Category: Reviews

Does ‘The Curse of Monkey Island’ let the franchise down?

The Curse of Monkey Island opening screen

I’ve had a lot of people ask me if it’s worth playing the third instalment of the Monkey Island series, and it’s a question I asked myself, too.

When I played The Secret of Monkey Island for the first time a few years ago, I loved it. The humour was really something else, the puzzles were challenging but well-designed, and the story captivating. I was even more blown away by Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. It made such an impression on me that I sat gazing at the end credits in sheer elation. There aren’t many games that do that for me.

While it was natural to continue my swashbuckling in The Curse of Monkey Island, I was reluctant. Released six years after MI2, it’s something of a departure from the first two games; the art style is more cartoonish, there’s a coin interface in place of the verbs; and most importantly, it was developed under a different team. No Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman or Tim Schafer.

The Curse of Monkey Island cartoon graphics

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not that much of a snob that I turn my nose up because my heroes are absent from the taskforce, but the perfectly balanced writing and design from that trio is hard to beat.

And don’t forget I’m coming to this 22 years later. By now Gilbert is an established veteran of the genre, and there’s a bit of a community coldness towards ‘non-canon’ Monkey Island – fuelled more so by the loss of the Monkey Island rights and Disney’s refusal to give them back. (No petitions please, we’ve been over this.) I imagine Curse wasn’t so tainted back in 1998.

Anyway, I went in with an open mind.

Cartoon vs pixel art

At first I was like, eugh, this is so ‘Disneyed up’ (even before they got their hands on the IP). Facial expressions are dreamy and goggle-eyed, there are giant swirls of colour in the backgrounds, and everything looks like it’s made out of rubber. It made me miss the dark, moody hues of the first Monkey Island.

The Curse of Monkey Island Elaine
Oh hey, Belle.
Secret of Monkey Island lookout
That’s better.

LeChuck’s Revenge is a bit brighter, and perhaps closer to the colour palette of Curse, but still, the latter feels flat and lacking depth. But it’s a more modern time, and it makes sense to update graphics from the pixel-heavy artwork of the earlier games – and while I didn’t play them until adulthood, there’s probably still a bit of ‘faux nostalgia’ factoring into my critique.

And that’s not to say I didn’t warm to the artwork as I got further through it. While my least favourite are the close-ups character profiles, there are some really beautiful wide shots.

The Curse of Monkey Island town

Coin interface vs verbs

Again, these kinds of changes are necessary to move forward. In the Space Quest games I hated the transition from the (supposed) freedom of the text parser to a coin setup, but here it works quite well. It’s much less intrusive, only appearing when I want to investigate something, and it’s more mouse-friendly.

One thing I found is that it’s not always obvious when an action changes (such as when  ‘talk’ becomes ‘taste’), but hey, that’s all part of the puzzle. I actually grew to really appreciate little subtleties in the game like this.

In this example, the object I was looking at changed its label after Guybrush inspects it more thoroughly. Genius.

The Curse of Monkey Island - authentic native maskThe Curse of Monkey Island - product of LuxembourgThe Curse of Monkey Island - semi-authentic native mask

Nice touches

There are other nice touches throughout, such as the town clock that keeps real time. It took me a little while to notice, but again that’s the beauty.

Something I didn’t expect to match the earlier games is the humour, but there are some really smart moments where the game pokes fun at itself and the genre, continuing the sharp satire from MI1 and 2. There are some stellar moments of pointed realism.

Curse of Monkey Island - cryptCurse of Monkey Island - crypt 2

Curse of Monkey Island - crypt 3
MIC DROP.

Unintuitive puzzles

Unfortunately, the puzzle construction is where the game really fell down for me, and perhaps is what makes it less popular among LucasArts fans than its predecessors.

A memorable example is the gold tooth puzzle. I won’t go into too much detail and risk spoilers, but if you’ve played it already you know what I’m talking about.

I knew I needed the gold tooth from Blondebeard’s mouth, and that I had a jawbreaker in my inventory. So far, so good. The next bit with the gum made sense, and off we go. Until–

Curse of Monkey Island - gold tooth Blondebeard

The next bit took me ages to figure out. I tried using everything in my inventory, in all sorts of imaginative ways, ultimately brute forcing each item and combination and still didn’t get anywhere. In the end I think I consulted the Universal Hint System to solve it.

I appreciate puzzles are a bit subjective; your approach will likely depend on an array of things, from your native language and vocabulary, capacity for remembering seemingly unimportant bits of dialogue, random events and of course your general puzzle-solving experience. It’s always a gamble for game designers to put themselves in the mind of the player given that not everyone thinks the same way about a problem.

