Escape From Monkey Island
For A While there we thought this was going to be the beginning of a renaissance in adventure games, but it's over a year later and all we have to look forward to is a sequel to another LucasArts classic, Sam & Max. And even that is being turned into an action/adventure for consoles. It's enough to make you cry.
Escape From Monkey Island on the other hand will make you laugh more than any game released in the last three years. It's not a patch on the first two, of course, but it has enough in-jokes and silly puzzles to keep fans of the series more than happy. It uses the same 3D engine that the far more original Grim Fandango inaugurated and features some great voice acting, but Escape suffers from being too uneven and too derivative. If you haven't played the first two titles you'll miss so many references that most of the game won't make sense, but on the flip side, you won't notice that almost every joke and situation is borrowed or recycled from those gems. To make up for it, Escape does have a lot of subversive, self-deprecating digs at both George Lucas and its own desperate attempts to be a commercial success. And it's still a great game.
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Guybrush Threepwood, legend in his own mind, has never been happier. After all, he’s defeated his undead rival LeChuck, he’s married to Elaine Marley (the loveliest public official in the Caribbean), and for the last three months they’ve enjoyed a grand pirate honeymoon on the high seas. But upon their return to Melee Island, they discover that Elaine’s been declared dead, a new politician named Charles L. Charles (hmmm) is trying to buy the election with "good times and free grog," and a mysterious Australian land developer is ruthlessly buying up all the islands in the Caribbean. It’ll be up to Mr. Marley…er…Threepwood to save the day yet again.
Escape from Monkey Island, the fourth game in LucasArts’ popular Monkey Island series and the first in 3D, offers "new jokes, new puns, new insults, and more monkeys than the three previous Monkey games combined." Does it follow through? Well, yes... but is it worth buying?
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
As with the previous games, Escape from Monkey Island is a blend of pirate adventure, puzzle solving, and goofy humor. As such, getting to the final destination isn’t as important as enjoying the journey. You’re encouraged to try all kinds of things, even the totally ludicrous, just to see what happens; the game usually rewards you for the trouble.
LucasArts appears to have discarded its old SCUMM adventure interface in favor of keyboard-based controls. If you’ve played Grim Fandango, you’re already familiar with this new setup. Use the arrow keys to move Guybrush around, choosing between character-relative and screen-relative movement. When Guybrush passes something he can pick up, use or look at, his head automatically tracks on that object and an option or series of options will appear at the bottom of the screen. Press E to examine an item more closely, P to pick it up or U to use it. The I key brings up your inventory, which can be cycled through in carousel-fashion to find the item you want; you can also combine inventory items to create something new. (Often, if you start cycling through your inventory, other characters in the room will complain about you spreading your stuff all over the place -- a nice touch.)
Conversation is much the same as in previous games; walk up to a character and press U (use) to talk, then cycle through the possible conversation choices. As this is a LucasArts game, where it’s difficult or impossible to kill off your character, don’t be afraid to use the goofiest, most audacious comments you can. (And beware, Cap’n, thar be puns ahead!)
Although LucasArts was wise enough to include the full series of key commands in the manual, I was never entirely comfortable with the keyboard interface. Occasionally I had to remind myself not to use the mouse (there is no mouse support for the game, although you can use a joystick or gamepad to play if you prefer). Because keyboard controls are inherently slower, it was often frustrating not to be able to just click on the area where I wanted to be, particularly since that’s how previous LucasArts games worked.
As with the previous Monkey Island games, Escape is packed with puzzles -- some ridiculously simple, others maddeningly convoluted. Realizing that this might be the first foray into the adventure genre for some gamers, LucasArts included a spoiler manual in the box. This should be used only if you’re at your wit’s end, as liberal use of a walkthrough will whisk you through the game too quickly and you’ll miss a lot of extras. The puzzle solutions do make sense within the framework of the game, if you make sure to listen to even offhand remarks and inspect your inventory carefully.
A word about "Monkey Kombat," the mini-game within Escape: someone at LucasArts thought this was a brilliant idea and someone else programmed it into life -- and if I ever find those people, I will make them wish they’d never been born. This frustrating little game is more evil than LeChuck and Ozzie Mandrill combined, and that’s saying something. By the time I was through with it, I was muttering, "Oughtta’ve called it _Escape from Monkey Kombat if y’ask me" under my breath.
I’m an old-school adventure gamer and it took a while to win me over to the new 3D graphic style. Just because a game can be in 3D, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. (Anyone up for a debate on classic movie colorization?) For a while, Escape too closely resembled the look of a console game for my tastes. But Escape isn’t a true 3D game in all respects -- camera angles are static rather than dynamic, for instance. The 3D-rendered characters work very well against the backgrounds, exhibit a bit more subtlety of movement and expression than in traditional animation and even with a low-end 3D card the "jaggies" common to the edges of 3D-rendered characters are minimal. Cutscenes between gameplay are smoothly executed and actually move the storyline along.
