Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Wolf Among Us Finale Gets Trailer and Dates

The final episode of Telltale's episodic series based on the Fables comics, The Wolf Among Us, is going to be released next week.  It will be released for PC, Mac, and for PlayStation Network on PlayStation 3 in North America on July 8, on PSN for PS3 in Europe and on Xbox Live Arcade for Xbox 360 worldwide on July 9, and on iOS on July 10th.  Release dates for the Android and PlayStation Vita versions haven't been announced yet.  The trailer is out now as well, which is embedded above.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Rise of the Pirate God Review

This review was originally written for Associated Content on February 25, 2010. I can finally post this here as the rights have reverted back to me.

The finale takes the series to much darker places, as it finds Guybrush having to do things he's never done before, in a place he's never been before, but which is very familiar to his arch-enemy LeChuck.

Once again, the three control methods are still the same. There is the direct control method with the keyboard or a joystick, a combination of keyboard for movement and mouse to select items, and a click and drag method where you click Guybrush and drag him to where you want him to go. If you choose this last option, note that it's a little cumbersome, as you have to let go of the mouse button to select an object and then click Guybrush again in order to drag him to where you want him to go. Another thing worth noting in this game is that, whichever method you choose, there's a hitch in the engine where a cinematic camera angle doesn't work the way it should in the game. It is at the point at the ship where you find Morgan, when you go down, the ship will be shown but Guybrush will not. Whichever method you choose, you just have to go down and the camera will fix itself. The click and drag method is more difficult, as you have to search around the screen until you see an arrow like you'd see when you highlight Guybrush. Now, you just have to click the arrow and drag it down until the camera fixes itself.

The music is fittingly moody for this darker installment of the series. Dominic Armato, Alexandra Boyd, and Nikki Rapp do an excellent job once again as Guybrush, Elaine and Morgan respectively. The biggest bonus in this game is that Earl Boen, the voice of LeChuck in the previous Monkey Island games returns as LeChuck here. Although, if you played the first episode, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, on the Macintosh or waited to play it until the PC DVD release, then you would have heard Earl Boen as the zombie pirate LeChuck there too. He is much more menacing as the undead LeChuck than Adam Harrington was in the original version of the first episode. The new character, the dead man at the crossroads who at one point calls himself Galeb, is a fun new character. He is a habitual liar, so you never know if he's telling you the truth. Roger Jackson, the voice of Van Winslow, performs Galeb's voice as well. Speaking of Van Winslow, by this point I really like the character. There is a lot of character development for him in this episode, and Roger Jackson performs his role wonderfully as always. I was also glad to see the return of characters I enjoyed from previous games. Anenome, the merperson from the second episode, is once again given the right amount of vocal androgyny by Sirenetta Lioni. Bugeye, a character from the third episode, is enjoyably sour as ever, as voiced by Andrew Chaikin. The fourth episode is represented by another interesting character, Judge Grindstump, who is given a jolly demeanor with a bit of paranoia by Brian Summer. The returning characters further emphasize just how interesting most of the new characters are in this game, which is a welcome return after somewhat bland new characters in Escape from Monkey Island.

The backgrounds are dark, as they should be. Both the story and the atmosphere are noticeably darker in this game. Even the returning locations from previous games are presented in a darker light, due to the rampage LeChuck went on after he seemingly finally defeated his arch-nemesis for good. Despite the dark tones, there is still a good deal of detail. It still feels like Monkey Island. The camera issue I noticed before is a noticeable hiccup that spoils the experience somewhat. It is notable enough that it has received help issue posts at Telltale's forums. It even took me a while to figure out how to fix the issue, as I had at first thought that I had encountered a game stopping bug, as I'm sure many other people did. Hopefully Telltale fixes the issue for the PC DVD release, as the experience is quite good otherwise.

Although it doesn't reach the heights of the fourth episode, the final episode is a fitting close to a very exciting chapter in the Monkey Island saga. The main characters are excellent as always, the returning side characters are chosen wisely. They are all among the most interesting new characters of the season. The camera issue hurt the experience a little, but as long as you know how to fix the issue, it's not too big of a deal. I don't want to spoil the final puzzle, but I will say that while it is a well designed puzzle, it is exactly the same type of puzzle that occurs at the end of the first three Monkey Island games. It's not a deal breaker by any means, as it ends the game well, but I would have liked to have seen a final confrontation that was laid out less by-the-book in a season that otherwise did things differently from its predecessors.

