Returning to the island with the second largest monkey head we've ever seen was a fantastic closure to the adventure game series and the character.
The graphic adventure game genre is not at its peak right now, that's for sure. But it has managed to stay afloat and mutate its style and themes over the 35+ years since Lucasfilm Games released Maniac Mansion, followed by The Secret of Monkey Island. In that time we have had products that drank heavily from the humour of those early games like Broken Sword or Simon the Sorcerer, to modern adventure games like Life is Strange and even to some extent Supermassive's horror games. But if we think of adventure games, almost everyone thinks of a name of a blond boy with a ponytail, a white shirt and a naivety bigger than the ocean: Guybrush Threepwood.
And although this would be his fifth video game adventure in the series, creator Ron Gilbert only handled the first two instalments, and that was 31 years ago (which in pirate years is over 170). For years fans begged for a new instalment of Monkey Island, and with the advent of the pandemic, it seems Gilbert had a powerful pang of nostalgia and gathered all the original crew (Dave Grossman, Michael Land, David Fox, Dominic "Guybrush" Armato) and set to work on what he called "the Manhattan Project of video games" to fulfil a promise. Because if there's one thing we never knew what it was until today, it's precisely what the Secret of Monkey Island is.
And that's what the story is about, which I won't go into even remotely close detail about, and neither the plot or outcome so as not to spoil the surprise for anyone, but I will say that Return to Monkey Island is a rounded closure to the stories and characters that for 30 years have populated the imagination of the most veteran of gamers, and is a direct and sincere love letter to them (like the one LeChuck would write to Elaine, for example). If you've already played through the original and LeChuck's Revenge, you can jump straight into the adventure, but if you're a new cabin boy on this ship, the team at Terrible Toybox have had the great idea of creating a scrapbook in the main menu where you can learn step-by-step the entire history of the first two Monkey Island games. Return to Monkey Island is aimed at kids aged 30 and up who grew up with these stories of spitting contests, secret grog recipes, rubber chickens with a pulley in the middle and monkeys with three heads. And to make the game an ongoing celebration, Guybrush will find trivia cards here and there sharing details and insights from the previous ones (some of them are really difficult, and I came from playing them straight through before reviewing this one).
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Guybrush and LeChuck could hardly sustain the story if they didn't surround themselves with such a large and charismatic cast of characters who return to bring nostalgic smiles to our faces and two seconds later make us laugh and wipe away tears. Here are Otis, Carla, Stan, the SCUMM Bar, the Watcher and so many others, new and old, with whom it will be impossible not to stop for a few minutes to exhaust every possible dialogue option. And in the same vein, I've been able to spend more time than it would be wise to invest in leaving Guybrush standing still and letting myself be carried away by Michael Land's fantastic music and sound effects. I don't know how, but the main theme sounds better than ever.
Let's talk about that controversial topic on the net that has Ron Gilbert in a tizzy: the artwork and redesign of the settings and characters. I can understand that the shock is great, especially if we take into account the original (and pixelated) versions and even the special editions that came out in 2009. But I also think it was a positive decision for two reasons: It serves the story by presenting Monkey Island as a caricature of itself, and at the same time the new Dinky game engine has created some fantastic transitions between scenes and stage movements that come to life, and with them the memories of the previous instalments. A risky decision if your game relies on nostalgia as it does here, but as a standalone title it clearly benefits. I have nothing but praise for the game controls, as the Nintendo Switch version I used for review was not only stable (more so than other recent Devolver Digital titles, such as the disastrous version of the otherwise great Cult of the Lamb), but I found its simplified point and click controls almost more engaging than if I'd played it with keyboard and mouse.
Also, I think if there was one thing that might have worried anyone before playing the game, it's whether it would still have that (voodoo) magic that the 90s originals had. The sense of humour may be timeless, but repeating the same jokes would have been terrible. Luckily, Return to Monkey Island knows how to take the right amount of self-reference (constantly, mind you) and use it to make some incisive criticisms of crumbling traditions and life's changes. Guybrush has changed, he's older now, he's less able to hold his drink and his marriage to Elaine has lost the fire it had in the beginning. And so he sets out on one last adventure against his arch nemesis LeChuck to uncover the Secret of Monkey Island once and for all. Sound familiar? I'm sure the line between the universes of Monkey Island and Uncharted 4 is thinner than we think.
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There were times when I wondered whether the puzzles were too easy. There are two modes of play, casual and hard, and for the first half of the game the hard mode was quite manageable. Have I got so used to Ron Gilbert that his puzzles and clues seemed easy? Well, that was until halfway through. From then on the complexity and those "I have to get that to do that to do that to get that to get that to get that to get that" become devilishly difficult. Then I was able to try out the casual mode, and I admit that I twice reached for the hint book that comes inside the game. A way to ensure that everyone who plays the game can get to the end without having to ask for help from the outside.
I wish I'd had more time to revel in the thousand witty dialogues of Return to Monkey Island, but arriving in time for the review has made me sacrifice some of the fun in order to encourage you, the reader, to do so. Because I already know the Secret of Monkey Island, and I strongly encourage you to do so too.
9 / 10
The closure to the story it deserved. Fantastic artwork. A sense of humour that stands the test of time.
Inevitably some tasks and jokes get a bit repetitive.