Good voice acting is essential these days, especially in games that rely on comic timing and delivery. In this arena, Escape passes with flying colors. Dominic Armato is funnier than ever as "Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate," and Earl Boen reprises his role as the Demon Zombie Ghost Pirate LeChuck (with that many names, he might as well be a member of the Royal Family). Nick Tate voices the misanthropic ubercapitalist, Ozzie Mandrill, and newcomer Charity James interprets the role of Elaine with intelligence and sardonic wit. The supporting cast offers solid, often hilarious backing, although a peek at the credits confirmed some voice actors are "recycled" for several different bit parts in the game. (Armato does his bit here too, lending his voice to at least two minor characters.)
In the music arena, composer Michael Land returns with help from artists Clint Bajakian, Peter McConnell and Anna Karney -- though there’s little new material here (much of it is recycled from Curse of Monkey Island), a few motifs in the series have been orchestrated to good advantage. The original, stirring sea chantey tune over the main menu is noteworthy.
Windows 95/98/2000/ME, 200 MHz (266 or higher recommended), 32 MB RAM (64 MB RAM for Windows 2000 users), 4 MB Direct 3D or OpenGL-compatible graphics accelerator card (supported chipsets listed at LucasArts Technical Support), 16-bit sound card, 4X CD-ROM drive, Windows-compatible keyboard (optional support for gamepads and joysticks), and DirectX 7.0 or higher (included with game).
Reviewed on: Windows 98, PIII-667 MHz, 128 MB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 256, and 48X CD-ROM drive.
The typical jewel case manual runs sixteen pages covering installation, minor troubleshooting, menu options, game interface, keyboard/joystick/gamepad commands, credits, contact information, software license and some shameless product placement just for good measure. LucasArts has also included an official hint book with a "quick-path" walkthrough of the entire game, sealed at the edge to help prevent accidental spoilers.
Enjoy one of the game’s Easter eggs by selecting Options from the main menu, then Alter Gee Whiz Factor, then Multiplayer Options. Good, goofy fun.
Relation To Previous Games
Escape has much more in common with Curse of Monkey Island than with the first two games of the series -- more silly than serious and less sense of foreboding. (In Monkey Island 2, when LeChuck made an appearance, it was usually creepy and startling. In the last two games, he’s been more funny than frightening.) If you’ve played the series from the beginning, you’ll notice some familiar faces and locations, updated with 3D rendering.
Patches / Updates
The LucasArts site hosts the latest update, which fixes some issues with certain sound and video cards and other known problems with the original release. You should also look over the support page if you’re having any additional technical trouble -- I ran into a sound problem near the end of the game that I was able to work around, thanks to a comment posted in support.
Room For Improvement
Considering the amount of development time spent on this game -- it was officially announced in April and pushed out the door in November -- I’m amazed at the level of quality and polish. Still, there’s some evidence of rushed or incomplete play testing. Some conversations won’t work at all unless you employ a workaround, and in other situations Guybrush seems to have more information than he should -- in one section of the game, for instance, he can complain about a person’s drunkenness even if he hasn’t yet found that person lushing it up in a local bar.
I never did get comfortable with the new keyboard interface, first introduced in Grim Fandango and only marginally improved in Escape. Granted, the keyboard offers a wider range of options, but as far as simplicity and general functionality goes, it feels like a step backward compared to the old popular point-and-click SCUMM interface.
I freely admit my bias in favor of this game; I’ve loved the series ever since the original Secret of Monkey Island released ten years ago. It’s not perfect, though -- for those who have never played the previous games, the in-jokes may be confusing; for long-time fans of the series, the new interface and game glitches will be frustrating. Despite these drawbacks, the game is a lot of fun -- it passes the "time travel" test, where you sit down to play for just a few minutes and suddenly realize it’s 3 a.m. And honestly, how many other developers could manage to slip "Schadenfreude," "ichor" and "potzrebie" into a game successfully? Although not the high point of the Monkey Island series, Escape from Monkey Island earns an overall score of 80 as a worthy addition to the adventure game genre.
Guybrush Threepwood and his new bride Elaine Marley-Threepwood are just returning from their honeymoon on the high seas. Expecting to return to Melee Island with a grand entrance, as Elaine is also the island's Governor, they prepare to greet the many locals welcoming them back. To their dismay, upon landing there isn't a soul to be found. Finding this odd but not overly disturbing, the newlyweds head back to the Governor's mansion to unpack and start their new life together. Once there, however, they discover a demolition crew (one man with a catapult) attempting to raze the mansion. After questioning him and asking him to cease his bombardment, they find that the Governor, Elaine, has been declared dead! What's going on here? After more detective work, they discover the island is in disarray. Elaine has been declared dead, an Australian land developer is buying all the property from the locals, and the SCUMM Bar has run out of its famous kudu-jerky-flavored pretzels. Looking to get to the bottom of this, the self-proclaimed pirate Guybrush heads out to rectify this confusing and odd predicament.