Final Verdict:

4½ out of 5

The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Review

This review was originally written for Associated Content on February 24, 2010. I can finally post this here as the rights have reverted back to me.

In this game, the plot thickens, as is evidenced by the name of the episode. Guybrush finds himself having to go to court for his crimes, and a voodoo subpoena keeps him from fleeing the island, similar to the voodoo anklet in Escape from Monkey Island. Things are not as straightforward as they seem though, as the trial is only part of the story. The storyline here is the highlight of the season so far.

At this point, if you've been playing the series since the beginning, which ever method you chose should be second nature. But if this is your first time experiencing the Tales of Monkey Island, there are three control methods to choose from. The first control method is direct control with a keyboard or a joystick, and the second is a combination of a keyboard for movement and a mouse for selecting objects. The third option is a little more cumbersome, it's known as the click and drag method. With it you click on Guybrush and drag him to where you wish to go, and then let go of him to select an object to interact with. Then when you want to move Guybrush, you have to click and drag him again.

Enough good things can't be said about Michael Land's soundtrack in every Monkey Island game. It continues to shine here, and although it's synthesized instead of using live instruments, it fits the mood of the game perfectly. The recurring cast members continue to do a terrific job, and Kevin Blankton once again turns in a terrific performance as the human form of LeChuck. We get to see some returning characters, such as D'Oro, the pirate collecting pirate from the first game. I didn't find him that interesting in the first game, and unfortunately not much has changed here.

The new characters are a bit of the mixed bag. The judge and bartender of Club 41, Wallace Grindstump, is interesting, but the new female character, Bosun Krebs, is not. On the other hand, Nikki Rapp turns in an excellent performance in this game, as her character's current emotional state shows in her voice. Alexandra Boyd's performance of Elaine inflicted with the pox of LeChuck is hilarious, and the scene where the two women in Guybrush's life finally meet is great. The human LeChuck is an interesting character as always, and Alison Ewing performs her role as the Voodoo Lady with such conviction it's as if she's been doing the role throughout all the games. As in the last game, there is one popular character that makes a return here. Unlike the previous character, his appearance here is more of the same, but for fans of the character that shouldn't be a problem. One positive note is that his voice actor puts in the best voice performance of the character in the series so far. Additionally, Telltale seems to have ironed out the problems affecting the second episode completely by this point. The similarities of the character models can no longer be seen, and Telltale kept the returning characters who were a bit too generic, so even they blend in here.

The fourth episode is the best episode of the season so far, despite a few boring characters. The new character of Wallace Grindstump is entertaining, and the returning character from previous game is on character, even if there's nothing new for him in this game. The main cast of Tales of Monkey Island perform their roles wonderfully as always, with Alexandra Boyd as the poxed Elaine a clear standout. It's the storyline of this game that puts it heads and heels above the others. It will leave both Guybrush and the player re-evaluating the relationships between the recurring characters in the series.

Final Verdict:

4½ out of 5

Lair of the Leviathan Review

This review was originally written for Associated Content on February 24, 2010. I can finally post this here as the rights have reverted back to me.

Once again, the game continues right where the last one left off, with Guybrush, Van Winslow, and Morgan LeFlay in a strange situation after the events of last episode's cliffhanger. I didn't mention it in my review of the last game, but this applies all the games in the series after the first episode. Telltale does a nice job of filling the player in on the events of the last episode, while also making the recap fit into the spirit of the series. The voodoo lady tells the story of the previous events while reading tarot cards. The tarot cards represent the various characters in the game, and the fates that have or will befall them. The tarot reading fits nicely into the heavy voodoo theme that is in the background of the series. Alison Ewing does such an excellent job portraying the character, taking on the role from Leilani Jones Wilmore so well, that some gamers may not notice the difference in voice actresses.

