Note: This review was written in cooperation with Future Sack editor Annagram.
With 3 years in the making, does Terrible Toybox’ Thimbleweed Park finally bring back the good old point-and-click adventure fun that games like Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s Maniac Mansion or Monkey Island popularized?
Thimbleweed Park (PC)
(USA 2017, developer/publisher: Terrible Toybox, platforms: PC, Xbox One, iOS)
An unknown dead body is found in the small town of Thimbleweed Park, and it’s up to two agents, a clown, game designer, and ghost to solve the mystery surrounding the death and surrounding area.
A town of strangers and stranger people
A humorous adventure game doesn’t usually offer a suspenseful, deep or even moving story, but in case of Thimbleweed Park, there isn’t just a great playable cast with memorable NPCs, but a plot that is as interesting as it’s full of twists and turns. It doesn’t happen very often that the player is surprised with each new chapter, but suffice it to say that for a rather long playtime of around 14 hours, the game never outstays its welcome and offers a story that goes in directions one can’t predict and that remains as one of the best in the genre. The influence of Twin Peaks is tangible with the setting and some weird occurrences, but just like Kathy Rain, it doesn’t prevent the game from telling a unique story.
While agents Ray and Reyes seem to be reminiscent of FBI agents Mulder and Scully in the X-Files TV show and Ransome the Clown could be a reference to a certain Stephen King creation, they’re all characters with their own agendas they follow and secrets they hide. Even if the agents never reach the same memorable appeal as the clown who is cursed to never take off his costume and who insults everything and everyone, their dialogues are still funny enough to stick out from the investigative characters crowd usually associated with detective games. Aspiring game developer Delores is probably the most interesting character the whole genre has brought out. Without going into detail, but her inclusion means that the whole metafiction about game design with an abundance of references to classic text and graphic adventures as well as prejudices against gaming is handled with more subtlety than it’s usually the case. Being her dad and also dead, the ghost Franklin might not be the most original character, but he adds more emotion to a game that switches between touching, sometimes scary, and often very funny scenes.
References to TV shows and adventure games aren’t the only things one can discover, as 80ies pop culture is mentioned in dialogues and seen on posters, which even goes so far as to be included in multiple-choice and programming/working-with-PC-equipment puzzles. The Kickstarter background is also felt throughout the game, but in a rather fun way. Including real names in the phone book isn’t that original, but adding text extracts in various books that cover a wide range of genres adds to the credibility of the game world. It’s reminiscent of the library on Phatt Island in Monkey Island 2 where one could read through texts just because it was fun.
Thimbleweed Park is full of people who lean towards the eccentric and absurd side of life, with a sheriff, coroner, and hotel receptionist who look and sound the same except for adding superfluous nonsense words at the end of their sentences, two brother plumbers dressed up as pigeons, or a woman who owns a shop with cursed items. With many streets and other sights like a cemetery, hotel, radio tower or even a mansion and circus to explore, the world of Thimbleweed Park is expansive, and it’s easy to get lost without a map. It can later be acquired for one character and in another chapter for all, but one still has to remember where all the places are in order to solve the even higher number of puzzles.
Funny retro feelings
Humor in adventure games is often hit or miss, and even if developers like Daedalic Entertainment or KING Art Games try to imitate the style of LucasArts titles, they never reach the same funny heights as the classics of yesteryear. Just looking at a game like Day of the Tentacle: Remastered shows that timing is everything and it doesn’t always have to be about making fun of the genre itself. While there are quite a few of these scenes, e.g. when mentioning that one can’t die here (which isn’t true actually, as there is a scene where this can happen) or when the original developers are sitting or standing side by side with characters from Maniac Mansion as their digital counterparts, one can turn off the more obvious references in the menu if it becomes too much.
