary early task of assembling a crew and a ship is meant to be intentionally self-parodying or not. And while the terms in which the Voodoo Lady explains the Ultimate Insult's power and infamy (compared to Big Whoop, she relates, it is "twice as coveted, and five times a dangerous") is funny, it's also a slightly saddening indicator of a lack of originality - the Ultimate Insult is simply another, bigger voodoo doohickey for Guybrush to contend with, and there isn't a whole lot of interest in making it feel like much more than that, even if there's nothing outright wrong with the way any of it is handled. Plus, the sheer volume of salutes to the past, which at times just plain call attention to themselves, doubtlessly makes the game less inviting for newcomers than it might have been with a bit more tact. Despite an opening cutscene that nicely recaps the overall storyline, it's hard to imagine that a first timer to Monkey Island wouldn't constantly find themselves feeling like they're being left out of a joke as the narrative unfolds.

Then there are the puzzles, which couldn't be any more catered to veteran adventure gamers if they tried. LEC's first adventure game of the new century, EMI embraced the modern era openly in many ways, but the mentality of the puzzle design is anything but contemporary. While some of the company's prior works attempted to expand the adventure game audience by adopting a puzzle design philosophy that favored logic over length-padding trial-and-error (with Loom, Full Throttle, and to some extent the previous Monkey Island's being the best examples), Escape throws all that out the window in favor of the sort of illogical, convoluted, and generally insane puzzles that were more characteristic of the genre a decade prior to EMI's time. It makes Grim Fandango feel like a game for intermediates, and is quite reminiscent of the wackiness of Hit the Road's stumpers in all the best and worst ways. Of course, players who want to reach the end credits without actually solving the game are accommodated by the ability to press Alt+W to instantly win, yet another diligently carried over, series-wide in-joke.

Sure, it's hard to call the puzzle philosophy a "flaw," exactly, considering how clearly intentional it is, and in citing the difficulty I'm not faulting the creativity or competence of the finely tuned design, but EMI is a particularly and surprisingly unforgiving challenge for its year of release and publisher, and this contributes to the schizophrenic result of a game that seems bizarrely stuck in the past while having no problem tearing away from the nostalgia of hand drawn art and point ‘n click controls. This is likely the only Monkey Island game that outright mandates a pen and paper on occasion, and there are some puzzles, such as a good one involving colliding boulders, that are surprisingly old-school in concept. It speaks volumes that the game literally came packaged with a complete walkthrough (a "Quick Path" solution taken from the game's comprehensive and separately sold hint guide) in its original North American printing. One wonders if LEC figured that was the only way mainstream gamers would ever pick up the title; whatever the motivation, it's pretty fascinating. For the last adventure game LucasArts put out, Escape from Monkey Island feels in many ways like something from the early 90s under the hood despite marching forward with its presentation.

It's a shame, too, because the puzzle ideas (if not logic) are all generally fun, inventive and entertaining. The sequence in the Mysts o'Tyme Marshe and the familiar, but not overly familiar, diving contest spring to mind as particularly memorable riddles, and they're far from the only examples. The fact that many newcomers to Monkey Island were successfully won over by EMI (a phenomenon I've witnessed first-hand) speaks to this, despite the aforementioned characteristics conspiring to drive them away. It may be hard for the more conservative Monkey Island gamer (the type who maintains such rational beliefs as "Ron is God" and "3D is Hitler," etc.) to appreciate at times, but the fact remains that Escape from Monkey Island packs many of the distinct pleasures that can only be found under the banner of the Monkey Island name, and if it weren't for the steep difficulty grade it wouldn't be the worst way to introduce a new player, the type whose lack of exposure to this type of product might very well give way to the surprising discovery that a video game could actually make them laugh out loud or engage them on a story level.