Once again, since this is an episodic series, the control has remained unchanged in this episode. Once again, I found the combination keyboard for movement and mouse for object selection to be the best option. But the other control options are still here for those who might wish to use them. These options are the direct control by keyboard or joystick and the point and drag method that consists of clicking Guybrush and dragging him to where you want him to go. Note that the click and drag method is not quite as intuitive as point and click, since it requires releasing the mouse button to choose an object, and then clicking on Guybrush again. It's a somewhat complicated scheme, but the option to use just a mouse is there once again in some form for those who don't wish to use a keyboard or joystick while playing.

As usual, Michael Land has risen to the task of providing an excellent synthesized soundtrack for the game. While I still prefer live instruments, the synthesized music fits the mood well. Dominic Armato and Nikki Rapp once again perform wonderfully as Guybrush Threepwood and Morgan LeFlay. I was a bit disappointed that Van Winslow was relegated to his quarters for much of the episode due to his affliction with the pox, as I would have liked to have heard more of Roger Jackson's excellent comic delivery. Thankfully, the new characters are much more interesting in this episode. The insane explorer De Cava was a real treat, as were his crew. A "party dude" named Moose will be a treat for longtime fans of Telltale Games, as he bears a striking resemblence in both personality and appearance to Theodore Dudebrough, a character from Telltale's first game, Telltale Texas Hold'Em. I was also delighted to hear the return of Andrew Chaikin, a voice actor from the beginning who had to quit his role as Max after the first episode of Sam & Max Season One due to health issues. Here he plays a distrusting pirate named Bugeye, who sounds a lot like Phoney Bone from Telltale's Bone games, who was also played by Andrew Chaikin. The remaining character, Noogie, is also a fun character. He is a large, shy, yet jovial person who plays the music in the crew's improvised cantina. The three characters together make up a similar dynamic to a stereotypical fraternity, and like the androgynous merpeople, isn't like anything seen in Monkey Island before, yet somehow fits well in that universe. I was glad to see Morgan finally see the real Guybrush rather than the romanticized version she pictured in her head. It will be interesting to see how she feels about him now that she knows what he's really like. The biggest treat of the episode, however, comes in the form of the return of a popular character from previous Monkey Island games. I'm not going to spoil it, since the appearance is so much fun, but I will say that this appearance has made me appreciate the character much more than I ever have in the past. Whenever this character was in a scene, he completely stole the show.

Thankfully, the reused model issue isn't as much of a problem in this episode. I'm not sure if the new pirates still used the standard pirate models, but if they did, they were designed so well that I didn't even notice. The characters were not bland or generic, and the backgrounds and atmosphere had a surprising amount of variety despite the fact that the episode mostly took place inside the belly of a manatee. One stand out scene that I don't want to spoil too much involves the Voodoo Lady, a voodoo necklace, and a spell that lets someone control the body of another. Telltale did a wonderful job animating this scene. The animations alone made me laugh out loud.

In typical Telltale fashion, the third episode of the series learns from the mistakes of the second. This episode brings much more interesting new characters than the last, and due to that, doesn't seem to bog down in sections as much as the last episode. It was great to see Morgan discover the real non-romanticized Guybrush. The stand out moment of the episode is the return of a popular character in a role bigger and funnier than in any previous game. Lair of the Leviathan further cements Tales of Monkey Island as an excellent addition to the already excellent Monkey Island series.

Final Verdict:

4 out of 5

The Siege of Spinner Cay Review

This review was originally written for Associated Content on February 20, 2010. I can finally post this here as the rights have reverted back to me.

The game continues right where the last one left off, continuing the cliffhanger as Guybrush begins his search for the voodoo object that will remove the pox of LeChuck from the infected pirates of the Caribbean.

As this game is part of an episodic series, it uses the same interface as the last. For those who have chosen not to play the previous game, or who are reading this review without knowledge of the first, the game gives you three options of control. There is a direct control method using just a keyboard or a mouse, a combination of keyboard for movement and mouse to select options, and another option dubbed point and drag, where you click Guybrush and drag the mouse to move him around the screen. The click and drag method is a little cumbersome, as you have to release Guybrush to select objects, and then grab him again to move. The keyboard and mouse combination is the most intuitive, although it takes some time to get used to.

