Review – Return to Monkey Island
LucasArts had a hell of a run in the late 80s and 90s, creating some of the most memorable point-and-click adventures to grace our PCs. Back then it was a battle for dominance between LucasArts and Sierra, at least in terms of the point-and-click adventure market. Sierra found huge success with their King’s Quest and Space Quest titles, while LucasArts gave us hits like the Indiana Jones series, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and Grim Fandango. Arguably, the crowning achievement in Lucas Arts’ lineup was the Monkey Island series.
Spanning across five original games and two special editions, the Monkey Island franchise has been cemented in player’s hearts for decades. Now, after a very long hiatus from the series, The Secret of Monkey Island creator, Ron Gilbert, has teamed up with Terrible Toybox and Devolver Digital to bring us the latest saga of Guybrush Threepwood: Return to Monkey Island.
Despite taking place right after the events of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Return to Monkey Island isn’t considered to be a direct sequel to that title. Even though Gilbert left after the second Monkey Island game, everything that occurred within the other Monkey Island games is still considered canon. This becomes very apparent when playing Return to Monkey Island, as there are countless references to each game in the series. Newcomers need not be dissuaded, as each past connection is sufficiently explained. Veterans will likely love the nods to prior games, even if they are a bit overdone at times.
Picking up where Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge left off, Return to Monkey Island has you initially playing as the son of Guybrush Threepwood in the Big Whoop Amusement Park. At first I was put off thinking that the entire game would be played through the lens of his son, but thankfully, that’s only for the introductory section. The rest of the game is presented through flashbacks, as Threepwood recounts his tales of how he found the secret of Monkey Island to his son. It’s very reminiscent of The Princess Bride, but that’s never a bad thing.
Years after out-witting the evil zombie pirate, LeChuck, Guybrush Threepwood finds himself feeling unsatisfied with never having discovered the secret of Monkey Island. He once again vows to make this his life’s mission, and ventures to Melee Island to search for clues about the secret, as well as a new crew and a ship. He quickly finds that Melee Island has changed drastically, with new, younger pirate leaders running the show. Desperate to locate the secret of Monkey Island before his arch-nemesis, LeChuck, Threepwood seeks the help of some familiar faces; such as his true love, Elaine, the ever-scheming salesman, Stan, and the Sword Master turned governor, Carla. Tons of reoccurring characters make an appearance in Return to Monkey Island, but not all of them are necessarily keen on helping Guybrush.
In addition to revisiting Melee Island and Monkey Island, Guybrush will be able to venture to new destinations, such as the frosty Brrr Muda and the dangerous Terror Island. The new areas are a welcome addition to Return to Monkey Island, breathing some new life into a game heavily steeped in nostalgia. There are also a few new shops, characters, and sites to visit on both Melee Island and Monkey Island. I was pleasantly surprised with how well they were able to change up the preexisting locations, making them feel more fresh and interesting to explore.
Like all the other installments in the Monkey Island series, Return to Monkey Island is a point-and-click adventure. The inventory system has been streamlined to be much more user-friendly this time around, as has the UI. Action options will pop up whenever the cursor is hovering over something you can interact with, so there’s no need to tediously click on the screen to find things of importance. In fact, it’s often very hard to miss items of significance. Although, there are a few occasions where blazing through an area will lock you out of it for good once you’ve progressed past certain points in the story. You won’t miss anything needed to complete later sections of the game, but you can miss out on some collectibles and secret achievements if you’re not careful.
Collectibles come in the form of Trivia Cards. These can be found scattered throughout all the locations in Return to Monkey Island. Most are easy to find, but some can be tucked away in more concealed spots. They are fun addition to the game, asking trivia questions about the specifics of the games and/or their production. I found myself enjoying their inclusion quite a bit, even going so far as to look up information about each game and paying extra attention to specifics in Return to Monkey Island in order to answer them correctly. There are one hundred cards in total, so there’s plenty of trivia to enjoy for nerds like myself who love this sort of thing.
My only complaint is if you answer a question incorrectly, the Trivia Card disappears from your book entirely. This makes it hard to track just how many cards you’ve actually found throughout the game. Saving before answering and then reloading a previous save (in the event you provided the wrong answer) doesn’t work either. If you don’t give the correct answer to the Trivia Card’s question, it’s gone from that playthrough completely. Eventually, you can find the failed cards again if you start up a new game, but that’s quite the undertaking. Make sure to do your research before answering if you’re looking to get that achievement!