Escape from Monkey Island is one of the first adventure games to make a solid appearance outside the PC. The dashing Guybrush, in attempting to solve Melee Island's troubles, will take you through various puzzles and problems as you try to set things right again. A direct port from the PC, Escape From Monkey Island will challenge and entertain you with its involving puzzles and witty humor. As you'll see, this game delivers, and both fans of adventure games and those who haven't played an adventure game since King's Quest will be equally impressed.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
After showing the credits, the game begins with Guybrush daydreaming about his last adventure where he married Elaine and defeated the evil demon zombie ghost pirate LeChuck. He's brought to attention by Elaine, who is fighting pirates, and we see that Guybrush was daydreaming while tied to the mast. From here the adventure begins as Guybrush tries to find a way to be useful and defeat the boarding pirates.
The game moves forward by Guybrush getting into a situation that causes him to either find an object to use and locate the specific way to use it, talk to the right character and have that character perform some action, or use some other unique method. These puzzles can be anything from relatively easy to downright difficult. Some will stump even experienced adventure game fans, as they require the player to notice peculiar items or unique-looking parts of scenery to figure them out. There is a logical flow to them, however, and it's usually very rewarding when they're finally figured out. Once a puzzle is completed, the game progresses by giving a short animated clip furthering the story and setting up the next problem to be solved. These short clips are loaded with the dry humor and one-liners that fans of the previous Monkey Island games have come to expect. Chances are that throughout the game you'll find yourself laughing out loud at some point and smirking at other times.
While taking Guybrush out exploring, you'll notice how many different things he can look at. Some are relevant to the storyline, but most are there to add humor or attempt to distract from his current predicament. This is where the interface comes in. It's a simple structure that basically gives options for the things in front of Guybrush. For instance, when standing in front of a table, you'll have a few sentence fragments at the bottom of the screen. It may say, "Look at pretzels," "Talk to pirate," and "Look at balloon." All that needs to be done is select the sentence you want Guybrush to perform. Depending on whether you're holding an item or if you performed some other task first, you may get a different set of options.
The controls are also straightforward and easy to use. The left analog joystick moves Guybrush around, and when pushed down he'll quick-exit a room. The L2 button shows inventory, L1 skips dialogue, R2 cycles objects down and R1 cycles objects up. The buttons also perform simple functions like look, action, and pick up. Overall, the controls are easy to learn and it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to get comfortable with them.
Although it is animated, and talking about how the laws of physics are portrayed in a cartoon may seem odd, Escape From Monkey Island does an excellent job in this department. For instance, when looking at how the characters move, you'll notice a smooth fluid motion as they walk around, jump, open doors or whatever. You can tell the developers paid attention to things like point of reference, how much force is being transferred from one object to another, and how that object should respond under specific force. The camera angle will also occasionally change by pulling way back, maybe 100 feet in the air and down to three feet away from the characters talking. When this happens, the dimensions are perfect with all the objects scaled the same, creating a realistic atmosphere that is generally more enjoyable to watch.
One of the few problem areas with this game is the load times. Since this is a PC port, it was designed to hit the hard drive -- but since the PlayStation 2 doesn't have a hard drive, load times of three or four seconds are fairly common. This can be distracting, but rarely was I overly annoyed. Only when I would accidentally walk out of one area and have to walk back did it become problematic.
Keeping in mind that this is an animated game, I was hard-pressed to find any flaws. The animation during cutscenes and also during general gameplay was smooth and detailed. The flame on a candle flickers, water in the harbor ripples around the dock, and when characters speak, their mouths and lips move in a natural manner, creating sharp graphics even though it's based on animation.
The audio is where this game really shines. The character voices fit their personalities, with some being goofy and others stuck-up. One big issue that is handled almost perfectly is when the characters are talking, the audio syncs up almost perfectly with the character's mouth. When voiceovers don't line up with the characters, it can be extremely distracting and I was pleased to see it could be done accurately. In addition, there are various other sounds that add fullness to the game like birds chirping during the day, crickets at night, and when in certain places like a bar, all the sounds you'd expect there are captured too.
Usually documentation is standard across games, with few either adding something to improve the game or missing something that distracts from it. This documentation, however, is more useful than most, giving helpful information that improves the game. For instance, in addition to showing how to use the controls and interface, Escape From Monkey Island also gives a history of the previous games in the series. This allows those of us who are new to the series to come up to speed. It also walks you through the first few puzzles, showing how to solve them.
What you'll get with Escape From Monkey Island is a rich adventure game that entertains with its quick wit and colorful characters. Even if you are new to the series like I am, you'll rarely notice, as the plot isn't dependent on it. What would have earned the game an even higher score, however, would be if LucasArts found a way to appeal to those who don't enjoy adventure games, as the puzzles can be too difficult or time-consuming for the novice to complete. Overall, if you enjoy adventure games or have enjoyed them in the past, Escape From Monkey Island will definitely appeal to you.