Of course, a goofy and winning sense of humor is a trait that is as synonymous with Monkey Island as any other, and it is done justice here, with the game being unable to go very long without throwing some out some kind of wisecrack or goofy barb. As said, the brand of humor creeps a little bit more into the territory of satire than the previous games, with a quick-witted, sarcastic tinge reminiscent, unsurprisingly, of Sam & Max Hit the Road. Overall, the punchline-laden banter feels a good deal sharper than the dialog of The Curse of Monkey Island, but it's also a lot more mixed in its success. The game is never afraid to be outrageous or random when it feels the risk will pay off with laughs, and it often does, although it falls flat a fair amount as well.

The result is that the game is both the most laugh-inducing of the series and the most groan-inducing, which is the nature of the cheeseball brand of jokes it goes for. Sharing a role in this unevenness is the fact that the humor is also simultaneously the most juvenile and sophisticated of the series. The game delivers fart jokes one minute and quotes Percy Shelley the next, and the same interactive script that never seems to tire of references to the main event of a honeymoon expects its audience to recognize casual references to works Australian literature. This blend can be clumsy as well as funny, and the game does sacrifice some of the consistency previously true of the series in exchange for the potential for some real belly laughs. All in all, EMI successfully captures the comedy of Monkey Island while having a distinct flavor of its own, and moments of hilarity are not unusual.

The length and scope of the game are satisfying, with roughly the same amount of characters and locations as were present in the entries that came before it. And as with the other games, many of the best moments of EMI are the smaller ones, which mostly stem out of conversing with the characters beyond what is necessary, or just looking at everything around you, since Guybrush will always have some worthwhile observation to make about an object. And at over ten thousand lines of dialog (which – don't quote me on this – may be some sort of record), there's plenty to hear. Suggestion: the next time you replay the game, try to use both the "l" and "e" keys on every interactive object where Guybrush looking at it is not a default action, such as a character. You may just hear some lines for the first time.

As far as tech is concerned, the game is helped as well as hindered by the ushering in of the 21st century. As stated, EMI runs on an updated version of Grim Fandango's engine and plays almost identically (complete, unfortunately, with a couple of nasty bugs that necessitated an almost immediate patch), with the main alterations being the very same modifications to the interface that CMI imposed on Full Throttle's foundation. The revised inventory system, which restores item combination, is effective and intuitive, and even the source of some humor in the form of characters commenting on its appearance on screen. The reprisal of the sentence line both enhances as well as detracts – it makes things less streamlined and visually neat than in Grim, but it does make it far clearer to the player which objects can currently be interacted with. This is a bit necessary because by comparison the environments are more saturated with items, and they are sometimes, as in the case of a banana picker, small and well camouflaged. It would seem that the job of a Monkey Island game is to move things backwards a little in order to fit the more old-school mold that the series is characterized by. Telltale Games, which powers all of their titles with the same engine and was for years seemingly against the use of inventory combination, felt the need to dust off the feature when continuing the Monkey Island series became their responsibility.

Like in Grim, the actual controls are fine but not free of a few quirks. There are thankfully no elevators this time out, but there are certain areas in environments that can be problematic to maneuver Guybrush around, an issue exacerbated by the occasionally oddly-placed camera angle, such as one that comes to mind inside the Governor's mansion. Still, while it can't match the elegance of point ‘n click, the mechanics of the game are functional for those who aren't inherently opposed to them, and they are easily mastered after a short while.

A few minor enhancements to Grim's control scheme make things a little more convenient on the user end, such as the "O" key causing Guybrush to immediately leave an environment (pressing it in an interior will bring you to the exterior, and pressing it in an exterior will bring you to the island's overhead map), as well as an additional option for running by double-tapping the forward arrow key. And of course, the adoption of a third dimension allowed for a new level of freedom with regard to visual composition, granting a more cinematic presentation of the game world, which if not as breathtaking as in Grim is used to good effect both in-game and in the frequent and well-directed cutscenes, all replayable from the menu as they're triggered. There is a particular epic FMV toward the end of the game that makes you wonder if it wasn't designed as a direct response to the most common complaint against CMI.

