the writings of a mind

Genre: Adventure
Big Word: Saviour
Strap: "Sometimes when itís quiet, I can still hear the monkeys."

I am rubber and you are glue. Thatís the second most obvious opening line Iíve ever read. How appropriate, you fight like a cow. Yes people, thrust your hands into the air, and wave them around in a manner which might suggest that you just donít care Ė Monkey Island is back.

In case you havenít been watching, Escape From Monkey Island is the fourth in the series of LucasArts adventures featuring the incompetent Guybrush Threepwood (fearsome pirate), bringing the legacy into its second decade. (For more see THAT LEGACY IN FULL). Itís been three years since we last heard the sounds of screaming primates, and itís been a three years in which the world of gaming has changed beyond recognition. How does such an ancient name in such an archaic genre manage in todayís harsh streetways?

The volume of quality adventure games has been in a steady decline since their hey-day in the early Ď90s. The appearances of worthy titles have been few and far-between for a few years now. But this is not to be mistaken with the commonly held, but incorrect, belief that the quality of all adventure games has declined. The classics are still appearing - itís just that they are being hidden under more and more dross from the likes of Cryo and all their pre-rendered bedfellows. Titles such as Bladerunner, Toonstruck, Grim Fandango, and The Longest Journey have all shown that there are still the brains and the talents out there to make the greats, but that there has been serious wheat-to-chaff ratio problems dogging the lives of the hackneyed old gamer.

And adventure games arenít helped by every release being heralded as the "last of a dying breed". Tell something itís dying enough, and itís bound to start feeling aches and pains that really arenít there. This enforced hypochondria by the worldís press has built up a viciously pessimistic circle that adventure games have found very difficult to escape from. MŁnchhausen by Proxy if you will. But letís hope you wonít.

Itís all very depressing stuff if, like me, you were weaned on text-based adventures and have followed them through all the way. So, is there no hope? Am I just a lone voice fighting a losing battle?

NO! Of course not! Build a time machine, take this missive back in time five years, and replace "adventure game" with "RPG". Nobody wanted them then. They were sad and out of date, and a thing of the past. Now look at them. Titles like Baldurísí Gate II are gathering the masses into a fevered frenzy. Kind of like how the announcement of Monkey Island II did in its day. So come on people! Itís time for revolution! If only there was an exceptionally good adventure game freshly released, and a review to tell us all about itÖ Oh wait.

Letís not faff around with review protocol, building up tension as to whether the pros will outweigh the cons in the end: This is adventure gaming at its absolute highest peak. This is why the genre was invented. This is LucasArts doing what they used to do, and doing it as well as they ever did. So the question is, how?

The key factor is the gameís designers, Sean Clarke and Mike Stemmle. They are the men who separately brought you The Dig, and Afterlife, and together produced the seminal Sam and Max. And if you want the confidence to know that Monkey is in the right hands, then go back and remember how brilliant Sam and Max truly was.

LucasArts had stunned us with Day of the Tentacle, probably still the funniest and most ingenious adventure ever, and no one was sure how they would be able to follow up such a complex and brilliantly funny extravaganza without at least letting people down a bit. Sam and Max managed to be different enough from DOTT in both style and humour to stand apart from its predecessors, and it managed to do it in a way that shocked the world as to quite how insane a game could be, and yet remain playable. Every location was a visual assault of crookedly rendered objects smothering every available surface, inviting the player to forget about the game, and spend twenty minutes exploring the room. You could look at everything.

Such detail in any game has not been seen since. Such a volume of jokes has not been seen since... Why, whatís that clichť you can hear on the wind? Thatís right: Öuntil now. But before a full explanation of Ďwhyí can be given, we must first court controversy. Take my hand, and we will get through this together: Monkey Island 3: The Curse of Monkey Island wasnít as good as everyone thought it was at the time. Get back up off of the floor and letís carry on.

While it was still a fine adventure game, the loss of series creator Ron Gilbert really showed its effects. The puzzles were there, and the locations, characters and storyline were all present and correct, but the jokes just werenít firing. And this would be absolutely fine if it hadnít been carrying the words "Monkey Island". But with such a legacy to live up to, Curse just did not do justice to the name. References to gags from the previous games seemed forced token efforts, and the use of recurring characters appeared to be more of a hindrance for the designers than an enjoyable running joke. Such criticisms levelled at most other adventure games would be unfair, but when you are talking LucasArts and you are talking Monkey, the values are set that bit higher. These are the standards by which part four is also being measured. There is no easy ride here.