Despite quite a lot of text, the dialogues never drag out and remain funny throughout. One has to be receptive to crude humor, though, because Ransome the Clown constantly delivers swear words by the second that consist of various “beeping” sounds, which is again made fun of later. Unlike in many modern games or humorous adventure imitators that desperately try to be funny, one doesn’t want to fast-click through dialogues (which isn’t even technically possible), but instead one tries out every dialogue option simply to listen to everything the characters have to say, something that is very rare these days when characters can’t seem to stop talking (as seen in The Longest Journey or Dreamfall Chapters: The Final Cut).
Puzzle solving like in the old days
There’s a fine line between pleasing the seasoned adventure gamer and newcomer, and while Thimbleweed Park veers off into obscure-puzzle-solution territory at times, it usually does a pretty good job to be both accessible without holding its audience’s hand too much. The quality of the puzzles is very high, because they’re not only interconnected and often require interactions between characters, but they’re imaginative, too. This is mostly because of the inventive use of each character’s unique abilities. The best example is Franklin who can’t store any real-world items or talk to people, but who can manipulate the environment, e.g. he can zap to switch channels on TVs or open doors, freeze or flush water. Delores is apt at programming and understanding technical things, while Ransom is very good at insulting people, something that might seem pointless at first, but in some situations necessary.
The main difficulty isn’t necessarily in using and combining objects, but in the sheer number of tasks to fulfill, characters and places to remember. Not even taking into account that some objects can easily be overlooked (which isn’t helped by the lack of a hotspot function) and that one needs to try out even the most ridiculous ways to solve puzzles, one is overwhelmed with things to do. This isn’t really a bad thing, considering how linear most adventure games have become these days, it’s just that memorizing everything that has been said and that can be seen in locations isn’t for everyone. Fortunately, every character keeps a to-do list that isn’t only good for motivating the player, but it simply gives character-specific goals to follow, rarely leaving the player in the dark. If one still can’t figure out what to do, one can call a hint system via the in-game phone, a feature that has only recently been implemented. It takes a bit of patience to finally get a hint that refers to the current problem, but it’s done in a way that doesn’t give away everything right from the start.
Back to the past with the present technology
Graphically, one has the impression to play a game that could have been made in the early 90ies: low-res characters with few animations in backgrounds that are the epiphany of pixel art. If one looks closer, it becomes obvious that the game could only be made today, with light and shadow effects changing during character movement and the surrounding area being reflected on water surfaces. These are all nice touches and barely noticeable, to be honest, if one doesn’t pay close attention. Gamers who are used to modern adventure games with 3D character models and all sorts of fancy shader effects will have a hard time to adjust, no matter how many small details the graphics engine can provide. However, if one loves pixel art, one will have wonderfully drawn backgrounds like the beautiful look from a hilltop with a sundown and birds flying around, in addition to well-designed characters who don’t look alike despite their low-res quality.
The sound design is just as polished with particularly good voice acting and a score that is appropriate for each scene and mood, ranging from foreboding to funny and tragic, even offering some shock value. It’s interesting to note that despite the old-school visuals and sounds, there are quite a few disturbing and shocking moments created with this minimalist approach. It never gets as graphic as in The Cat Lady or, to stay in less realistic pixel art presentation, Kathy Rain, though, but if one is easily frightened with sudden character appearances or disappearances because of a slowly moving camera, one should be prepared for this.
A forgotten classic gem that never existed
Thimbleweed Park is marketed as “an undiscovered LucasArts adventure game you’ve never played before”, and it’s no shallow PR talk. The game is simply one of the best the genre has to offer at the moment. If one can get past the low-res look and gets into the sometimes obscure puzzle solving zone, it rewards the player with hours of inventive conundrums, memorable characters, an amazing story, a setting that oozes atmosphere, and a very funny script. Playing with 5 characters isn’t a gimmick or something out of a tick-all-boxes advert, either, as it’s essential for the experience. The game might not always succeed with every puzzle or dialogue line, but as even the classic Lucasfilm Games/LucasArts titles of yesteryear weren’t perfect, either, this is the closest you’ll come to again experience that old love of fun adventuring.
Buy the Xbox One version on
the Xbox store
Buy the iOS version on
the iTunes store
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