I should note that I was playing on ‘Mega Monkey’ difficulty. In the easier mode, Guybrush can walk out of the shop with the tooth without being summoned back by Blondebeard, and the second part of the solution isn’t necessary. This makes me wonder if the convoluted second part was just bolted on to satisfy the Mega Monkey contingent; it might’ve been better to rethink the puzzle as a whole.

There are other puzzles like this (getting out of the snake; getting the map; accessing the crypt), and it was only once I got to part three that they seemed to be better thought out and more logical (without being ‘easy’). Having played the first two games the puzzles here just feel awkward and cobbled together.

Lack of polish

This awkwardness extends to the plot, too. The story development in Curse feels more disjointed than the first two games. It’s all a bit piecemeal, and just not as well held together. There’s a long stretch between most of the chapters and scenery changes, which gets a bit dull and frustrating, and I just didn’t get the same sense of fulfilment and completeness that I did with Secret and LeChuck’s Revenge.

As for the ending, I found it weak and anticlimactic, especially compared to MI2. Sure, the ending of LeChuck’s Revenge is controversial, but at least that means it’s interesting!

So should I play it?

Despite my whinging, I’d say yes, if you’ve played the first two then it’s worth it. Even if you end up agreeing with the cons I’ve drawn on above, there’s some great humour to be had, some of the puzzles are fun and challenging in the right ways, and it goes some way to tickling those nostalgia sensors.

As for Escape and Tales, that’s for another time…

198X: a side of Bombay potato

Yep, still running with these curry ratings. I’ve ranked this one Bombay potato because while the main component (tasty spuds) of the game is fantastic, there isn’t much narrative (sauce) holding it together. It’s a side dish because, as it turns out, this isn’t the full game (more on that later).

198X

198X (Hi-Bit Studios) follows the story of Kid, a lost soul trying to escape adolescence by retreating to the world of arcade games. Every time Kid masters a game, Kid grows stronger.

You might have noticed by the awkwardness of that sentence that I’m avoiding giving Kid a gender – that’s because it’s not explicit in the game or any promotional material I’ve read. Presumably it’s intentional – so let’s honour that.

The game is essentially a sequence of five classic arcade games: Beating Heart, a smooth beat ’em up à la Streets of Rage; Out of the Void, a calamitous space shoot-em-up; The Runaway racing game; Shadowplay, an autoscroller featuring a slashy ninja cat (my favourite); and finally Kill Screen, a dungeon-crawler RPG.

Screenshot of 198X Beating heart level

I like that there are no tutorials or hints – we’re plunged right into the first one and expected to make our way, much like we did in the days of yore. Each one is a refreshing change of genre, and I really admire the ambitious development behind that idea. It’s bold, and it’s what put the game on my radar in the first place.

Screenshot of 198X The Runaway

However, putting that many genres into one game poses an obvious problem; not everyone is going to enjoy all of them and I wonder if that might alienate some players since you can’t progress without completing them all. For example, I’m not so familiar with dungeon crawler games. I ended up getting help with that part, which was a shame, particularly as it ended up being the final part (again, more on that later).

A weak story

These mini-game challenges are all loosely held together by cutscenes that advance the narrative. Except they don’t, really, and that’s my issue with this game. The arcade sequences are fun, but the parts in between just don’t cut it. The story isn’t developed enough to hold it together – I’m fed a tiny morsel of teenage grump, and then it’s on to the next arcade segment. As a result I don’t find myself caring about Kid or wanting to know what will happen to them.

Screenshot of 198X Kid and mom

What little is there is never fully fleshed out – Kid’s a teenager navigating the difficulties of adolescence, and what’s new? We’re not told specifically what Kid is struggling with – it’s just a pre-packed, clichéd setup that feels a bit lazy. Sure, I found escapism in games too, but are we meant to think a few stints in the arcade has solved Kid’s problems?

As a result, it just feels like I’m playing a compilation of remastered old games that don’t have any context apart from my own, subjective nostalgia. It’s a shame, because it starts out really strong.

Enthralling music and beautiful, animated pixel art

I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all bad, because it isn’t, and it will naturally depend on your expectations (mine were high).

The music, scored by Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage and soon to be Streets of Rage 4), is one of the best things about it. It’s like I’ve gone back in time and someone has polished those old sounds to make them ultra-pristine. Each piece complements the different genres perfectly.