Michael Land's synthesized soundtrack is once again very fitting to the spirit of the series. The music sounds like it could fit right in with the music of any of the previous Monkey Island games. Dominic Armato and Alexandra Boyd once again provide stellar voices as Guybrush and Elaine. I'm happy to see Elaine here in her gubernatorial demeanor, being the stable third party in a dispute between a pirate and the ruler of the merpeople. Elaine has always been a strong character, so it's good to hear Alexandra Boyd give the character a voice for that dimension of her character, something she wasn't able to do in Curse of Monkey Island, where Elaine was relegated to a damsel in distress role. Unfortunately, the new pirate characters introduced in this episode are not memorable at all, and because half of the game has Guybrush dealing with them, the game's pace seems a little bogged down at times. Luckily, the rest of the new characters are much more memorable. There are two new standout characters in this episode: the pirate bounty hunter Morgan LeFlay, and an androgynous merperson named Anemone. Nikki Rapp, who is a new voice actress to the series, but who previously played Lili in Psychonauts, gives a great performance as Morgan. She has a youthful, almost innocent quality to her voice, yet at the same time the way she delivers the lines is powerful and at times even intimidating. Sirenetta Leoni gives a great performance as Anemone. In this game, merpeople are androgynous creatures where there is no division of gender in their language. Anemone's voice itself has an androgynous quality to it, and really adds to the likability of the character in my opinion. The human form of LeChuck is especially entertaining, as he is portrayed as trying to be good although he has no idea how to do it. He is voiced wonderfully by Kevin Blankton, who gives the character almost the prestigious voice Earl Boen gave the mock-human form of Charles L. Charles, but with a bit more naivité in is voice.

In order to cut down on file size so the game could be released within the WiiWare limits, the developers used two main models for the characters with different features to distinguish them from other characters. This is especially noticeable with the new pirate characters, whose similarity seems to add to their easily forgotten nature. In contrast to the new main characters, the incidental characters are lacking in variety. When they aren't used often, it's not noticeable, but when they are used as much as they are in this game, it detracts from the experience somewhat.

Conclusion The second episode of Tales of Monkey Island is not quite as memorable as the last episode, marred a bit by the new forgettable pirate characters. The new characters of Morgan LeFlay and Anemone make up for this somewhat, as do the on-character portrayals of Elaine and Guybrush, and the hilarious new form of human LeChuck. It doesn't quite reach the highs of the first episode, but it's still a worthy addition to the Monkey Island series.

Final Verdict:

4 out of 5

Launch of the Screaming Narwhal Review

This review was originally written for Associated Content on February 19, 2010. I can finally post this here as the rights have reverted back to me.

Monkey Island is the most popular adventure game series by LucasArts, but the latest chapter in the saga sees some changes. It's the first Monkey Island game not developed by LucasArts. This time, LucasArts licensed the property to Telltale Games. Like all of Telltale's other adventure games, it was released in monthly episodes over a period of five months. However, to keep the spirit of Monkey Island, each episode is a chapter with a cliffhanger, with the next episode taking place immediately after the last. The episodes are chapters, which coincide with the chapter breaks between each of the four original Monkey Island games. The developers are a mixture of old and new. Ron Gilbert, the originator of the Monkey Island idea, although not actively participating in the development of Tales, was brought in to collaborate with the designers during the early brainstorming sessions. Dave Grossman, one of the three original developers, is the director for the entire series. Also, Mike Stemmle, the project co-leader on Escape from Monkey Island, is a writer on Tales. LeChuck is the primary protaganist at the beginning of the Launch of Screaming Narwhal, but from there things get interesting. Guybrush, in typical bumbling fashion, breaks the final ingredient of the sword that is supposed to kill LeChuck once and for all. He improvises the final ingredient, and ends up turning LeChuck human and cursing his own hand as well as the rest of the surrounding Caribbean islands with the evil energy of LeChuck.