So whatís changed in three years? Well, perhaps most importantly, Grim Fandango did. This marked the advent of adventure games realising that being 2D wasn't necessarily the best way forward for the genre, and perhaps more importantly for LucasArts, a large deviation from the evolving point-and-click SCUMM based control system. Entirely gone was pointing /and/ clicking. The 3D Grim engine allowed the starring Manne to be controlled by the cursor keys, looking at things that were of interest, which were then triggered off by a keyboard click. This was a novel plan, and to an extent it worked quite smoothly. But the restriction of the film noir genre of Grim meant that the 3D was restricted to tight, claustrophobic passageways, and narrow locations, that never gave a feeling of the freedom that the 2D games always could. Plus the very noir nature meant that Zany Humourô wasnít an option, and while still a great game, belly laughs were not on the menu.

Bring on the curly clouds. What Lucas have called the Second Generation Grim Engine has suddenly opened everything up in a scene reminiscent of the close of Total Recall, as the air rushes in and the skies brighten. You may breathe more clearly now. Bright vibrant colours, rendered in loyally Monkey-styled skewed perspectives and twirly clouded skies are just fabulous fun to look at, let alone play in. See for yourself. These pages are smothered in lovely examples of quite how luscious it all is.

Guybrush is controlled in much the same way as Manne was, using the cursor keys for movement, and the blessed "run" key for getting from one end of a location to another. And once again, his head swings in the direction of objects in locations that can be interacted with. But this is where the similarities with Grim end, and the connections with Sam and Max become more and more obvious. There are so many objects in each location that Guybrush all but gives himself whiplash twisting and turning his head to take them all in. This is where a very SCUMM-like idea comes in so useful. If Guybrush is standing near an object to look at, as well as neck rotation, its name will appear on the bottom of the screen. No more searching and hoping, but instead a nice clear indication of where it is, and more importantly, what it is. And thereís more. If there is more than one object for your interaction nearby, they will all appear, to be scrolled through by your friends the Page Up and Down keys. Itís just all so easy. And then to make things much more interesting, once an object is in your sights, you just have to click L to look at it, U to use it, and P to pick it up. In short, everything you ever wanted is there, and itís as easy to use as itís ever been. Mouse? Whatís that?

So we have a comfortable and practical engine, that is not only intuitive and gorgeous, but it also works (no more door-melding Grim Fandango fans). Thatís all very well, but surely Monkey Island 1 and 2 managed to be some of the greatest in their field with an engine that looks like the rawer end of a dog? Storyline my man. Thatís the fuel that drives these engines. Well, grrrrrrrr, weíre running on thick juicy petrol here. (Note to self: Donít make car references, you arenít nearly man enough to pull it off).

Back history? Are we all au fait with the life and times of all things Monkey? If you are, skip to the next paragraph and wait for us there. The rest of us will quickly reminisce. It all began when a young and plucky wannabe pirate by the name of Guybrush Threepwood stumbled upon the shores of MÍlťe Islandô, desperate to be taken in to a crew of a ship. On his travels he met the lovely Governor of the island, and future love of his life, Elaine, and his soon to be arch-nemesis, evil dead pirate, Le Chuck. On his quests and adventures, many characters appear helping and hindering along the way, including the wonderful anonymous Voodoo Lady who is about the only person he could rely on throughout. The adventures within the three games saw many characters recurring as well as brand new ones being introduced, and even more importantly, the same jokes appearing over and over again. A bad thing? Not at all. LucasArts proved the wise adage: repeat until funny. Or even, until funnier. You want to know more? Go buy the super-dooper-bumper-box set of all three, and find out all by your very selves. It really is worth it.

Good, youíre still here. Thanks for waiting. I hoped you helped yourself from the complimentary bowel of clichťs. So where are we now? Well, if you remember the end of part three, youíll be aware that things were left in the rather awkward position of Guybrush and Elaine being married. This does rather put a hold on the usual Guybrush-gets-Elaine-into-trouble-and-she-leaves-him story. So instead things begin with the happy couple arriving back onto their home island after a three month honeymoon. But would you believe it? - things are amiss. Not having told people that they were going on said lengthy trip, a rumour has spread throughout the islanders that Elaine is dead. So that has left the tri-island district without their governor, and hence without the strong piratey leadership such disorder requires. This makes room for the two main plot lines that will occupy your puzzle solving and exploration throughout. First of all, with no governor in town, a new one is required, and a certain Mr Charles L. Charles is the only man standing for the role. Charles L. Charles? Hmm, now who could that be? But strangely, the undeadness of your nemesis is not apparent in this appearance, though more-so in his smell. The reason for this alive-like incarnation is one to be investigated. Secondly, a rich Australian businessman, Ozzie Mandrill (geddit?), has moved into the area, and is buying all the local buildings, and converting them into modern luxury tourist attractions. And worst of all, he is eradicating all the pirates through his pirate rehabilitation programme. Rich Australian business man buying everything. Gosh, now who could that be a spoof of? Far be it for us to invite that libel. This opens up many brilliant cultural references and opportunities for spoofing the real world. Star Buccaneers anybody? Good. And not forgetting the ingenious Planet Threepwood, where inside is a collection of nick-nacks that represent /everything/ from Guybrushís three previous adventures. This not only gives the designers more opportunity to make great jokes, but also opens the game up to become more inclusive, rather than allowing the pirate-only medium to enter a tired zone.