The artwork is a mixed bag. This is partially due to the tech constraints, and partially due to some lacking art direction. Generally speaking, for an undoubtedly modest-budgeted game produced in 3D in 2000, Escape from Monkey Island does a passable job of bringing the cartoony charm of the series into another dimension, with the carrying over of Bill Tiller's curly shaped clouds being a welcome touch. Even given the game's strict parameters, though (it had to fit on two CD-ROMs and is criminally confined to a resolution of 800x600) and the implicit understanding that it couldn't possibly live up to the boundless visual splendor of CMI, the game does occasionally come up short in the art department. There's also a lot of good work here, however, with interiors and nighttime exteriors being the most successful environments. When replaying the game for this review, I ramped up my anti-aliasing settings (not offered natively) cranked down the brightness, and turned up the music, and I'll be darned if I didn't find myself genuinely absorbed by the game in certain moments, like when chatting about old times with Carla and Otis in the town corner against some accordion-heavy Michael Land melodies. That the atmosphere and charm can't quite hold a candle to the first three games is a true statement, but the game isn't completely barren of that power, either.

The character models fare a bit worse than their surroundings, with decent designs being translated into extremely low-polygon models which, cartoony or not, are harder to pull off successfully for flesh and blood characters than with paper mache skeletons. While the central characters and assorted others are pleasing, most side characters look a little nondescript. It doesn't help that several models seem to be all but re-used, with the bank owner being a little too close to the Jambalaya Island tourist, etc. There's even a character who appears in one of the game's late cutscenes whose model is identical to a character in the beginning of the game, with a different voice actor being the only attempt to distinguish them. (Happily, the unusual effect of the plaid on Stan's coat while he flails his arms fully survived the transition to 3D.) The animation, both in-game and in the cinematics, is excellent, with the engine allowing more dynamic work than was possible in Grim Fandango. Excepting a few hitches, the animation cycles are smooth, plentiful, and add a huge amount to the performances. It's sometimes hard to decide how to measure the "standard" of a Monkey Island game when it's so much higher than you'd set for most anything else, but I'd say that the visuals of Escape from Monkey Island live up to the series even if they don't raise the bar.

It's impossible to discuss the subject of character performances without talking about the game's voicework, which I consider to be the best of any LucasArts adventure game. And yes, I know what that is saying. Directed once again by Darragh O'Farrell, the voice acting does such an effective job of bringing the characters to life that it overrules some of the blandness of the models and brings personality and distinction to characters that might have lacked it otherwise. And if Dominic Armato did a great job introducing the world's ears to Guybrush Threepwood, he's even better here, injecting a confidence and energy into the role that probably could have successfully carried a lesser game, and proves once again that he was born to play this character. Proving his versatility, he even lends his voice to a surprisingly useful duck that Guybrush temporarily shelters in his pants.

There are other returning performers, with Earl Boen, Leilani Jones, and Denny Delk all reprising their roles as LeChuck, the Voodoo Lady, and Murray the demonic skull (in an amusing if somewhat forced cameo) respectively. Elaine is recast, with the British Alexandra Boyd being replaced by Charity James, who brings more spunk to the character, or perhaps that's just an inherent benefit of not being stuck as a gold statue throughout most of the game. Similarly, the inevitable Stan appearance is voiced by a different actor than in Curse, with this take on the role possessing a bit more of a Jim Carrey hyperness. And since the game reprises characters not seen since the first game, this means that fan favorites such as Carla, Otis, Meathook, and Herman Toothrot are all given vocal chords for the first time, and there are no disappointments.