After the failed battle with LeChuck, Guybrush lands on Flotsam Island, where the winds are constantly blowing inward, preventing anyone from escaping. Guybrush must find out a way to escape, and finds an odd boat called The Screaming Narwhal, which was constructed with debris that were brought to the island by the hazardous winds. He meets several new characters, of which three really stand out. Davey Nipperkin is the first person Guybrush meets, and is a reporter for the local newspaper. He is starving for real pirate news, and begs Guybrush to do some destructive deeds so he can have some sensational news to report, and outscoop his competition. Reginald Van Winslow is the captain of the Screaming Narwhal, and will do anything to prevent another pirate from overtaking his helm. Finally, there's the Marquis de Singe. He is a doctor who is known to experiment on the pirates of Flotsam Island. He takes a keen interest in Guybrush's cursed hand, and wants to amputate it in order to study it in the name of science.

The game uses a similar interface to Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures, which abandoned the traditional point and click method for either a direct control method with a controller or keyboard, or a combination of a keyboard to move and a mouse to select objects. Here, the former two options are available, but a third option has been added. This method has been coined click and drag, and consists of clicking Guybrush with your mouse, and dragging him to where you wish to take him. I found this option quite cumbersome, as you had to release Guybrush before clicking on an object with which to interact. I found the keyboard and mouse option the most suitable. It takes a while to get used to, but after a while it becomes mostly second nature. It's definitely a lot more intuitive than the direct control method LucasArts employed in Grim Fandango and Escape from Monkey Island. Monkey Island games are known for combining inventory objects, and the Telltale Tool engine Telltale uses for their games has formerly lacked this option. They added it to the engine in Tales of Monkey Island, and it is a quite different than the method used in the other games in the series. The inventory is selected by clicking on the tab on the right side of the screen. An inventory object is selected, and then put into the upper slot on the left side of the inventory screen. At this point, another inventory object is selected and put into the lower slot on the left side of the inventory screen. Then, the plus sign is clicked to combine the objects. It's a bit cumbersome, but it works. Inventory combining was one thing fans have been asking for since Telltale's earliest games, so I'm glad to see it finally available in the engine.

The soundtrack is composed once again by the man who composed all of the previous Monkey Island game soundtracks, Michael Land. Rather than using live instruments as he did in Curse of Monkey Island, he once again uses synthesized instrumentals. There are versions of classic scores, such as the famous Monkey Island theme, but there are also new tunes. The music works in the game world really well, and holds up to the high standards of the music in the previous games. The voices are well done, as is expected by Bay Area Sound, the sound studio that manages the voice work in Telltale's games. Two of the previous characters are voiced by the same people who voiced them in LucasArts' Curse of Monkey Island. The first of the two voice actors who have returned is Dominic Armato, who has voiced Guybrush Threepwood in every Monkey Island game to date (except LeChuck's Revenge, which has not yet had a version released with voiceover work). His delivery is exceptional as always. The other returning voice actor is Alexandra Boyd as Elaine. She was the voice of Elaine in Curse and the special edition of Monkey Island 1. An American voice actress voiced Elaine in Escape from Monkey Island. She inflicts just the right amount of emotion in Elaine's voice, and fits the character perfectly. The new characters are all voiced well, with the standout being Jared Emerson Johnson as the Marquis De Singe. He gives the character a not-quite French voice that is booming with insanity and a little bit of insecurity. The voice makes him the stand out character of the episode, even more-so than the series regulars, in my opinion. Mac users get a bonus. At the time of this writing, the Macintosh version is the only version to feature the original voice actor of LeChuck, Earl Boen, as the Zombie Pirate form in Launch of the Screaming Narwhal. He sounds much better than Adam Harrington, who originally played the Zombie pirate before Telltale could get Mr. Boen in the role. The PC downloadable version has not yet been updated to use the new voice files, but the upcoming DVD release should have those changes.

Like all of the other games by Telltale, the games take place in a complete 3D environment. This is in contrast to Escape from Monkey Island, which used 3D characters with pre-rendered backgrounds due to the restrictions of the technology of the time. The contrast between the sharp backgrounds and the blocky characters was noticeable, and hurt public opinion of the series at the time. Luckily, technology has caught up enough where the 3D environments and characters fit each other, as well as fit the mood of the series. Technology still hasn't caught up to the point where the 3D characters will rival the hand drawn art of Curse of Monkey Island, but the art is appealing its own way. Each of the five Monkey Island games had their own sense of art direction, and the art direction in Tales of Monkey Island fits the mood and humor of the series.

