I literally jumped for joy when this game was announced. If you owned a PC in the early 90s, you probably played LucasArts adventure games; if you did, you agree that the undisputed best of this Golden Age of adventure gaming was the Monkey Island series. They combined ingenious puzzles with hilarious jokes and indelible characters: Guybrush Threepwood, the world’s worst pirate; the prim yet sexable Governor Elaine; the ghost-cum-zombie-cum-demon archnemesis, the nefarious pirate LeChuck.
Through three stellar adventures we piloted Guybrush (let us not mention the dire Escape from Monkey Island), and then – silence. Adventure gaming imploded, collapsed, died, and would never live again, except for in peripheral tiny-budget games about Agatha Christie, or vampires, or Atlantis – fine games in their own right, but not something that you can really bring yourself to care about.
But the folks at Telltale refused to accept this, and like some sort of beneficent necromancer, they brought the genre back, through perseverance, an admirable commitment to quality, and some killer licensing deals. Each episode of Sam and Max raised the bar, revealing their aptitude for this genre and their love of the form; when they announced Tales, it was like that was their real goal all along.
Tales begins in media res, with Elaine tied up on LeChuck’s ship, while LeChuck works some voodoo on a helpless yet plenipotentiary monkey. Guybrush’s own voodoo hex goes awry, and when he improvises, LeChuch is revivified, and Guybrush gets an evil zombie hand. The ship explodes, Guybrush washes up on the appropriately named Flotsam Island, and soon the Pox of LeChuck is spreading over the Caribbean, zombifying everyone it touches.
Players of the previous games will expect knee-slapping, bowel-shattering jokes, and the script doesn’t disappoint. I laughed out loud throughout. Telltale has the tone and the characters down pat, and well they should; several of the original team members were on board.
The puzzles are sometimes difficult, but never unfair or arbitrary. This is Telltale’s great strength. Their bizarre universes follow certain rules. Once you figure out how they think, you can usually solve the puzzles without frustration. There are none of the unintuitive “use every object on everything else” puzzles; the game rewards you for being smart, not for clicking exhaustively. You get the weird, unfamiliar, yet not unwelcome sensation of using your brain while gaming. And should this prove too tough for you, Telltale’s graceful, unobtrusive hint system will help you out.
Telltale employs their typical graphical style – vibrant colors, unsophisticated yet well articulated models, plain textures – it’s meant to look good and run well on any system, but without breaking the developer’s bank, and, as in Sam and Max, it succeeds. The game is a joy to behold.
The composer of the original games returns for this installment, and he drenches the soundtrack with steel drums and calliopes. The classic theme is instantly; powerfully evocative of Caribbean nights, of burying treasure in the jungle, of contracting scurvy and spraying voodoo root beer all over ghost pirates. Much of the same voice cast returns, too, with the exception of Earl Boen as LeChuck, though the sound-alike does just fine. The inimitable Dominic Armato gives Guybrush the precise mix of whimsy, bathos, self-aggrandizement, and bone-headedness.
In my duty as a reviewer, I must point out that there are some annoying maze sections of the game, and the controls have been peculiarly altered; rather than pointing and clicking to walk, you hold the mouse and drag, or use WASD – why? It’s neither convenient nor pleasant. But – these are mere nits that I have picked, searching meticulously for some trivial fault that I can use to prove to you, dear reader, that I have retained my objectivity and am not head over heels in love with this game and everyone who works at Telltale, though I would marry them all if I could. Failing that, I want them to charge more for their games, which I will gladly pay; I want them to have all my money, if it can get us Episode Two any sooner. After waiting nine years for the next chapter, I assumed a month between episodes wouldn’t be so excruciating. But it is excruciating; my appetite is whetted, all the better to cut me.