Escape from Monkey Island marked the end of adventure gaming for LucasArts, as they began to shift development towards legions of Star Wars licensed games. In 2005, Telltale Games was founded by some ex-LucasArts staff. They quickly grew into the niche of developing adventure games based on licensed properties, including Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Adventures, and three seasons of Sam and Max. In 2009, Telltale partnered with LucasArts to create Tales of Monkey Island, a series of five downloadable chapters, to effectively create a brand new, fifth Monkey Island title. Some of the designers include David Grossman (from the first two Monkey Islands) and Michael Stemmle (from Escape from Monkey Island), amongst others. Ron Gilbert also acts as a consultant, and is given the title “Professor of Monkeyology” in the credits.
The story begins in media res, with Guybrush having completed a quest for a mysterious voodoo root. Elaine and he run into LeChuck, whom they almost defeat – except instead of killing him, they accidentally end up summoning all of his evil energy and dispersing it throughout the Caribbean. This affliction, known as the Pox of LeChuck, begins infecting all of the other pirates, causing them to become even more dangerous and enraged. Furthermore, the disease infects Guybrush’s left hand, causing it to develop a mind of its own. Even more bizarrely, LeChuck regains his mortal form and actually begins to help Guybrush and Elaine on their search. Their only clue lies in a mystical artifact called “La Esponja Grande”, which is told to mitigate the curse. And so, Guybrush begins another adventure to hunt it down.
Tales of Monkey Island is the first step into true 3D for the series. At first it looks like a bit of a mixed bag – the environments look excellent, but the character models are noticeably low-poly and plasticky. Telltale realized that adventure game fans might not have super powerful rigs and have designed their games to work on low spec systems, in addition to allow easy porting to consoles. Still, even though it’s not the prettiest in stills, most of these concerns fade away when you see it in action – it’s extremely well animated, with the numerous facial expressions and body movements greatly enhancing the dialogue scenes.
The other vaguely controversial move is the control scheme. It’s not completely keyboard-based like Escape from Monkey Island, but it’s not entirely point-and-click either. Instead, you use the cursor to interact with objects, while you move around with the keyboard (or nunchuck). There is an option to hold down the mouse button and direct Guybrush by pointing him in different directions, but it’s clumsy and not recommended at all. Telltale’s official explanation is that it’s extremely difficult to implement a purely point-and-click interface when you have dynamic environments. And they’re right – the camera scrolls and follows Guybrush as he moves around, potentially making it difficult to point to a location that’s off screen.
Like all of Telltale’s games, Tales of Monkey Island was released episodically, with a new chapter published approximately once a month. While their previous games were largely standalone episodes with some recurring themes, each chapter of Tales is a smaller chunk of a larger narrative. It’s not that different than the structure of the older Monkey Island games, it just happens that each ends on some kind of cliffhanger.
The first chapter, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, takes place on Flotsam Island, where Guybrush is shipwrecked after his initial encounter with LeChuck. The island is afflicted with a strange condition, where strong winds make it impossible for anything to escape. Furthermore, an eccentric scientist named Marquis de Singe takes a particular interest in Guybrush’s infected hand, to the point where it becomes a dangerous obsession. It’s up to Guybrush to find out the source of the winds, eliminate them, and gain possession of a ship – the Screaming Narwhal of the title. Here, he is also guided by the Voodoo Lady to hunt down the long-missing Coronado De Cava, an explorer who supposedly knows the location of La Esponja Grande.
The second chapter, The Siege at Spinner Cay, begins with Guybrush and his partner, Captain Winslow, under attack by a bounty hunter named Morgan LeFlay. Sent by de Singe to retrieve Guybrush’s hand, LeFlay is a huge Guybrush fangirl, gushing while simultaneously attacking him. After evading her (but losing his hand in the process, being replaced with an appropriately piratey hook), Guybrush ends up at Spinner Cay, a small grouping of islands and home to a race of androgynous merfolk called Vaycaylians. Here he runs into Elaine and LeChuck, who are arguing with another faction of pirates, driven mad by the pox, over the Vaycaylians’ mystical artifacts. The peaceful talks soon erupt into chaos, and Guybrush must find a way to fend off their attacks, while learning more about the location of De Cava.
The third chapter, Belly of the Leviathan, is largely set in the stomach of a gigantic manatee, which has swallowed Guybrush and his ship, along with LeFlay. Conveniently, he happens upon De Cava, as well as the rest of his crewmates, who have set up their own society deeper in the belly of the beast. Guybrush needs to guide the manatee to the Manatee Mating Grounds, where La Esponja Grande apparently resides, but its cochlea (the part of the inner ear which aids in navigation) is damaged, resulting in the first major quest of the chapter. After guiding the manatee and escaping from its insides, he must somehow find a way to distract the female manatee guarding their treasure.
Murray also pops in here again, and serves more of a useful function than his gratuitous (but still funny) cameo back in Escape from Monkey Island. While in the belly of the manatee, you come across a stranded crew who’ve used the opportunity to take a nice, relaxing vacation. The three of them are so contently deluded that they somehow refuse to believe that the fourth, a guy named Santino, actually died a long time ago and is now a mere skeleton. You’ll need to switch his skull with Murray in an attempt to get him to do you a favor… until he double crosses you, anyway.