Screenshot of 198X kid on bed

The other thing that struck me is the use of pixel art in the cut scenes. I’ve played a lot of games with great pixel art recently, but it’s mostly static. In 198X there’s so much detail in the movement, and it really ramps up the atmosphere. The use of light and colour is mesmerising and if you’re a fan of cyberpunk, you’ll love this style.

Screenshot of 198X house and cat

The abrupt ‘ending’ (spoiler-free)

Abrupt, and in my case, completely unexpected.

I didn’t realise this was an episodic game. When I first added it to my Steam wishlist there was no mention of it. At the time of writing, there still isn’t on the Playstation version. A quick scan through some of the other reviews suggests I’m not the only one, either.

At two hours’ gameplay it’s pretty short regardless, but had I been aware of a sequel I might’ve been a little less shocked when, after a bit of narrative plonked after Kill Screen, it sharply braked to a stop. There’s no indication of when the next part will be released, how many parts there will be, or what the cost is. And on that note, £13.99 (15.30 euros) seems steep, and there’s very little replayability past what you could get from an emulator or classics compilation.

Granted, it’s probably worse for those who have been following the game for a while. I already knew a lot about the style, concept and gameplay so none of that was a surprise, but I didn’t know about the decision to make it episodic. If however you came to it fresh, you’d likely be wowed by the setup and probably aware that it’s not the full game.

I can only assume all the time and energy put into the arcade games (which I appreciate would’ve been a lot) meant there was less time to fully develop the plot. The arcade games are so refined and fun to play, the pixel art and music are some of the best I’ve experienced, but the supporting narrative just falls flat.

Screenshot of 198X night sky

6/10

The first instalment of 198X is available on Steam, GOG, Playstation 4, and coming soon to Nintendo Switch and Xbox One.

Unforeseen Incidents: a punchy vindaloo

That’s right, I’m now rating video games on a curry scale.

On reflection, using ‘unforeseen incidents’ and ‘vindaloo’ in the same heading might give the wrong impression.

Anyway, now that I’ve put you off your lunch…

UnforeseenIncidents_Promo_HotelTitle_small

Unforeseen Incidents (Backwoods Entertainment) is a modern point-and-click adventure following handyman Harper Pendrell as he uncovers a mysterious epidemic sweeping the nation.

I finished playing it last month and it left a huge smile on my face. Here’s why.

1. The lovingly hand-drawn artwork

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From the first screenshots, the artwork really grabbed me. I’m a big fan of Quentin Blake and this style reminds me of his work. The sketchy line-drawn art is really captivating – despite the similarities with Blake I didn’t find it at all childish or gimmicky, but raw and edgy. The use of colour and shading dramatises it so well, as do the gorgeous wild, outstretching Canadian-style backdrops. With every scene change I took a moment to take in the detail. Clearly a lot of thought has been put into these elements.

2. The self-referencing, tongue-in-cheek humour

Much of the dialogue and characterisation is amusing and slightly satirical, letting you know that despite all the drama the game doesn’t take itself too seriously. But what really hit my funny bone is Harper’s commentary as he struggles with the absurdity of what’s going on. His frequent asides also did a lot to draw me into the story and make me feel like we were discovering things together.

Unforeseen Incidents 25_02_2019 18_13_28Unforeseen Incidents 25_02_2019 18_13_47Unforeseen Incidents 25_02_2019 18_14_03

The voice acting from Matthew Curtis (Harper) is spot on – his cynical remarks are delivered perfectly deep and deadpan, but with the right amount of agitation when it’s called for in moments of sheer panic towards the end. Harper is a totally relatable dude, not a caricatured superhero – and like most of the characters in the game he’s believable without being dull.

While some of the story is slightly predictable, it tries not to pander to the usual stereotypes and the humour really helps that. One of the best moments for me was right at the end.

**MILD SPOILER ALERT**

Harper and Helliwell’s relationship seems to be following that well-trodden path of dopey guy meets smart girl; girl teases guy; guy tries too hard; girl relents; they live happily ever after. Sure enough, in the final shot Harper leans in for a kiss – oh, here we go. But then Helliwell cuts him off, dryly informing him that ‘it’s not one of those moments’. The way that scene slices through the heavy drama and crashes us back down to Earth is just perfect.

**SPOILER-FREE ZONE**

3. The inspiration – The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Canada

Fans of cult TV shows are in for a treat. The Pacific Northwest landscape and eerie goings-on are heavily inspired by the likes of The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Fargo, and there are some nice little references (but not enough to get annoying).

