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Published 17:00, 19 September 2022 BST
| Last updated 9:53, 20 September 2022 BST
Featured Image Credit: Devolver Digital, Lucasfilm Games
Thirty-one years, gone in the blink of an eye and one click of a not-so-SCUMM-y interface. Return to Monkey Island begins immediately after the ending of the second game in this narrative-adventure series, 1991’s Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, cuing up its plot from where that celebrated sequel (and its predecessor of a year earlier) left off. And yet, this is no retcon, no reversing of the path that Monkey Island’s much-loved and often-hapless protagonist Guybrush Threepwood has walked in the games since then, instead smartly drawing out a fresh adventure without disrupting the established timeline. Escape fans, wherever you are, you can rest easy.
Watch the latest trailer for Return to Monkey Island below…
The setting for this long-awaited comeback – the previous Monkey Island game, the Telltale-developed Tales of Monkey Island, released in 2009 – is naturally Deep in the Caribbean, the gently paced action commencing on the familiar cobbled streets and winding woodland paths of Mêlée Island before opening up to other over-yonder-horizon locations. There have been some changes since we were last on Mêlée, a few new proprietors taking up residence in town and the requirement to keep a rubber chicken down the back of your breeches long forgotten, but the layout remains much the same and the nostalgic sights and soothing sounds of the place will be a delight for returning visitors. Newcomers to all things Monkey Island might not have the same immediate connection to these virtual climes, but this is a series that’s always gone strong on a sense of place whatever the art style in play, and Return immediately puts the player where it wants them: in search of the island’s pirate leaders, and in turn off on one more great adventure.
I’ll skimp on deeper details regarding where our hero’s heading and why, because the last thing anyone reading this right now needs is story spoilers, however trivial they are in the grand scheme of this thing – fellow fans, we’ve waited long enough, right? But how Return sets Guybrush on his way is deliciously twisted, and the game isn’t afraid to subvert the ‘rules’ of past series entries across its five chapters. The expected returning characters expectedly return, some of whom play crucial and very personality specific parts in the story’s progression while others are there to tick a smaller box that could have been achieved with any NPC (which is fine, it’s lovely to see them again). Naturally, Guybrush’s nemesis LeChuck is a major nefarious force throughout puzzling proceedings that’ll take perhaps a half-dozen hours to finish depending on your propensity for perplexing posers involving buckets of raw fish and the resonance of the human skull, but the flaming-eyed ghost pirate isn’t the sole antagonist here, as rather-more-corporeal connivers are on the case too.
The older SCUMM-based point-and-click interface – all “talk to” this and “pick up” that – has been replaced with a streamlined system where directing Guybrush to a point of interaction (and cycling through accessible areas with the shoulder buttons) brings up options that are selectable with one of the Switch’s face buttons (usually X or A). Pressing Y brings up his inventory from where items can be grabbed and pulled into the scene – to be handed to another character, placed somewhere or mixed with something – or combined to create some spicy concoction or other. His to-do list is also found here, so be sure to refer to it often. It’s all very intuitive and won’t leave novices struggling to craft whatever absurd thingamajig is necessary to solve the superbly bizarre brain-tickler before them.
Of course, working out what ingredients are needed to reach that point of problem-solved satisfaction is another matter, and Return to Monkey Island continues its series’ tradition of being creatively abstruse with its teasers. To soften the feelings of frustration that could arise, the game makes a plot point of giving Guybrush a magical hints book which can be turned to if you’re totally stumped (no telephone helplines needed). These tips won’t instantly take you all the way to cracking a conundrum, but if you’ve the right trinkets upon your person (when stuck, always look at your inventory a little closer) then a spark of inspiration should be struck with just a little nudge in the right direction. The start of each playthough presents two difficulty modes – Casual, which dials down the steps needed per puzzle, and Hard, which is for “the pro-adventure gamer who wants it all”, and is more akin to the games of the 1990s – and the hints are available in both. Before you cry foul that series creator Ron Gilbert and his colleagues at developers Terrible Toybox have ‘dumbed down’ Monkey Island for modern players, hints are only ever optional. So if you really want to spend an hour banging your head against the screen lamenting your inability to get the better of a lazy lookout, go for it.
