Tales of Monkey Island: Series One – Review

Tales of Monkey Island: Series One – £21.48

Review by Bobby Foster

Tales of Monkey Island artwork

Games in the early 90s mostly didn’t bother with narrative. The titles that sold best recreated the kind of experiences people were having in arcades, and you’d probably only catch a glimpse of a “plot” in the opening couple of screens. Even there, the aim was mostly to explain what the player needed to do and what was meant to be represented by the crude in-game graphics. Games that aimed to build a meaningful relationship between player and avatar were almost non-existent.

This made the original Secret of Monkey Island stand out: it not only had a story, but it was funny. The protagonist, Guybrush Threepwood, had enough personality that you could even call him lovable. Helped by the fact that the game looked stunning for its time, players the world over were charmed, and it set a precedent for the long line of LucusArts SCUMM games that would eventually peak with the masterful Full Throttle.

Almost twenty years have passed since that first Monkey Island game, during which time the scale, ambition and scope of videogames have all grown exponentially. In the years between 1991 and 2009 we moved from playing the simplistic Catacomb 3D to the bombastic Modern Warfare 2, and progressed from managing the lives of insects in Sim Ant to letting narratives emerge in the Sims 3. This sense of progress and improvement is a major part of what keeps us all coming back to these clever electronic toys, and so I can’t help feeling a little disappointed that Tales of Monkey Island has turned its back on twenty years of progress and improvement.

Aside from the graphical overhaul, there’s nothing here that pushes the envelope any further than it got pushed a couple of decades ago. Developers Telltale, understandably worried about meeting the expectations of long-time fans of the series, have played it safe; and the result is a game that feels beholden to the past and never manages to carve out a strong identity of its own.

The titular Tales mostly involve visiting all the locations available to you and making sure you’ve picked up or interacted with every object you can. This becomes super-jaw-gratingly frustrating when you discover that, for no sensible narrative or logical reason, some events and objects can only be triggered after you’ve done an unrelated ‘something else’ first. Even twenty years ago this kind of design separated the crap point-n-click games from the great, and circuiting through a number of locations trying to discover the arbitrary order the developer wants you to do things is just as horribly unsatisfying now as it was back then.

What of the dialogue though? A few good laughs can go a long way to redeeming an otherwise mediocre game, and this is perhaps where Tales of Monkey Island is strongest. The voice-acting is credible and some of the gags, if not laugh-out-loud funny, at least have the power to bring a smile to your face.

Yet it’s all done with so little flair. Nine out of ten conversations involve nothing more than patiently trotting through all the available dialogue options until you hit the right one. Worse still, people’s responses flip between the angry, the light-hearted and the sad so quickly that it regularly feels disjointed and contrived, lacking the weight and drama needed to keep your interest through what often end up being quite long discussions.

I can believe that people with fonder memories of the early Monkey Island games than me might get more out of these games than I did. The feel of the originals has been captured very successfully, and some of the puzzles are quite ingeniously crafted. New characters like Morgan Le Flay compare well to the old guard, and you always just about care enough about the ensemble to keep you playing (although the particularly tedious second chapter, The Siege of Spinner Cay, might test that to the very limit).

Yet aren’t we entitled to more? Is it really okay for Telltale to rely on fans’ nostalgia to compensate for their own lack of ambition?

For me at least, telling a sort-of-funny story is no longer enough. Working through Tales of Monkey Island (and it did sometimes feel like work) only ever made me want to play other smarter, faster and funnier games. Something like Dreamfall: the Longest Journey, which in fact contains more genuine hilarity than Tales of Monkey Island despite being a much darker and more serious game. (It also has much greater variety to it and a superior system for handling dialogue, but I should probably try to remember which game it is I’m supposed to be reviewing here.)

Three words sum up all five episodes of Tales of Monkey Island: competent fan service. Should you demand more?

I know I’ll be taking a pass on Series Two.

1 Comment Leave yours

  1. MacQ #

    Great review! You forgot to mention the shitty controls. 😀

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