The first episode of Tales of Monkey Island is a fitting continuation of the long running series. Michael Land's soundtrack is wonderful. The return of Dominic Armato and Alexandra Boyd as Guybrush and Elaine is most welcome. The inclusion of Earl Boen in the Mac version of the game and the upcoming DVD PC version is much more fitting than the previous voice of LeChuck, and makes the series feel more connected to the previous games. The new characters are fun, and the voice of the Marquis de Singe is wonderfully twisted, and a stand out among the rest of the talented cast. Fans of the series will not be disappointed. It's been a long nine years, but it has been worth the wait.

Final Verdict:

4½ out of 5

Stacking Review

Double Fine established a reputation for making games with creative designs, quirky characters, and humorous writing.  Stacking definitely continues that tradition, with a game that transforms the adventure genre in a gratifying way, making the characters themselves the inventory.

Stacking stars a family of Matryoshka dolls, or Russian nesting dolls, who are all blacksmiths.  Being nesting dolls, they all vary in size, and fit inside of each other.  The youngest, Charlie Blackmore, is the smallest child in the world, and is the only doll who is in one piece, as he is the smallest of any stack.  This gives him a unique ability, being able to stack himself inside of other dolls, as long as he always makes stacks of a doll just one size bigger than the last.  There are benefits to stacking inside of other dolls, as each doll has their own ability.  Some dolls are one of many, but there are unique dolls who Charlie must find in order to use their ability to solve his goals.  Throughout the game, Charlie must solve puzzles in order to progress.  There are multiple ways to do so, but Charlie only has to find one way in order to proceed.  He can solve the puzzles in the additional ways, which will increase the percentage of completion tally, and often give you an opportunity to jump inside a doll that Charlie was unable to stack inside previously.  The puzzles are all well done, and although some of the puzzle logic gets a little crazy at time, each puzzle solution fits the world of Stacking well.  If you get stuck, you can access the menu for hints, which are presented in a helpful three part form, similar to the old Universal Hint System files, or Sierra's hint books that came with red decoders that would only reveal part of the solution.  The first hint given is vague, the second hint gives you a little bit more information, and the third clue tells you directly what to do to solve the puzzle.  This is a nice way to present hints, and the diversity of the amount of hints given should satisfy both adventure game newcomers and veterans alike.

The game is set in the early 20th century, before child labor laws went into effect.  The art style fits the era, presenting the story in a silent film style, and presenting the world as if it was created on a set, complete with ropes used for set changes, as well as curtain calls.  Like most of Double Fine's lower budget downloadable titles, there are no voice overs, so the silent film presentation works as a nice, fitting substitute.  The entire game has an old camera filter, which makes it look like dated film.  Since the characters are dolls, the world is populated with doll sized objects, such as bottle caps and crayons, which are used for things such as furniture and hats.  The music also fits the style of the game, made in a silent film era style, with happy piano music on the scenes with Charlie, and villainous music when the game's bad guy, the fittingly over-the-top villain, the Baron, appears.  The storyline is delightfully silly, poking fun at the class struggles of the era (which still ring true today), and there are plenty of visual jokes centered around the fact that all of the characters are nesting dolls.  The game's finale is great fun, with a final boss puzzle that is clever, yet deceptively simple, and works great for the game.  I always enjoy well done final boss puzzles in adventure games, and this one ranks right up there with the best.

Stacking is not a traditional adventure game, but it definitely has adventure elements at its core.  The art style fits the 1920's setting, opting for a silent film era film, complete with excellent music which fits the mood of the game well.  It also has a charming story, with a lot of puzzles to solve.  There are multiple solutions to puzzles, with a tally kept of which ways a puzzle has been solved, as well as a tally of all unique dolls into which Charlie has stacked.  So, if you want to find everything this game has to offer, you'll find that the game does offer quite a bit of replay value.  If you don't mind playing adventure games that try something new, then Stacking is definitely worth picking up.  It's one of the best non-traditional adventure games I've played.

Final Verdict:

4½ out of 5