Unforeseen Incidents 02_12_2018 18_20_56.png

There’s also a strong Canadian inspiration. Many of the characters are named after streets in British Columbia – such as Harper, Pendrell (where Scully’s apartment was!), Rupert, Denman, Jervis and Cardero. Helliwell Bluffs is a set of cliffs in Helliwell provincial park. Yaletown – like the game’s Yelltown – is a hip neighbourhood in downtown Vancouver.

Canada is my favourite country outside of my own, and its best elements – stunning scenery, rich culture and dry wit – are well represented here.

4. The harmonious soundtrack

I’ve talked about this in an earlier post, but the music in this game is so beautiful. It’s integrated in a way that’s complementary without being imposing, to the point where you barely notice it.

I particularly love the hotel track, which is so very Twin Peaks. That whole segment is put together perfectly – the gentle, creeping music; the glow of the TV and aquarium; and the humble reception manned by a downbeat bellhop. It’s one thing to nail the atmosphere, artwork, characterisation and music in a game – but harmonising those things together takes skill.

5. The eclectic mix of puzzles

The style of puzzle varies throughout the game, keeping it fresh and challenging. Some are your standard point-and-click fare – combine item A with object B to make item C. Others ask you to follow instructions such as a recipe book in your inventory or notes from a friend. There are also recurring visual puzzles in the form of hacking computers (Pipemania style), or triangulating radio signals to find a new location.

Unforeseen Incidents 21_03_2019 18_12_44

A lot of the bigger puzzles rely on memory (sometimes notetaking), and it’s important to listen carefully to the dialogue. Don’t let that put you off – the puzzles are pretty logical if you pay attention.

Having said that, there are a few that left me absolutely stumped and begrudgingly resorting to online help (there’s no in-game hint system). I won’t spoil them here, but if you know what I’m talking about – the reservoir puzzle, and the pads on the island.

Add to that anything that involves working out a password. I just didn’t see the logic or clear pathway that would lead to those solutions – they were a bit of a stretch. In the case of the pads puzzle, I think the main problem is that more than one answer seems to fit, so there’s a lot of trial and error.

6. Reactive gameplay

One thing I really noticed playing through the puzzles and interactions is that the game responded dynamically. That is, I got different responses or outcomes depending on where I’d got to in the puzzle chains or story. If Harper didn’t know why he needed a sandwich, he wasn’t interested. This is one of the few games I’ve played where that’s achieved almost perfectly. It’s logical, and the characters are behaving like real humans instead of churning out dialogue that doesn’t make sense or giving hints to something out of sequence. In my experience of adventure games, that’s not easy to accomplish.

Not without its niggles

While the game itself was great, I did experience some of the technical issues that others have talked about.

The transitions between scenes hang quite a bit, and I was often left in darkness wondering if it had crashed. Unfortunately the game actually did crash at quite a crucial moment towards the end (when Harper is in the ‘chair’), meaning I had to redo a lengthy sequence to get back to it. From what I’ve read this doesn’t seem to be hardware related. But not enough to put me off playing, or recommending.

So… buy it!

Unforeseen Incidents is available from Steam, GOG the Humble Store and directly from Application Systems Heidelberg (Unforeseen’s German distributor).

At the time of writing, Backwoods have just announced a Switch release – so even those people don’t have an excuse now. Settle down, engage your brain and let the mystery pull you in. Maybe even seal the deal with a curry.

9/10

Tetris Effect: my favourite game on acid

That heading makes it sound like I enjoyed it. Spoiler: I did not.

Like most kids who grew up in the 90s, Tetris has long been one of my favourite games. I first played it on the Game Boy, then religiously on my Mega Drive (before you get excited, it’s a knock-off multicart). Its simple, tile-placing format makes it the perfect game for mindless achievement – since my childhood I’ve whiled away countless hours trying to beat the current world record holder (only 813,133 points off).

Tetris-Game Boy
Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy, 1989

So when I heard about Monstars Inc/Resonair’s Tetris Effect I was cautiously excited. Cautiously, because whenever there’s a reboot or remake of anything my standard response is disappointment. The art of revamping a treasured classic while retaining what made it so great is nigh on impossible.

It’s no surprise, then, that I’m not a fan. As I suspected, the snazzy effects are all too much. I didn’t really feel nostalgic in the warmest sense – it was more like back in the 90s someone had come along and set my TV on fire in the middle of my game (‘warm’ in the wrong sense).

Tetris-3
What Tetris piece?