Every other character, both major and minor, is perfectly cast, and things are noticeably classed up by the inclusion of a few screen notables like Lewis Arquette and the incomparable Edie McClerg as the hilarious Miss Rivers. What the able performers consistently prove throughout the game is that good voice acting has a way of making lines that may have been funny on paper even better in vocalization. The quality is further bolstered by the studio's consistent but generally unsung sound design, the implementation here best serving the game in the form of an excellent sense of timing with the interactive dialog. In the case of a computer game, the timing and delivery of the dialog is only partially something that can be helped by the actor, with the versatility of the engine and the hard work of the sound technicians having an equal degree of authority over how natural the exchanges come off. (Compare the rhythm of conversations in EMI's dialog trees with The Dig to see what I mean.) Even if it's taken for granted, the tightness of the sound design (the work of such usual suspects as Nick Peck and Jory Prum among others), which includes the effective use of sound effects and ambience, is invaluable to the overall audio presentation of this game.

The last thing I'd want to do, though, is diminish the quality of the soundtrack, which once again reunites Clint Bajakian, Peter McConnell, and Michael Land, with Bajakian being the head composer this time out. As usual, the music is superb, meeting the series' extremely high bar which had been set with Monkey Island 2. While I'd stop short of calling it The Curse of Monkey Island's match (which would have been a miracle), it is top-notch, with my only mild complaint being that occasionally the re-use of themes feels like a case of pure recycling. (It is admittedly disappointing to watch the opening credits and hear an almost exact replica of Curse's rendition of the theme song instead of a customary new one.) The new themes are memorable with classic motifs nicely woven into them in subtle ways, and there is a particularly impressive (and enormous) stretch of music for that giant cutscene at the game's climax. It might be the victim of age in a few regards (compression sounds heavy), but the audio of Escape from Monkey Island deserves to be singled out as truly superb in its every facet, and is yet another notch in LEC's imposing belt of pre-eminence in that area.

The game's release, as I suggested, met with a good deal of mixed response from the fan base, and the installment continues to be a source of much passionate ranting and debate amongst the Monkey Island loyal. In the real world, the game got decent reviews from the press, and of that year's adventure game (an admittedly uncompetitive line-up), its critical reception was probably only second to the good but obscenely overrated The Longest Journey. The game received a Playstation 2 port (a semi-notable landmark for the series, despite the Sega CD port of The Secret Monkey Island being the series' first real venture onto consoles) in the following Spring, although based on how well LucasArts supported the platform after that it couldn't have made much of a splash. The PC version of EMI, however, apparently sold well enough to turn a profit, which puts the onus of LEC's desertion of the genre thereafter on modest profits in general rather than the performance of one particular title. What is beyond question is that the next several years in the LucasArts legacy would be among the most tumultuous, depressing, and fascinating, and I'm guessing there are more than a few books that could be penned about the company's internal affairs at the time, with very few of them being uplifting in tone. But let's leave some fun left over for one last article.

When I first played EMI upon release, I had much the same reaction as the more hostile fans did, but over the years I've gradually warmed up to it with subsequent playthroughs, each one replacing part of my stubborn, fanboyish mindset with a more objective view of the game's strengths and weaknesses. Although its presentation makes it already the most dated of all the games, I paradoxically submit that age is EMI's greatest asset, and it is even greater benefited by the existence of Tales of Monkey Island. It is now a middle chapter, a position that works for it much better than as the series' swansong. Many of the aspects that might formally have been unforgivable sacrilege - "Australian entrepreneurs?!" - in the eyes of some can now be much more easily appreciated as one-off ideas that no longer carry the implication of having permanently changed the direction of the series. In fact, EMI's ending, which tidily resolves its own story threads and leaves the characters with the freedom to embark on a fresh adventure without baggage, seems specifically designed to do further sequels a favor.

And even if EMI's status as the lesser Monkey Island never does change, I'd sooner interpret it as a testament to the superlative quality of the series as a whole rather than anything else. Its hierarchy within its own franchise notwithstanding, it's hard to call Escape from Monkey Island anything less than a great adventure game, and it's hard to be anything but grateful about the fact that LucasArts was able to squeeze out a final instance of those as it turned the page on a fondly remembered chapter in its history in more ways than one.

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