Let's be honest -- LucasArts has never been timid when it comes to its line of adventure games. After such licensed debacles as Star Wars: Rebellion and Star Wars: Force Commander, it was beginning to look like even something as treasured and non-Obi-Wan-related as their Monkey Island series would be in a spot of trouble. Be glad that's not the case.
With wit, charm and cunning ingenuity, Escape from Monkey Island is one of those few game experiences where you struggle to find holes in it, where you have to sit and think until you can find something to complain about. LucasArts has managed to walk the fine line between series continuity and hilarious unpredictability which, in one fell swoop, helped the adventure game genre to resurface in a very hostile world. Debacles be damned -- this game is a gem.
As dangerous as it is to criticism, it's all too easy to go off about the endless merits of this installment. Going for the full 3D approach this time, Escape from Monkey Island uses the Grim Fandango engine with a bit more shine. Instead of the blocky days of yore or the flat (yet extremely well drawn) feel of the more recent Curse of Monkey Island, this is a fully rendered, lush and solid world of comic characters and stylish backdrops.
Actually, backdrops is an oafish word; since the animated characters are seamlessly integrated into their own fabricated world, the game feels whole and, in its own way, real. Although to be fair, this new 3D look for Guybrush Threepwood and his cohorts doesn't always work as well as it should. Unlike Grim Fandango, which featured cat-scratched skeletons and bulbous demons, this 3D engine has its limitations while trying to make its humans look both "full" as well as cartoon-like.
Some character designs, Guybrush especially, appear wooden at times, literally, as they have a "carved out" look to them (the less said about the hair, the better). As a whole, however, the vast majority of designs are still captivating. Don't let anybody try to tell you there isn't a sense of Toy Story-like richness to even the most stilted of characters here; one will still spend half the time just enjoying the look of the game.
As admirable but flawed games like Battlezone II: Combat Commander or Hitman: Codename 47 taught us, there's a growing cardinal rule for game design: interface, interface, interface. Luckily, the mouse-less setup here prevails. Instead of the somewhat over-simplification of the mouse control of adventure games (old-school fans will cross their arms with pride about the intense looseness of the blank text interface of the Infocom and Sierra days), the numerical pad controls movement and actions with about one minute of personal acclimation.
There's also a marvelous sound design and -- oh yes -- voice acting that is difficult to dismiss. From friendly island rhythms to atmospheric, crashing waves to, uh, lots and lots of monkeys, the music and sound effects are both non-intrusive and impressive. Remember when designers didn't care about voice acting at all? Apart from, say, Dragon's Lair, the most gamers used to hope for was a comprehensible human who could string two English words together without stumbling over soap opera airs or phone book lucidity.
As you might have guessed, LucasArts raises the bar once more with voice acting of superb comic timing. So much of Escape from Monkey Island reaches for the greater whole and the easy communication between interface, characters, and story is something to applaud even before the opening credits are over.
Ah, the story. Let's be brief, shall we? Here are the basics: Threepwood and his new wife Elaine return to the Tri-Island Area only to find them both presumed dead and Elaine's status as governor in jeopardy. With encroaching "corporatization" of the pirate islands, proboscis-challenged saboteurs named Pegnose Pete, a quest to find the true heritage of the Marley family name and a throng of dueling monkeys, the narrative flows from absurdity to (relative) complexity with the knowing wink of true, pun-filled wit.
Caught up? Good, because one can't speak about Escape from Monkey Island's story without nailing the only major component wrong with this installment: the puzzles. Sure, most of the puzzles are both fair and challenging but sometimes the game's humor is its own downfall. For example, while it may be funny for some to solve a satirical bout of "Monkey Kombat" far into the game, the obstacle is a test of memorization and repetitiveness, not user ingenuity. Or, for that matter, hurdles like a deplorable monkey "machine code" puzzle that reeks far more of The 7th Guest-type logic than an honest-to-goodness brainteaser.
Sense a pattern? Often the installment tries to keep its puzzles inside the jesting tone of the narrative but some of their random obscurity will leave you with space to only try testing your memory or relying on the "use everything on everything" tactic. Indeed, the puzzles are what matter in an adventure game. And, LucasArts realizes that situating them in a world that counts, with characters that count, makes everything that much more enjoyable. But, they also at times drop the proverbial coconut on their own proverbial feet by approaching them from the wrong side.
A couple more nits to pick -- adventure games tend to peter out in their third acts. Unlike an average real-time strategy game or a first-person shooter, the pace of the story and the complexity of the puzzles plummet near the tail end of the adventure. Escape from Monkey Island continues the trend. Without trying to spoil anything, after so much narrative build-up of framed robberies, corporate margins, exile and the frequently feared Ultimate Insult, the conclusion is wrapped up with the feel of a writer wanting to get the hell out of Dodge.
Maybe one more island is needed, maybe a few more twists would've helped, or maybe the last act needs puzzles that take more than three minutes to figure out -- whatever the case, one gets the distinct impression of an anti-climax. Narrative rhythm is tricky in game design and LucasArts succeeds in only keeping it alive three-fourths of the way through.
Looking back, the game's praise may seem unwarranted with such problems. However, believe it or not, these troubles are tiny amidst the charming sprawl of the universe that has actually been created. Situated in a fantasy world where manly pirates pilot pink ships, bodiless skeletons named Murray once again try to scare innocent passersby, and everybody has a hysterically exaggerated accent (French chefs screaming "Sacre Bleu!" indeed), Escape from Monkey Island consistently blends in imagery we've never seen before with snowballing jokes that are genuinely funny.
Who else but LucasArts would pit fiendish plots of Rupert Murdoch-like villains in a world of "Star-Buccaneers" outlets and characters that proudly spew dialogue like "It's booty-tastic?" With very few bugs to speak of (getting "stuck" on objects, vibrating monkeys, slow-downs around monkeys, crashes when trying to do very random experiments -- usually with monkeys), one is constantly bemused at what might await around the corner.
Maybe there's a point to the bad analogies: LucasArts really is becoming the Pixar of adventure games right along with the sense of smart situations and effortless wonder that such a comparison implies. Some ill-chosen puzzles, a fatigued conclusion -- no matter, really. You'll be smiling too much to give it much notice. This is nothing less than perfectly perfected perfection. If you like monkeys, anyway.
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