Sure, the visuals and music are impressive, and there are some clever subtleties – such as the music matching your movements, which is reminiscent of other rhythmic games I’ve enjoyed (She Wants Me Dead). But the pumping, club-scene overlay is far too overwhelming and detracts so much from the game (especially on higher levels). The concept is supposedly inspired by the so-called Tetris effect (or Tetris syndrome), which I find a bit ironic given that ultimately you can’t see the blocks well enough to hallucinate them later. The ‘effects’ are more like side effects from a migraine.

Tetris-2
What eyesight?

I can hear people saying ‘that’s the point – it makes it a harder game!’ And I guess that’s key – the aim of Tetris Effect is quite different from classic Tetris. It’s not just about clearing lines and maintaining technique in faster-paced levels; it’s doing those things through a filter of increasingly trippy neon animations. Some of them are pretty, but it’s almost a bit cheap – I would prefer to see variations in the actual puzzle mechanics.

EuroGamer named Tetris Effect their 2018 Game of the Year, stating ‘It makes for the perfect drug’. Perhaps, then, I’m missing the point – it’s not about nostalgia, more about transporting the player to an ‘altered state’. While that works with games like Rez (also produced by Mizuguchi), I don’t think it blends well with what people recognise from the original game. That’s overcomplicating the classic premise of Tetris.

Sure enough, Eurogamer goes on to say ‘I don’t think gaming gets any purer than this’ – and this is my issue. It’s not ‘pure’ Tetris at all – it’s quite the opposite. Tetris was successful because it used a very basic concept of slotting tiles together against the clock – it didn’t need over-styling. Why overcomplicate a game that thrived on its simplicity?

Tetris-4
I guess that’s quite nice

I accept, begrudingly, that this opinion is probably what you’d expect from a stubborn, traditionalist gamer like me. It ain’t like it used to be, yada yada, suck on a Werther’s, grandma. I know. While I’m not a fan of remakes it’s good to see developers playing with dated concepts and refreshing old game mechanics, and I bet a lot of ‘modern’ gamers would enjoy this one.

And sure, my beloved Mega Drive Tetris had dinosaurs and stone henge among its backgrounds, which could be considered distractions in themselves, though they were static and didn’t make me swirly-eyed. It also didn’t cost the equivalent of £30.

I have only played the demo, so I can’t speak for the whole game. I’ve also heard good things about the VR version, if you like that kind of immersion (it won ‘Best VR/AR game’ at the 2018 Game Critics Awards).

From what I’ve seen so far, Tetris Effect has mostly met with positive reviews, particularly with critics – but I’ve seen mixed opinions from gamers themselves.

Have you played Tetris Effect? What did you think?

My 2018 in video games: a (short) review

I played a lot of video games this year. I’m not even sure how I’ve fitted them in. This probably means there’s something much more important I forgot to do.

Anyway, here’s a rundown. Sometimes reviews like this can get a bit rambly, so I’ve restricted myself to five descriptive words or phrases per game. This will be interesting.

The Cave (Double Fine, 2013)

TheCave-Monk

Expertly interwoven, multifaceted, well-built, colourful characters, smooth gameplay.

8/10

What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017)

Edith-Finch

Clever mechanics, engaging, sensible length, nice visuals, weak story.

7/10

Maniac Mansion (LucasFilm, 1987)

Maniac-Mansion

Classic adventuring, tricky puzzles, dark humour, fantastic theme music, mean dead-ends.

7.5/10

Thomas Was Alone (Mike Bithell, 2012)

Thomas-Was-Alone

Quirky, stripped back, insecure cuboids, relaxing, nice puzzles.

6.5/10

Midnight Scenes: Highway and The Goodbye Note (Octavi Navarro, 2018)

Midnight-Scenes

Moody noir, eerie, bitesize fun, simple puzzles, beautiful art.

8/10

The Secret of Monkey Island (LucasArts, 1990)

Monkey-Island

Laugh-out-loud humour, genius puzzles, no-die safety, great unfolding, must-play classic.

9/10

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (LucasArts, 1991)

MI2

Wet-myself humour, self-referential, ahead of its time, brilliant score, brave ending.

10/10

Inside (Playdead, 2016)

Inside

Dark humour, mysteriously dystopian, gory puzzles, oozing atmosphere, flat ending.

8/10

Little Nightmares (Tarsier Studios, 2017)

Little-Nightmares

Other-worldly horror, amazing graphics, great monsters, pulse-racing, slightly frustrating.

7/10

Hidden Folks (Adriaan de Jongh, Sylvain Tegroeg, 2017)

Hidden-Folks

Charming, light-hearted, amusing sounds, creative, mindless fun.

8/10

A great mixture, and I enjoyed every one of them. I’m looking forward to what games 2019 brings!

Postscript: my favourite video game music in 2018