After playing it relatively safe for a couple episodes, and then blowing the roof off with a fantastic middle installment, the Tales of Monkey Island series takes quite a turn with the fourth episode, The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Threepwood, sure to be one of the most debated and controversial games that Telltale has ever put out. A game like this will be judged primarily on the gut reaction that it elicits in the player, which is going to vary so widely among its audience that all I can do as a reviewer is explain my reaction—which, for the most part, is one of relative discontent and disappointment—then do my best to fairly evaluate the game as a return to the earlier series standard of being a good, but not great, adventure game.
Individual response to Chapter 4 is largely going to depend on something that has not really been a major point of contention, or even emphasis, in Telltale’s history: the plot development. After some steady and measured story progression through the first three episodes, the plot here completely treads water for the first half—then explodes with a major twist and an emotionally resonant incident—then runs in place with an extremely lengthy and excruciating series of puzzles—and then really unloads with an action-packed and explosive climax that completely turns the series on its head with a final cliffhanger that I can almost guarantee you won’t see coming.
That description should certainly not be seen as an outright endorsement of the plot surprises—in fact, I am rather opposed to them and the way they were carried out, as they could easily be characterized as a bit gratuitous in the context of the story. But the nature of cliffhangers and major story twists is that you really can’t judge them midstream. This story clearly has a lot of playing out to do in next month’s finale, and I may look back favorably on this episode’s developments once I’ve seen what they truly meant. And despite the negativity of my feelings, they certainly were real feelings—not something that is commonly evoked by adventure games these days.
I am obviously rather handcuffed by some of the plot secrets from describing the story in detail, but the entirety of the game takes place on Flotsam Island, the site of the first episode, though some previously-inaccessible locations are finally open and the backdrop is now dark skies and rough weather, so you won’t experience complete déjà vu. Almost all of the characters are brought back from previous episodes, as the titular trial brings a parade of Guybrush accusers, both false and legitimate (you knew you’d have to pay for that fake Ninja Dave eventually), all of whom must be systematically outwitted or otherwise exposed before the story begins to turn. Your nemesis in this early stage is the game’s brightest surprise: the return of Stan and his gloriously tacky blue jacket. Just as Murray’s return felt so right last time, Stan's presence is a delightful reward for long-time fans of the series. Of course, there’s another part to the game’s subtitle, and I must leave it for you to discover those related events.
The writing duties, so expertly handled by Sean Vanaman last time around, return to the capable hands of Mike Stemmle for this episode, and there is a noticeable shift in the overall tone back to the more lighthearted, occasionally more obvious “charm” of the early season and away from the dark and biting wit of the last episode. Interestingly enough, Stemmle’s best writing comes during the scenes that call for sincere drama, which he handles with the right seriousness and does not resort to cheap laughs.
Other than all this talk about the story, there is another major component to the game that certainly goes in a different direction than previous episodes. After I insinuated last month that the ease of the puzzles was all that kept Lair of the Leviathan from a perfect score, Telltale has thrown the puzzling into overdrive with some rather challenging and outside-the-box obstacles this time. The puzzles involve extrapolating from thin clues in tricky locations, bizarre inventory combinations, and a whole lot of repetitive travel. These elements result in some challenging and creative puzzles, but there are some definite misfires. The clues can be too abstract, the object combinations sometimes make sense only in retrospect, and all the travel emphasizes the weakness of the walking interface. There is one particular puzzle near the end that involves repeatedly walking a specific pattern, which really indicts the mouse-controlled movement as inadequate.
Still, those who love a good challenge will find much more to like here than previous episodes. On the other hand, those who were happy with the relative ease of the last game will be advised to find their favorite walkthrough site and bookmark it very early in the game. There is a hint system, as usual, but even on the highest slider setting the hints take a while to come, and the game really wants to make sure you still have some of your own thinking (or blind experimenting) behind every solution. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this game takes some players upwards of four hours to complete with all the puzzle-solving that takes place.
As you’d expect, The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Threepwood does do a lot of things well. The mechanics of the trial sequence that makes up the first half of the game, once you understand what you’re supposed to do, are very clever. Telltale knows how to use their remarkable production system for maximum comic effect (the trial audience comments are constantly hilarious, and the animation during a key swordfight midgame is strikingly impressive). The music and voice acting is once again excellent throughout. But the game’s biggest fault is that these strengths are completely undermined by the wildly inconsistent flow of the game—lengthy ambling puzzle sequence, surprising cutscene plot twist, lengthy boring puzzle sequence, shocking conclusion and cliffhanger. It’s not really a sum of many strong parts, as the last episode was; it’s just two major parts and a whole lot of minor strengths that probably won’t affect your judgment of the puzzles and the plot twists.
Ultimately, my score reflects—to the best of my ability—the quality of the game and its production, rather than my purely emotional reaction to the story and my frustration with the erratic puzzle difficulty. Telltale’s production quality is remarkable, and they must be commended for at least pushing the series violently towards what is sure to be a fascinating climax. However, the game must also be criticized for the inconsistency of its flow and the near-complete lack of original locations and characters (Stan’s delightful return notwithstanding).
I won’t be surprised to see some players describe this, based on their reactions to the twisting story, as the best game in the series. Personally I feel quite the opposite and ended the game feeling deflated and disheartened, but I suppose that’s a measure of success for Telltale in that I really did have a reaction to the events that took place. I’m on the edge of my seat for next month’s conclusion, but am definitely hoping for a much more consistent and original episode when that time comes.