I remember the palpable excitement when Telltale's Sam & Max: Season One was announced--as though the crushing weight of the dashed hopes of an entire genre had been lifted. I also remember distinctly the feeling when the review copy for that first game came out, and how years of repressed point-and-click cartoon adventure love came rushing out of me, like a rediscovery of my childhood. Those were magical times.
These are different times now--though don't mistake me, the announcement that Telltale Games had taken perhaps the most sacred and beloved adventure gaming franchise (one thought to be dead for certain) and licensed it from LucasArts for new episodes was met with delighted surprise by me, and every other fan who grew up with these games--because we all played Monkey Island and we all have favorite dialogue lines and we all can discuss our favorite and least favorite puzzles from the series, and we all can recognize the myriad inside jokes in other games that the series generated. The lore of MI is a part of our adventure gaming culture. Add to that the fact that Telltale has become an unquestioned torch-bearer of the genre by spending the last two years producing quality adventure games, constantly raising the bar of expectations to the point where simple fan-service is no longer good enough, and the pressure to create an instant classic with each release is much more intense--so you can start to understand why Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is a good, but moderately underwhelming game.
Narwhal, the first episode of what promises to be a five-part monthly downloadable series, opens with a classic MI-style confrontation in which Guybrush clumsily fumbles about attempting to save his lovely bride Elaine from the dreaded undead pirate LeChuck--and in the process puts into motion a terrible chain of events that sets up the forthcoming adventure, beginning with the first episode in which our hero finds himself washed up on Flotsam Island--a mysterious place where crushing winds seem to prevent any hope of sailing away and saving your love. Getting off of Flotsam, and learning about the mysterious item needed to defeat LeChuck once and for all (or at least until the next iteration), are the primary goals in this first episode.
All of this is handled with the requisite touch of humor--mostly of the family-friendly, only-semi-dark variety. The writing, by former LucasArts veteran Mike Stemmle, is reminiscent of the slightly safer, tame variety that characterized the first half of Sam & Max’s initial season. The biting, droll sarcasm of Monkey Island 2 is mostly absent, and thus the brand of humor is more along the lines of "nice smiles" than loud laughter and a lot of pretty obvious puns. The new supporting characters introduced are mainly pirates with distinctly un-pirate-like quirks who are mostly forgettable--the one exception is a sadistic island doctor with a powdered wig, lipstick, and a thirst for amputation, and he is almost frighteningly creepy and fails to be very funny in the process. Besides the main three stars, the game does feature the return of a familiar supporting character who has most of the episode's best lines (and who will apparently play a very important part in the season's story arc), but most of the new character and location content created for this episode doesn't seem to have much staying power.
As is almost guaranteed with a Telltale game, the graphics and sound elements are top notch. The characters can be a bit angular and shiny, but Narwhal is a beautiful, colorful game with diversity in the design of the various town buildings and some exceptionally animated visual gags. The voice work is very good, particularly the welcomed return of Dominic Armato as Guybrush Threepwood. There is not much opportunity for the music to shine on its own, the way that it often did in the Sam & Max series, but what is offered always seems appropriate and frames the Caribbean environment very well. The consistency of Telltale's technical excellence in these areas continues to amaze.
If you are prepared for a game that carries over the same familiar mechanics from Sam & Max, however, be ready to re-learn how to control an adventure game, because Telltale--rather curiously, in this writer's opinion--has decided to take a shot at reinventing the navigation wheel. Pointing and clicking will still be a necessary part of the adventure (as it's the only way to interact with objects) but all the clicking in the world won't send Guybrush anywhere. Instead, you are asked to click and hold on Guybrush, and then drag the cursor on the screen in the direction you want him to walk--as though he himself were the analog stick on a gamepad. It's an interesting idea in concept, and will surely please the vocal mouse-only crowd of adventure fans, but it’s one that I never got comfortable with. Thankfully, WASD and arrow key support are offered as alternatives, which I very quickly switched to. This isn’t the first Telltale series to make this switch, as Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures has also gone the direct control route, but I have trouble seeing what the benefit of this type of navigation overhaul is when pointing and clicking, however simple and traditional, has served games like Sam & Max so well. I also would have been happy to use a gamepad if full support was implemented, but the lack of object interaction with the gamepad here is another bizarre element of the interface decision.Continued on the next page...