Wednesday, July 2, 2014

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

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