The success of any point-and-click game is largely reliant on its puzzles. Thankfully, Return to Monkey Island doesn’t feature any puzzles that require huge leaps in logic. All of the answers can be found with thorough exploration. I did find the puzzles to be slightly easier than in some of the other titles, but they were still enjoyable nonetheless. None managed to subvert my expectations quite like the insult sword-fighting sections in The Secret of Monkey Island, but then again, not many point-and-click adventures have been able to top that either. There were some truly clever puzzles in the later chapters of the game, which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially on the island of Brrr Muda. I just wish there had been a few more puzzles like those earlier in the game to make it feel more balanced.
There’s also a difficulty setting when you first start the game: an easy mode for casual gamers and a hard mode for veterans of the genre. To be honest, I didn’t notice much of a difference between the two modes, aside from some achievements being locked in the easy setting. Even in hard mode, the puzzles aren’t overly difficult, usually only requiring thorough exploration and observation to solve. There’s even a built-in hint system in the form of a hint book that you’re given early on in the game. This is an extremely convenient feature, as it saves you the hassle of looking up walkthroughs if you’re stuck on something. I didn’t find it necessary most of the time, but I was still grateful to have it for the two puzzles I did get stumped on.
Now for the most divisive aspect of Return to Monkey Island: the art design. Ever since its reveal, the new art style has been a point of contention among many fans. Some praise its fresh new look, while many others have expressed intense dislike for the sharp, angular, cartoony features. Honestly, I’m somewhere in the middle on this issue. It’s not my favorite of the franchise, but I certainly don’t hate it either.
This isn’t even the first time the look of a Monkey Island game has had a rebrand. Both The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge got a massive overhaul in their Special Editions in 2009 and 2010, respectively. They got rid of the text commands taking up the bottom third of the screen, and ditched the pixelated graphics in favor of a more illustrative style. These changes were met positively by most critics and fans alike, so what makes this art style so abhorrent to some?
I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical of it at first, but after seeing so many familiar locations and characters presented in this new art design, I began to appreciate it. What really sold me on it was the fact that Guybrush is retelling his tales to his son, complete with chapter breaks, like he’s reading him a story. Return to Monkey Island looks like a storybook come to life, which adds to the fantastical nature of it. Realism wouldn’t work in a game about a bumbling pirate wannabe who’s constantly at odds with an angry zombie pirate captain. I also understand wanting to move away from pixelated graphics in favor of having a game with more detail. So in this case, having a game look like a children’s pop-up book works fairly well, in my opinion.
The sound design on the other hand, should give no one any reason for ridiculous outrage. Nearly all of the original voice actors have returned to reprise their roles from the previous games. The only notable exception is Earl Boen (the voice of LeChuck), who has retired from acting. However, the role was given to voice acting veteran, Jess Harnell, who did the role justice. The soundtrack also retains that classic Monkey Island sound thanks to composers Peter McConnell, Michael Land, and Clint Bajakian rejoining the team. If for some reason the art style makes you uneasy, the familiar sounds of Monkey Island adventures past will draw you back in.
The Monkey Island series are adored because of their humor and charm, and Return to Monkey Island is no different. It retains all the same wit, puns, and groan-worthy dad jokes as the rest of the games. In fact, Return to Monkey Island feels more in-line with the earlier titles, no doubt due to Gilbert’s involvement, as well as most of the original cast. The art style might be initially off-putting for some, but it really does grow on you after a while. The puzzles are fun and creative, and don’t rely on absurd solutions to solve them. Even if you’ve never played a Monkey Island game before, if you’re a fan of point-and-click adventures, you’ll have a good time. If you’re a long time fan of the series (like me) then you owe it yourself to play Return to Monkey Island. The secret of Monkey Island awaits you!
The art style is a huge departure from the other games, and one that is surely to be divisive among fans. However, it does grow on you after a while.
A point-and-click adventure with a streamlined, user-friendly interface. The puzzles aren’t overly tough to figure out and don’t require great leaps in logic to solve.
Nearly all of the main voice cast from the original games reprise their roles, with Earl Boen (the voice of LeChuck) being a notable exception. The soundtrack retains the classic Monkey Island sound, thanks to some of the original composers rejoining the project.
Return to Monkey Island is a delightful return to the series after a long hiatus, thanks to Ron Gilbert once again taking the helm of the project. The story and characters are quirky as ever, albeit a bit too ham-fisted with the nostalgic references at times.
Final Verdict: 8.0
Return to Monkey Island is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Return to Monkey Island was provided by the publisher.