[13 July 2009]
From the moment the credits float in and the flute theme begins, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of a new pirate adventure. In the opening scene, Guybrush Threepwood sails after his nemesis LeChuck to rescue his damsel in distress. When we take control, the two ships are sailing side-by-side, ramming into each other. There’s a sense of urgency and action even as Guybrush saunters around the ship slowly piecing together the game’s opening puzzle. It’s a great way to start the game.
Unlike other game from developer Telltale, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is part of a larger narrative that will span all five Tales of Monkey Island episodes, but there’s still a very complete stand alone adventure within this episode. After that run in with LeChuck ends badly, Guybrush finds himself washed ashore Flotsam Island, an island contained by mysterious winds that prevent any ships from leaving. Throughout the story, there are hints of threats to come, and when Guybrush finally sets sail in the ragtag ship the Screaming Narwhal, it truly feels like the start of something far bigger.
Telltale Games has the episodic adventure game formula down to a science, and Launch of the Screaming Narwhal doesn’t stray from it. Guybrush’s exploits on Flotsam Island are lighthearted and fun but certainly not without challenge. The puzzles run the full gamut of difficulties from incredibly easy to frustratingly hard. The simpler puzzles will leave you feeling clever, but while trying to solver the harder ones, it becomes easy to fall back on that old adventure game chesnut of using every item on every object hoping that something will eventually happen. But the solutions always make sense, and so all the confusion up to that point only serves to intensify the eventual “ah ha” moment when all the pieces suddenly fall into place. And those moments are wonderful.
The hint system is helpful, but occasionally, the hint itself can be confusing and slightly too vague. The hardest puzzles are actually quite logical, but their hints are unclear. If you don’t realize what you have to do the first time that you hear it, hearing it again isn’t likely to help, and that’s when the repetitive item use begins. A little more detail, just another sentence or two, would have saved several minutes of random item clicking. But the hints, however vague they can sometimes be, are perfectly implemented in the game. A clue can be found in any number of dialogue options from Guybrush thinking out loud to the random comments of a fellow Flotsam islander. All of these comments sound natural and sometimes just figuring out what background comment constitutes a hint is a fun puzzle in and of itself.
The real draw of the game, though, is its humor, which easily makes up for any annoyances left over from a difficult puzzle. There’s an undeniable charm to the world of Monkey Island that draws you in right away. Guybrush Threepwood is a classic comedic character, clumsy yet capable enough to solve the mysteries of the island, and clever enough to point out the absurdities around him while still partaking in them. The jokes are sometimes clever and sometimes cheesy but even the most cringe inducing pun is delivered with a wink to the player who will at the very least crack a smile. The game revels in making fun of pirate clichés with memorable characters. From a treasure hunter looking for pirate “action figures” to one who makes a living by blowing glass unicorns, even if you forget their names you’ll remember their quirks.
Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is a satisfying and entertaining adventure in all the ways one could hope for. The puzzles are challenging, and since the answers are never illogical, it never feels like the game is fighting against the player. A few frustrating moments could have been alleviated with better hints, but in the end, the characters and dialogue will leave every player smiling, and the ending will leave them only wanting more.