Episode two has historically been a challenge for Telltale--and understandably so, as the novelty and seemingly limitless time allowed to polish and perfect the initial game in a given "season" gives way to the crushing pressure of having to turn around yet another episode in the incredibly confined timeframe that Telltale has set by promising monthly editions. That pressure created its share of uneasiness this month as nothing was seen of Tales of Monkey Island’s second installment until less than a week remained, but The Siege of Spinner Cay has now arrived, and like its predecessor, it is a very good game--but also like its predecessor, not quite great.
The events of Launch of the Screaming Narwhal have brought Guybrush, his ship, and his obedient crewman Winslow to the Jerkbait Islands on the hunt for La Esponja Grande, the only thing that can save Guybrush from the evil pirate pox that has infected his hand. Of course, anyone continuing the story knows that first Guybrush must confront a mysterious assailant on his ship, and the violent consequences that it brings. The game is very well-served by this introductory puzzle sequence, which is cleverly scripted and immediately imparts a sense of urgency--one which, unfortunately, is not really attained again.
The majority of the game involves intervening in a dispute between a mean, pox-infected pirate named McGillicutty and the Vacaylian people, a race of amusingly androgynous MerFolk. Both sides are trying to get their hands on a trio of golden summoning artifacts hidden at various points on the islands, which combined will guide their holder onward toward curing the pox plague. It falls to our hero to find the artifacts first and use them to continue his ultimate quest. Finding the artifacts is simple enough, not altogether different in scope and difficulty from the three "pirate trials" of the first episode--the difference with this chapter is that once the artifacts are found, you've completed 80% of the game. I found the entire episode to be at least an hour less in playing time than the first one, and with the hint system in place I wouldn't expect more than two and a half hours of total time for any player.
The only thing that might lengthen your game time is if you run into a puzzle where you cannot make sense of what the developers were thinking. There is a pretty clear emphasis with this series on making the puzzles challenging--and to be fair, that type of thinking is consistent with the original games, particularly Monkey Island 2. There are some great puzzles in this episode, like the two separate puzzles that make very clever and unique use of the hilarious pyrite parrot, but there are also a couple that are not in the least bit intuitive and will only be solved by accidental clicking or exhaustive exploration, including an unmapped forest maze--albeit a brief one--and a very strange and confusing pirate encounter involving a rubber tree.
Once the artifacts are found there is a final confrontation with the pox-ridden pirates, and then a couple unexpected events prior to the true ending, but the formulaic nature of the three-part fetch quest convention that takes up such a large portion of the adventure really keeps the game's momentum and pace at a dull roar all the way to the end. It's almost as though the entire episode is a prequel leading up to the really important episode. The lack of urgency is not helped by Guybrush's slow pace and the fact that there is so much walking from place to place required in the game--although there is a great travel map for sea faring, a quick travel map for walking on the islands could have come in very handy to keep the story moving, especially with all the back-and-forth required on the actual isle of Spinner Cay.
This game makes very good strides forward in the area of characters--thankfully there are no encounters as uncomfortable as the awfully creepy Marquis de Singe from the first episode. Instead the aforementioned gender-confused MerFolk and the sometimes clumsy and/or stupid pirate villains complement the ever-present characters LeChuck and Elaine very well with great dialogue and lots of personality. I will refrain from any spoilers, but both key characters experience changes in their traditional roles that impressively shake up the "norm" and set the stage for what should be a genuinely interesting turn of events in future episodes. All of these characters are excellently voiced; Dominic Armato sounds as good as ever as Guybrush and all supporting characters hit their notes perfectly. The real standout is Kevin Blackton as LeChuck, who is absolutely delightful in his new voice and a complete scene-stealer every time he's around.
The almost-given "talk about how amazing Telltale's games look and sound" paragraph is inserted here, with the caveat that reviewers were cautioned that the music was not final in the review version, though what was included was certainly up to the company’s usual standards. Graphically though, I am amazed at how Telltale continues to get better. The character close-ups, which are frequent, are extraordinarily flush with detail, and the in-game environmental animation is absolutely remarkable—a late-game sequence in Spinner Cay during the titular siege is stunning in its simulated tumult. The game world is detailed and colorful, with lush outdoor colors for the various island sequences and an appropriately dark, moody atmosphere for the cavelike “indoor” areas of the MerPeople. The careful attention to detail in every background is a constant testament to the incredible premium that Telltale puts on the technical visual aspects of their games.
The other, less pleasing technical aspect is the interface, which brings forward the same awkward and uncomfortable click-and-drag walking. It is very difficult to use at times, and to compound the problem the recommended WASD keyboard controls are not always properly oriented, which is sure to lead to some frustration as you find yourself walking back and forth between screens when you’re trying to go a different direction. Alternatively, gamepad control isn’t fully implemented once again, though it can be used for movement, so you might consider a gamepad for the character navigation and the mouse for object interaction; it is the only available method that is generally free of aggravation.
One of the game’s greatest strengths, as you would hope to be the case in a comedy adventure, is the writing. I found Mark Darin’s writing to be better and more consistent than the first episode, particularly Guybrush's lines, which are much more sharp and droll and rely less on traditional puns. I'm certain at this point that the writing is not going to be what holds the series back. Comedies like this rely on momentum, though, and right now Tales of Monkey Island is still a light-hearted pirate adventure searching for something to truly spark the energy. Perhaps that something will come next month; the outstanding cliffhanger sequence and the final direction that our main supporting characters take leave me quite interested to see how the story will continue and hoping for even more steps towards a truly great game next time.
For the second month in a row, I feel like my words could be incorrectly interpreted as ultimately negative, but my reservations should not betray the fact that I absolutely enjoyed this game; I appreciated the challenge, loved the writing and voice acting, and was continually impressed by the visual feast. Yet I have seen the incredible heights of creativity that Telltale has hit with the last season of Sam & Max and recognize that this series just has not found that groove yet, and quite honestly didn't expect it to happen right away anyway, given its more serialized nature. As a precursor setting the stage, however, the season is shaping up nicely, and with the talent at work behind these games and the rich history of the characters, there is very little doubt in my mind that the best is yet to come.