The first two episodes of the Tales of Monkey Island series were a bit like watching a superstar pitcher throw a six-inning, three-run game. That is, by definition, a "quality start" for the pitcher, but you just know that they are capable of so much more (forgive me if sports analogies aren't your cup of tea). I doled out 3½ star ratings for each episode, much to the chagrin of those who insisted that Telltale was at the top of their game--but it was clear there was potential left untapped. Sure enough, as is the frequent pattern of Telltale series, a couple early "warmup laps" have brought us to Lair of the Leviathan--an absolutely spectacular, brilliant adventure game that is the realization of the comedic heights that Telltale Games is capable of.
This episode does so many things so right, it is difficult to even order my thoughts. That over-arcing excellence is at least in part driven by the new blood that is behind this game. Relative newcomers Joe Pinney (director) and Sean Vanaman (writer), fresh off some preliminary work with the Wallace & Gromit series, take up the reins while more familiar names continue to work on the later episodes. Little could those familiar names have known that they would be so dramatically upstaged by Pinney and Vanaman, who take every part of the series to a new level. This is a game that feels truly like a holistic work of art, a game that is directed in the true sense of the word.
Such quality is evident throughout: in the little extra wink-wink dialogue options, the timing of character closeups during cutscenes, the extra animations that take place in the background of scenes. There is so much energy and so much self-awareness in this game, it is almost like an entirely different series. The gorgeous visuals and wonderful music are standards by now, but it's the unpredictability of how those elements will be used creatively that gives this game such a great feel. It's really fantastic to see, in the midst of such a crushingly busy development schedule, that Telltale is still able to take the time to try new things and add little flourishes.
The game takes place in two primary settings--and thankfully neither of them is an island jungle or an island town, because frankly I was getting a little tired of islands. The first two-thirds of the game occur inside the sea creature that swallowed up our hero Guybrush Threepwood at the conclusion of the last episode. It is a dark, and somewhat lonely (and occasionally gross) setting, but it explodes to life with the cast of supporting characters within, led by Captain Coronado de Cava, along with his mutinous crew of misfits that wander about in their Brotherhood, drinking ichor and amusing themselves with music and pirate face wars. Your immediate mission, to escape the inside of the manatee, will require joining their Brotherhood, with the help of your new companion Morgan LeFlay.
To say that the supporting cast is hilarious and well-written would be quite an undersell. Leviathan is unrelentingly excellent, with dialogue that doesn't just set new standards for Telltale--it goes to the level of the original Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, and that's not a statement I make lightly. There is almost no pause in the comic success of the dialogue; every character hits every note exactly right. I was not familiar with the writing of Sean Vanaman prior to this, but he is without question an immediate superstar in the realm of comic game writing, and has scripted a masterpiece. Every new character brings a completely unique element to the story, and the old characters that grated on me at times (De Singe and Voodoo Lady) are best here in tolerable, small doses. Voodoo Lady in particular is given an unforgettable and insanely brilliant twist that is yet another example of the completely outside-the-box thinking that reigns in this episode. To top it all off, an immortal Monkey Island supporting character is reborn here, and is better-utilized and funnier than he has ever been, all the way through the end of the game (and I mean the very end).
Dialogue writing is quite a task in its own right, but even the best lines can be undercut by mediocre voice acting. That is never a concern here; Telltale's voice acting continues to excel and this is their best yet. It is awe-inspiring how professional and how committed the actors behind characters such as de Cava, Moose the alcoholic slacker pirate, and the aforementioned returning supporting cast member are. There isn't a single voice that I would not describe as absolutely perfect for the character, and not one voiced line of dialogue that misses the mark. The result, such a perfect combination of writing and acting, is just pure nonstop laughter. Very rare are the games that are literally laugh-out-loud funny; the laughs here are numerous. You will not want to miss a single written line, so be prepared to exhaust the dialogue trees.
Even in the midst of the humor and entertainment, there is still a strong advancing story. The existing goal of locating La Esponja Grande will be realized, in yet another cinematic moment with a perfectly unexpected comic twist. An epic battle is fought at the end, followed by another great cliffhanger that sets up what should be a very intriguing series of events in the final two episodes. Unfortunately, most of the supporting characters are likely one-offs who don't appear to have a place in the remainder of the season. The nature of the story does drive home an important point, however—do not think that you can pick up the series with this game, as you will have no idea what’s going on or who most of the characters are.
It is no easy task to find a point to be critical of in this game, but the interface and control issues from earlier games still linger, and I do feel it important to point out how easy the series is getting. There are no barriers to progress in this game; it is always extremely clear what the next step is and nearly impossible to miss the major clues. It's one of the easiest Telltale episodes I've played since the earliest Sam & Max games--not really something that a guy like me, who doesn't have much of a sharp mind for puzzles, is going to lose much sleep over, but I have to acknowledge the lack of challenge present, which is really the only shortcoming of any significance. The puzzles are very smart and creative, often relying on clever dialogue interactions or developing an entirely unique internal logic that goes far beyond normal inventory combinations—a late puzzle involving sequences of tarot cards is really outstanding—they just aren’t difficult. The game still has a solid three-hour playing time, mostly due to the more expansive dialogue options, every one of which you'll want to hear. I personally was also disappointed by the complete absence of LeChuck, who was really gaining momentum in the last episode, but the other characters are just so monumentally funny that I didn't really miss him that much.
A game like Lair of the Leviathan is a reminder of why you love adventure games. It grabs you in a way that so few games do, a way that makes it so difficult to stop playing, because you're fascinated by what the next puzzle, the next character, the next laugh is going to be and you love how much fun you're having, and how happy the game makes you feel. It is a game that gets basically everything right, and carries incredible momentum through the very last minute.
I used the phrase "very good game--but like its predecessor, not quite great" to describe the previous episode. Lair of the Leviathan not only clears "great", but sails way into the depths of "historically fantastic." It is gorgeous, hilarious, intelligent, and balanced. It stands just shy of Chariots of the Dogs as the second-best Telltale game ever made and is a sobering reminder of why we don't accept less than great from such a talented developer, because this is the incredible brilliance that we know they can achieve--and Telltale delivers once again, creating new adventure superstars in Joe Pinney and Sean Vanaman in the process. Seeing how close this game is to a perfect score, though, I'm quietly reminded of the question that I ended my review of Chariots with--how on earth are they supposed to top this? I am sincerely excited to find out.