(This article might contain light spoilers) It took Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman 31 years to finally decide to Return To Monkey Island, and damn I’m glad they eventually did. To be honest, the announcement on April Fool’s Day fooled everyone, including me. But after a few days, more and more news kept crawling in, ultimately confirming they have been working for 2 years in complete secrecy on Guybrush’s return to a beloved Island somewhere in the Caribbean. The humor surrounding Monkey Island even helped decide when to release it: on 19th of September, International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Arrrgh!
Sadly, “The Internet” happened when the team revealed the art style—Rex Crowle’s distinctively not pixel art. A lot of fans were upset and started talking shit on social media platforms, eventually causing Gilbert to take down his personal development blog. A very sad state of affairs indeed. I hope with all my heart that it didn’t decrease the chances of Guybrush returning after this excellent adventure. As for Crowle’s puppet art style, it grows on you and is very fitting for the story. I have to admit I don’t like the close-up face renderings, altough the animation and background scenery is utterly beautiful. It doesn’t get in the way of the game and is a lot less off-putting than the ugly art of The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition—why didn’t that get a backlash?
Before you jump into the game, there’s one thing you need to know: Return To Monkey Island is a love letter to the original. It doesn’t say “Return To” in the title for nothing. You’ll revisit plenty of previous locations, talk to old acquaintances, and remember an awful lot of fond memories. There’s a scrapbook to flip through with memories in case you didn’t play any Monkey game. There’s even a museum in the game that displays iconic objects of The Secret and LeChuck’s Revenge—if that doesn’t scream nostalgia, I don’t know what does. You will miss out on a lot of jokes and throwback moments, so I highly recommend everyone to first play Monkey Island 1 and 2.
I’ll try not to linger with the story for too long, except that this time, Guybrush is telling the piratey story to his son, Boybrush (really?). That is, while you’re playing, in-between scenes, you’re frequently interrupted with the couple correcting mistakes in the story or asking questions. Return To is a very meta-like game with an even more powerful meta ending that will either please or infuriate fans. In-game—while you unfold the story for your son—you’re also learning to tell a story. Next-level fourth wall breakage! The more I think about the setup and the way the Gilbert and Grossman sewed this to the ending of LeChuck’s Revenge, the more I appreciate their efforts, even though I was quite upset about it at first.
The thing I very much do not appreciate, though, is the way the game spoon-feds puzzle hints to the player. You can choose between normal and hard more (okay) and there’s an in-game hint book that provides UHS-style progressive hints that is completely optional to use (okay). But what’s not optional, is the new “tap-UI”, that automatically highlights points of interest. Try to identify small circles in the screenshots below and you’ll see what I mean. Furthermore, the label (“Tomorrow’s dinner”) appears without clicking and most of the time gives away whether or not the object is of any use.
This system completely removes the sometimes obnoxious “pixel hunting” mechanics of classic adventure games—but it also does away with many goofy interactions, red herrings, and the overall enjoyment I get out of discovering things in adventure game scenes. Even worse, if you get out an item from your inventory, a bright red cross immediately reveals whether or not an object can be combined or used with something else. No more I can’t use the skeleton arm with that—great. But also, no more “hmm, perhaps this belongs to this? No wait, can’t I do that?": the game tries to be too newbie-friendly and ends up spoiling both a lot of frustrating and funny moments in games such as these.
Consulting a few gaming forums, I discovered I wasn’t the only one complaining about the lack of “false clicks”. However, the original director of one of the Tales of Monkey Island episodes had this to say:
For people sad that there isn’t more dialog for false clicks, it’s worth pointing out that even without those, this is the largest script by a big number. I don’t have the line counts handy but I think it beats the longest game (escape) by thousands of lines. I know that doesn’t fix the absence of those lines, but the game is packed with unique dialog.
That’s a fair point, but it doesn’t say anything about the decreased difficulty that comes with the new UI.I breezed though the game in eight hours and only had to take a peek at the hint book in the last chapter—the ending puzzles were a bit of a let-down and I lost my patience there.
On the Nintendo Switch, these small circles automatically highlight when facing certain directions, while on Steam on the PC, you’re still more or less clicking your way through. On the console, you control Guybrush directly with the C-stick just like in Irony Curtain, leading to a more action vibe, although I suppose it’s more appropriate than emulating the mouse input like in Dexter Stardust. It didn’t feel nearly as out-of-place as the awkward “tank controls” of Escape From Monkey Island.
Return To was a very pleasant surprise this year, and I’m very sad that we’ve already finished it. I’m sure it’ll keep us busy now and then when replaying the adventure in the future. The jokes and atmosphere were as expected but not as gritty and dark as in LeChuck’s Revenge. The game even throws a few really emotional moments towards the player—despite Guybrush’s sometimes overly destructive nature and Elaine’s lack of emotional response raising a few eyebrows. People complaining that Return To is leaning too much on the nostalgia card might be correct, and a few original/new locations don’t shine as much as they could have.
Yet I wonder why so many reviewers call this game “a swan song to the genre”—it’s not like it’s dying, on the contrary. Time and time again, predictions of adventure games dying have been wrong. If anything, I hope this new breath of Monkey life also does wonders for the genre. This was developed with a small team, and as Dexter Stardust proves, it’s even possible as a single-man team!
The question is, will Monkey Island return?
Unlikely that it was the end. Ron Gilbert, Twitter
Look behind you, a three-headed monkey—yet another one we’ll welcome with open arms!