Does LucasArts’ comic adventure game series survive the transition to 3D with Escape from Monkey Island?
Escape from Monkey Island (PC)
(USA 2000/2001, developer: LucasArts (now defunct), publishers: LucasArts (now defunct)/Disney, platforms: PC, PS2)
After returning home to Mêlée Island from their honeymoon, pirate Guybrush Threepwood and his wife Elaine Marley are informed that she has been declared dead and her position as governor has become endangered, with Australian newcomer Ozzie Mandrill putting himself up for election while trying to turn the Caribbean into a tourist trap.
Caribbean wind of change
After three games that more or less relied on the same formula of Guybrush going on a quest to prove he’s a real pirate, looking for Big Whoop or treasures in general, and being pestered by LeChuck, the story about a new villain who introduces foreign concepts like corporate tourism, thus interfering with pirates’ history of violence, drinking, and plundering is a refreshing turn for the series.
The further one progresses, the more ludicrous the plot becomes. Instead of Big Whoop, Guybrush is in search for the Ultimate Insult, which somehow makes sense with him having been confronted with various versions of insults before. Other narrative branches add to a much more interesting plot, too, as can be seen with Guybrush suddenly being accused of robbing a bank and therefore chasing the impostor. Only the rushed and over-the-top silly finale could have needed a bit more work.
Old and new characters
As the main focus of the story is also on the newly wed couple’ relationship, there’s more of a mature development that was only touched upon briefly before. This doesn’t mean that it becomes a drama or soap opera, as most of the two’s bantering and witty repartees are just for fun, but it makes both Guybrush and Elaine more endearing to the player who’s been with them for so many years.
Of course a few character mainstays, like the Voodoo Lady, salesman Stan or world-domination aspiring Murray from The Curse of Monkey Island make a return once again and they’re just as likable as before. Even Monkey Island hermit Herman Toothrot is given a much bigger role, one that might be the biggest story revelation the series has seen yet, although how far his connection to Guybrush makes sense is to anyone’s guess. The same goes for the monkeys who play an essential part, too.
The newest characters might not be instant classics, but they’re memorable and fun enough to hang arround with: Marco de Pollo, the star of plank divers who has a whole family history to tell, or a bank accountant who dreams of breaking into showbusiness, and a talking ship figurehead who constantly derides Guybrush’s decisions, to name but a few.
Funny asides and besides the point
Despite all the novelties in storytelling, the Caribbean atmosphere is left intact, with the game again using pirate themes and making fun of the adventure genre with quite a few nods to LucasArts/Lucasfilm titles of the past, e.g. having a character named Ron (as in Ron Gilbert) as the owner of the SCUMM bar (as in the original parser tool). At times, there are some not so subtle metafictional elements, like Guybrush throwing a dart in the direction of the player and the screen breaking. Self-awareness shines through in unexpected places, e.g. with a puppet show making fun of Guybrush’s and LeChuck’s animosity or one comment of the unlucky pirate that he sees his life as a “series of neverending puzzles”.
The humor is mostly quite good with some very funny dialogues, although sometimes it seems as if the developers use too many references to past games. Playing a short round of rhyming insult arm wrestling instead of sword fighting that has been done in all three games is a bit lame, to say the least. Other targets of humor with many bad jokes are lawyers, which goes so far as suing the game industry for increased hardware requirements, something that might just be a nod to the game’s own troubled 3D development history to keep up with modern tastes.
There are so many jokes and references that it can be overwhelming to spot them all. Ripping off movies like The Fugitive or literature from Jane Austen, there’s a scene in which one is looking for a man without a nose in a prosthetics shop and there’s a perfume stand called Scents and Sensibilities. Imperialism and consumerism are frequently satirized as well, e.g. with pirates being forced to fit the roles of dishwashers or waiters in Starbucks- or Planet Hollywood-like establishments, while they also have to attend a re-education school. It’s interesting to see how not only pirate history is changed, but how Guybrush’s character is used for making money without him knowing it, as can be seen in Planet Threepwood where all sorts of memorabilia and merchandise are promoted to make tourists believe in a watered-down Caribbean pirate world.