These two parallel stories manage to be so much more than just excuses to set up puzzles. They are genuinely engaging threads that cause that sense of not being able to stop playing that all the greatest of adventures have possessed.

Ironically, getting on with the plot is one of the hardest things to do. Each new background, each new room you enter, each new shelf you look at, is liberally endowed with numerous objects to examine, pick up, or use. And each of these commands is accompanied by a unique reaction. You try to pick up the moon? There is a scripted and recorded line to respond to such a silly act. You try to Ďuseí the SCUMM Bar? Guybrush has a witty and unique line appropriate to that particular subject. And this is not restricted to objects you need to look at or pick up, but to pretty much anything in a room. You really begin to see where the 10,000 lines of dialogue are going.

Dialogue! Ah, the next thing to excitedly bounce up and down about. Nearly all of the voice cast of part three are back, with the exception of Elaine, who is fortunately replaced by a much more appropriately sarcastic yet seductive actress. The voice of Guybrush has greatly improved, the actor making a much better effort of capturing the naÔve confidence of Threepwood, rather than the rather irritating nasal whine previously. And the rest of the bunch, who before only communicated in text in the first two games, have all been excellently cast with suitably hammy yet believable voices that have clearly been painstakingly chosen. But most important of all is the voice of the main villain Ozzie Mandrill. The perfect gruff Australian accent is used for the evil tycoon as he determinedly rids the islands of the pirates that he hates so much.

The conversations are, as has always been the case, conducted through a list of response choices that you can never get wrong. In other words, you arenít going to say the wrong thing and have to reload to be able to play the game. (As ever with LucasArts, thereís no dying in their adventure games, only restrictive puzzles blocking your path to the next scenes). These choices of dialogue are the best they have been in all four games. All the classic lines are there Ė the first time you meet the Sword Mistress you are able to say to her, "How appropriate, you fight like a cow" Ė and then funny lines you would never have been able to think of in a million years. But since this is made by the guys who brought you Sam and Max, those lines manage to occasionally cross into the borders of dubious taste, giving many more belly laughs than ever before. There is no chance at all that you wonít go through and say every single line you have available to you, making sure that you have milked every single joke before leaving a conversation.

The last question that should be rumbling around on your tongue is, the puzzles? Youíll be very pleased to hear that itís another bullseye. Thereís none of you Gabriel Knight/Discworld "click the cat on the hairbrush to open the magic seed" here. Although as peculiar as they should be, the puzzles are all intuitive and deeply satisfying to solve. They may well involve carrying around a duck for hours on end, without any idea what for, but thatís all part of the fun. Itís why youíre buying the game.

This is what itís all about. This is what adventure games were made for. It is fully 3D and does earns its right to be so, it is visually stunning and imaginatively designed, it contains a wonderful and varied cast, and most importantly of all, it is just so damned funny. Buy it, and save a genre.

Margin Notes:

One of the constants of the series has been the excellent scores providing atmosphere for the game. Even when it was beeps and boops, it still cheered greatly. But the leaving of Clint Bajakian, Michael Land and Peter McConnell from LucasArts surely meant that our music would be sullied? No! They were hired to compose the entire score, creating a lovely mellow set of stringy-steel-drummy coolness.

One of the problems with speech based comedy in computer games is getting the timing right. The chances are that when an actor records his lines he is alone, reading through all the possibilities of what he could say. Try and edit that to match another actor in the same circumstances, and comedy-timing is long gone. But Monkey4 shuns such standards, and you will be pleased to know that there are no awkward pauses or embarrassing gaps Ė just darned good quality timing.

Unique to part 4 is the marital status of Mr Threepwood. Now married to Elaine, he is no longer having to fight for her love, and his manliness is clearly feeling threatened. Whenever Guybrush is talking to a girl in the game, he seems unable to resist putting on his deep Barry White Lurrrrve voice, which gives some classic moments.

A fair criticism levelled at Monkey 3 was that it was using the Insult Swordfighting in a very tired way. Part 4 has put a stop to that, introducing a whole range of insult sports. Thereís insult arm-wrestling, insult chess, insult backgammon, insult poker, insult anything really.

Not convinced? Suspicious as to whether this is as good as we think? Then get your doubting selves toward our mighty coverdiscs where a nicely shaped demo can be found. This will let you play through the first puzzle of the game, giving a taste of the style of play, and a couple of good laughs.

 Like a resuscitation kit for the minds of a world, this is the title to remind everyone just how good adventure gaming can be.


Tech Specs:

Publisher: LucasArts
Developer: LucasArts
Price: £30
Minimum System: P200, 32MB RAM, 4MB 3D Card
Recommended: P266, 64MB RAM
Multi-player: No
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