Resurrecting a dead franchise (and let's face it, this industry will pronounce you as such if you've been missing for almost ten years) can bring about equal amounts of delight and regret. It's the difference between having dear ol' grandma brought back to life or having someone dump her freshly exhumed corpse on your doorstep. Sometimes she's best remembered -- and not smelled.
It's a relief, then, to declare the first episode of Telltale's five-part Tales of Monkey Island series a wonderful, heart-warming reunion. Grandma's back, full of life and ready to bake some cookies!
Okay, so her eyeballs will occasionally fall out, but it's nothing that can't be fixed with some time and some practice.
There's a point in the game where series protagonist and beacon of ineptitude Guybrush Threepwood is barred from opening a sinister-looking chest. "It's a mysterious chest I won't be opening in THIS episode," he cheekily remarks. The wit and wordplay have definitely been preserved in Telltale's Monkey Island captaincy, as have the sly pop culture references and playful anachronisms that have pervaded the series since Ron Gilbert's original. They're not limited to just the well-acted piratey banter, either, since you can also look forward to carrying around the physical manifestation of an internet phenomenon in your inventory.
While the game as a whole isn't as consistently funny as the later episodes in Sam & Max -- it feels like Telltale is still finding its comedic stride here -- it does set up a tantalizing predicament for old friends and foes. After a voodoo-infused encounter with dreaded ghost/zombie/demon pirate LeChuck (sadly no longer voiced by Earl Boen), Guybrush winds up stranded on Flotsam Island, home to a newspaper of questionable repute, a unicorn-loving glassblower and a delightfully deranged doctor. Most of the new characters don't have enough time to flourish, but at least one gets his foot in the door as an amusing alternate villain. And that's to say nothing of the one who gets his hand in the door.
Aside from hitting all the right notes when it comes to music and visuals, Telltale strikes a great balance between logic and absurdity for its puzzles ... for the most part, at least. The game's worst sequence, by far, involves the traversal of a jungle maze. Figuring it out and following the game's instructions is hardly challenging, but triggering the actual puzzle and forcing the game to pay attention to what you're doing requires a bizarre act which never really makes sense. And it doesn't make sense when you do the second maze puzzle, either. Running around the jungle also highlights a problem with the controls: between the two options available to you, it's far more efficient to maneuver Guybrush with the keyboard than it is to hold down a button and drag him along with the mouse. Whatever happened to just pointing and, you know, clicking where you want to go?
The few maze missteps aside, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is a good start and a good indication of how well Telltale is treating grandma now that she's back. Uh, Monkey Island, now that Monkey Island is back. What a creepy metaphor.
[Tales of Monkey Island: Chapter 1 is available from the Telltale Games website as part of a season bundle ($34.95). Details on the Wiiware version will be announced at a later stage.]