Puzzles of the abstract mind
Puzzles are both a blessing and a curse, as they again highlight the sort of imaginative and fun as well as obscure and sometimes nonsensical solutions LucasArts is known for. It doesn’t help that some items one can pick up are useless and only for jokes, e.g. building a monstrosity out of prosthetics. Still, there are so many goals to follow with enough clues and clear directions that one is seldom running around without knowing what to do. These can mostly be achieved in any order so that one can come back to problems one gets stuck on later.
While some conundrums are memorable and unique, they require more than a little bit of alternative lateral thinking. One particular time travel sequence tasks Guybrush to meet his future (or past self) and give him objects he will later need. Failing this comes down to not remembering the exact words in dialogues or the order in which one says them, while going through a maze-like misty swamp part adds to frustration, too. It all somehow makes sense, but even the more advanced players will have a hard time with getting his or her head around it.
There are a few other instances in which puzzle design doesn’t only become frustrating, but annoying, too, like throwing stones down a burrow-like structure. This requires perfect timing, as multiple stones roll through holes and have to hit each other along the way to change directions, which is made more difficult with the clunky movement controls. Another infuriating part is finding a hat on a beach that is buried under a very specific stone which can only be discovered if one asks two parrots (one lying, one telling the truth) if it’s the right one. As this sequence seems to go on forever through multiple screens, it’s not what one would call a lot of fun. Something of a mixed bag is a plank diving sequence in which one has to press the right buttons in the correct order to perform acrobatic stunts and win the judges’ best scores. Finding out why some of them only give a low score fares much better, as it starts another chain of better puzzles to solve.
Ready for Mooonkey Kombat!
The most annoying puzzle or mini-game is Monkey Kombat that is both too complicated and tedious but can’t be skipped. Obviously taking its cues from the one-on-one fighter Mortal Kombat, one has to defeat multiple monkeys with various combat moves. Basically relying on a paper-rock-scissors principle, but featuring a comprehensive list of fight stances, attacks, and counters, it’s impossible to solve this “puzzle” without taking notes.
Like the insult sword fighting in past games, one encounters various weaker or stronger enemies on a map, and only by applying the appropriate fight strategy is it possible to progress and finally defeat the ultimate monkey baddie. Just as with Midway’s arcade beat-em-up, both fighters have a life bar that is depleted more or less depending on one’s attacks, some of which are more efficient than others. Of course it’s a memorable mini-game, but for all the wrong reasons.
The terrible 3D controls almost take away all the fun in puzzle solving and exploration, as one constantly bumps into objects, people or invisible screen borders. With frequent camera changes, it’s difficult not to feel disoriented at times. As a lot of backtracking is involved, walking or running through each screen becomes painful. If one also has to quickly perform a certain action, e.g. interacting with objects in a sushi restaurant, then one is almost willing to bash either the keyboard or gamepad, as neither is very good at controling Guybrush whose animation and reaction times are anything but fast to match the situation. As there aren’t any point-and-click mouse controls, one has to rely on key or button input, which becomes excruciatingly cumbersome when scrolling through inventory objects or interacting with the environment. Even more annoying than the controls are some scripting bugs, resulting in character animations that are caught in a loop, e.g. having to wait for one chess player in vain to leave his seat so that one can talk to his partner, resulting in a dead end.
Technological stumbles and high-fives
The transition from 2D pixel art to 3D backgrounds and characters hasn’t done the series much good, as the former feature mostly lifeless locations and the latter are often rather ugly. It’s not as bad as the atrocity Simon the Sorcerer 3D, as the comic look remains and some of the animations are pretty good, but it doesn’t help the game’s aesthetics. However, the game engine makes for some nice cinematic cutscenes that might not be on par with the cartoon quality of The Curse of Monkey Island, but which still add some much-needed motion to proceedings. Voice acting and music are again great with convincing performances all around, while very catchy tunes and atmospheric set-pieces accompany each scenario or sequence appropriately.
Not a classic example of 3D failure
Escape from Monkey Island hasn’t the best reputation, as it was the final adventure game of LucasArts. By trying to capitalize on the 3D craze and to please console players, its art design and controls have suffered in the process. However, compared to the third Simon the Sorcerer game which failed on so many technical levels that it became almost unplayable, it’s still a very fun title to play today. It features a storyline that is refreshingly different from its precursors, has many memorable characters and imaginative puzzles to solve. Granted, the quality sometimes varies in writing and game design, but it still remains a game that ends the series on a high note, except for that legendarily frustrating Monkey Kombat mini-game.
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