I have just finished playing Return to Monkey Island (RtMI). This is the culmination of a 30+ years journey, and it is only fair that I dedicate a couple lines to it. In short: of all the Monkey Islands I played, I just had to pay for the worst one1. I should have read the Wikipedia page and be done with it.
Also note that Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation made a lot of the same points I'm about to make, but of course he did it better.
Turbulent times ahead
Let's start with the easier stuff: is the game fun? Does it live up to its legacy? And what happened with that controversy about the art?2
Regarding the art, I disagree with the main complaints but I also have my own. On the topic of pixel art I side with series' creator Ron Gilbert: Monkey Island 1 and 2 were not supposed to be "pixel art games", but rather the best that technology could offer at the time. And while the final art style is not for me, I can nonetheless appreciate that the game has a personality. And I definitely disapprove of online abuse in any way. What I do object to, however, is the animation. Characters in RtMI look, feel, and move like paper dolls, a style that is cheap to animate but with the downside of also looking cheap. 1997's Curse of Monkey Island may not have been an "official" Ron Gilbert game, but that game was gorgeous and I'd pick it over RtMI every time.
As for the game itself, I'm struggling figuring out who is it for: it plays like the kind of game I'd recommend a beginner (puzzles are pretty easy), but beginners are not known for jumping straight into episode 5 of a saga. And veterans of the series have cut their teeth with much harder stuff. Sure, the scurvy puzzle is a good return to form, but if you are looking for multi-layered puzzles and rich, entertaining conversations with multiple characters then this is not the game you're looking for. There is no pixel-hunting, which is nice, but this is an innovation we had already seen in Thimbleweed Park.
The story and progression of the game is fine, just not great. There is humor in it, just not as much as I'd like3. As for its legacy, most of your favorites are back but relegated to minor roles. I feel particularly bad about Murray and Elaine - Murray doesn't do much, and Elaine is just here to be a mother figure for Guybrush and say "that's nice, honey" here and there. If this were your first Monkey Island game, the scene where she takes out her sword and fights would probably strike you as entirely out of character.
No game for old men
But my real problem with RtMI is its atmosphere. The game feels done with itself from the very beginning, and I got the constant impression of a game developed by people who would prefer me to do something else with my life4. The world of RtMI is falling apart, full of graffiti and derelict buildings. Our beloved characters have moved on and no one outside Guybrush and LeChuck even cares about the Secret of Monkey Island anymore, a fact that they'll repeat at every chance.
Which brings me to the whole reason for buying the game, namely, finding out what the Secret of Monkey Island is (which I won't spoil here). I am not against the conclusion itself - the idea presented in RtMI has been floating around forums for decades, I've made my peace with it long ago, and I had already accepted it as canon. My problem is that it is presented in the meanest and most unsatisfactory way possible. When Guybrush (minor spoiler!) says "I'm ready to go", Elaine's condescending "Good. Me too" sounds less like an ending and more like the game designers telling me to go away. Hell, even Guybrush's son calls them on it.
Interestingly enough, my main (positive) emotional reactions came not from where the game went but rather from where I thought the game would go. More than once I thought that Guybrush would lose Elaine, and I also occasionally worried that my choices would lead me to a bad ending. I'm glad neither of those things happened, and yet I can't shake the feeling that I put more thought into the story than the designers did.
End of an era
I have often told people on the internet to stop buying bad games, a concept that gamers refuse to accept for some reason. And I know that, if you have been waiting like me for a resolution to the Secret of Monkey Island, then nothing I write will dissuade you from playing the game. But honestly, from a fan to another? You might be better reading an online walkthrough and/or watching a video of the last 5 minutes. Nothing in this game is likely to have any influence in the future of the series anyway (assuming there is a future), and honestly I don't think I have it in me to keep listening to my once-beloved characters telling me how much they don't care.
I will always have a soft spot for Monkey Island, and I am glad that we finally got an official resolution. I just wish it was delivered in something other than a tired man telling me to get off his lawn and move on with my life.
- Yes, I pirated the other ones, but that's okay - I pledged enough for Thimbleweed Park that I got a Certificate of Absolution out of it.
- Make sure to follow this comic and its sequel on the topic.
- While I'll always defend that Monkey Island I and II are hilarious, I should publicly accept that one of my favorite jokes is this scene from Curse of Monkey Island (about 40 seconds, Guybrush's third response).
- Of course, I don't know what Ron Gilbert was actually thinking, and based on his articles on his website he seems like a nice man. Which makes the whole thing even more baffling: either he's tired of it all and never let on, or he isn't and made a mean game by mistake.