While pre-release appreciation of the art direction of Return to Monkey Island has been divided amongst those who’ve most anticipated this title, in motion they’re a dream to behold, reminiscent of Ubisoft’s UbiArt Framework games like Rayman Legends and Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Characters are superbly expressive at all times and gorgeously detailed close-ups of facial features, grasping fingers and demonic skulls really bring this world and its style to life. Consistency is key: wherever you are in the game, not a single pepper pot or poetry book looks out of place, and it’s no exaggeration to say that there’s something quite magical about how it all hangs together, a hybrid aesthetic that’s half avant animation, half adorable puppet show. The music is arranged by returning composers from Monkey Island’s past, and new pieces are expertly woven around earworm melodies from decades ago that’ll have old-timers reminiscing about their first bold announcement that they fully intended to become a mighty pirate.
There’s no getting around the fact that Return to Monkey Island is first and foremost a game for this series’ fans – that’s been evident since its reveal in April 2022, and clearly a great degree of care has gone into making it as compelling and original as it can be without proving alienating in any way for oldies looking to relive their personal point-and-click history. It doesn’t trade too extensively on past successes, but players with no previous experience will perhaps wonder what the fuss is about given that Return’s script doesn’t quite pop with as many zingers as could have been hoped for. (I don’t recall chuckling aloud more than a couple of times.) This isn’t a bad story at all, and it wraps in a way that I found touching, but there are beats in it that don’t fully land, and perhaps too many threads vying for the player’s attention at the mid-game point when the to-do list gets messy. There’s some back-and-forthing between locations that could have been handled better as these myriad quests are marked off – but at least the days of swapping out multiple floppy discs to load in new areas are behind us, and you can instantly snap to your map screen at the press of a button and make Guybrush move faster by holding ZR.
What’s never missing though is a very pleasing and palpable warmth, a tenderness that runs through even the plot’s most dramatic peaks. While there are baddies, obviously, few of them are just wicked for the sake of it with no meaningful motivation, and the strong relationship between Guybrush and his wife Elaine is represented incredibly well. The couple feel real as much through what they don’t say to each other as what they do, conversations beneath lime trees playing out with relatable subtlety, and credit must go to actors Dominic Armato and Alexandra Boyd for nailing how enamoured these two are with each other while stopping well short of the mawkishness that plagues so many in-game love affairs. Select other NPCs are fairly well fleshed out too – even some without any actual flesh on their bones – and voice-over performances are of a universally high standard. At a time when the world seems to be constantly on fire, every headline a punch to the guts, a nice game is a welcome distraction – and Return is absolutely and unashamedly a nice game, challenging but kind, always wanting you to get Guybrush to the next puzzle and not throw the grog-stained towel in. The jokes might be an acquired taste, but few won’t smile the whole way through.
Thirty-one years on from LeChuck’s Revenge, and Return to Monkey Island is confident about what it is, why it is, and who it’s for. This is swashbuckling point-and-click shenanigans of a most splendiferously convivial complexion that everyone who ever stuck a cotton bud in a stone monkey’s lughole or took a ride around Big Whoop, delighted in asking about Loom or half-inched a hairpiece to fashion a voodoo doll from, will adore. It’s fan service that doesn’t forget to make itself half-approachable to beginners, and while its 20th century roots are showing there won’t be many rookies who’ll fail to step in time with its distinctively off-kilter rhythms. While its puns might sometimes elicit a groan, so cordial is this game’s atmosphere, so genial its eccentric cast, that Return to Monkey Island can’t be received as anything less than a wholesome triumph for wannabe me-hearties everywhere.
Pros: fun and unexpectedly moving story, easy-to-use interface, puzzles are testing without being progress-stalling thanks to hints system, it’s wonderful to spend time with these old friends again
Cons: the game’s not especially long (even by Monkey Island standards), low on laugh-out-loud jokes (your own nautical mileage will vary), it really helps to have played the first two games in the series before this one (despite a scrapbook filling newbs in on Guybrush’s previous escapades)
For fans of: the Monkey Island series, point-and-click adventures, good-natured games that make you feel all warm inside
Return to Monkey Island is released on 19 September 2022 for Nintendo Switch (version tested in both handheld mode and docked – no performance issues to report), PC and Mac. Review code provided by the publisher, Devolver Digital/Lucasfilm Games. Find a guide to GAMINGbible’s review scores here.
Topics: Nintendo Switch, Retro Gaming, PC, Devolver Digital
‘Return To Monkey Island’ Review: Warm-Hearted Pirate Hijinks That’ll Enrapture Fans – GAMINGbible
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