The fourth chapter, The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Threepwood, returns the action back to Flotsam Island, where Guybrush is brought in front of a courtroom under various trumped up charges. After disproving all of the witnesses, Guybrush still has to face up to his most grievous charge – the spreading of the pox of LeChuck. Elaine is a key witness, but unfortunately the pox has driven her to near madness, and she insists on fighting with Morgan, partially out of jealousy. Furthermore, Guybrush learns that La Esponja Grande needs to be charged before it’s of any use, requiring some more item gathering and questing to find the appropriate recipe.
This chapter sees the return of Stan, who appears as the prosecutor for the trial and seems to show up solely to make a buck by selling unlicensed toys. While most of the locations are the same as the first chapter, it now takes place at night, and a few new areas are available, including the courthouse and the bar Club 41. It’s also quite a dramatic chapter, something which the series has never pulled off successfully before, with a helluva cliffhanger ending.
The fifth chapter, Rise of the Pirate God, is by far the darkest chapter ever seen in a Monkey Island game, as Guybrush and Morgan explore the underworld and work with its obtuse denizens to return to the land of the living, where the climactic encounter awaits. It’s definitely true that the third and fourth Monkey Island games moved away from the creepier elements of the first two, and this final episode does a fantastic job of bringing those back, while still maintaining a flippant sense of humor.
The characters are much better written than in Escape from Monkey Island, especially with the romantic subplot and the tension between Morgan and Elaine. Guybrush’s love affair with Elaine was always kind of a joke in the first three games… until they ended up married by the end of it. By the time the fourth game rolled around, Guybrush clearly had the lower hand in the relationship, and Elaine was kinda bitchy, making it rather unpleasant. Elaine’s more restrained here, less mean and more of a capable woman who can clearly take care of herself, as evidenced in the first game. And she’s actually pretty charming too, as evidenced by the one scene where you can make Guybrush try to say “no” to her in a dozen different ways, only to end up conceding after exhausting all of them. It also helps that her British voice actress from Curse is back. And then there’s Morgan LeFlay, easily one of the most memorable cast members in the series. Most of her charm is carried through the outstanding animation and overly enthusiastic voice actress, and it’s hard to be too scared of her when she’s so damned chipper.
There are still some issues though. Take de Singe, and compare him to Ozzie Mandrill, the villain of Escape from Monkey Island. He was one of that game’s weaker links, whose only major characteristic, other than being evil and cranky, was being Australian. Like Mandrill, de Singe is just another stereotype, this time a super gay Frenchman. Still, it’s not all bad – the part in the first chapter where you need to coerce a monkey to free you from his operating table is pretty inspired, and his squeaky/shrill voice acting is slightly funny.
The puzzles are some of the best of the series, if only because they’re clever without being obtusely difficult. There’s sort of a built-in hint system where Guybrush will make comments about the situation as you wander around, so at least it’ll help point you in the right direction. While there are still numerous inventory puzzles, Telltale really shines with the dialogue puzzles, which comprise the best moments of the game. While Escape from Monkey Island beat the whole insult swordfighting joke into the ground, there are some pretty clever variations here, the most amusing being the manatee flirting. Once you’ve made it to the manatee breeding grounds, you need to lure the female manatee out of her cave. The male manatee is too frightened to do anything, so you need to teach yourself their language to get them hooked up. However, the only guide you have is a travel book, filled with stock phrases. The female manatee will say something threatening – you need to pick one of those fairly neutral sentences to make it sound like you’re being coy.
In another amusing scenario, Guybrush gives LeChuck a lesson in adventure puzzle logic, slowly walking him through all of the steps to figure out what to do. (“If I stick this in there, then it looks like a cow. Do I need a cow?”) In another section, the crew is captured by De Cava, who believes Guybrush is involved with his dear love, the Voodoo Lady. In order to save himself, he claims that he and Morgan are actually married. This obviously not being true, Guybrush needs to interpret various clues to answer De Cava’s questions or face death. (Or so he threatens, you still can’t actually be killed.)
A particularly silly moment is when you need to get initiated by De Cava’s crew by winning a scary (more like stupid) face contest. Functionally, it’s a very easy puzzle, since you just need to walk around and look at other things (and talk to other people) to get inspired, and just not use the same expression more than once to win. It’s remarkably dumb, but watching it all play out is gleefully ludicrous. It’s even better later on when you need to scare one of the other crew members by mimicking the expression of the person he fears most – his childhood teacher, a bug-eyed monstrosity named Sister Agnes, Director of Discipline.
The plot and writing is definitely a step up from Escape from Monkey Island. The dialogue still isn’t quite as funny nor as snippy as the older games, but the inspired situations and puzzles more than make up for it. The voice acting still sparkles, utilizing most of the cast members from The Curse of Monkey Island. Earl Boen, the voice of LeChuck, was absent for the initial release of the first chapter but appears in the last two episodes. He also went back to re-record lines for the first chapter to make it consistent. He’s voiced by a different actor for the second and third episodes, seeing as how he’s human and not as sneeringly evil as he used to be.
Plus, due to the pace at which Telltale needed to crank these out, some of the assets get reused a bit too often. The first chapter features not one, but two puzzles where you need to navigate through a jungle maze, similar to the Treasure Trial from the first game. In the second chapter… you come across an almost identical looking maze. Thankfully there’s no more puzzle to solve, but you still need to wander around. The same maze pops up again in the fourth chapter, but at least there’s a twist. Per usual protocol, you’re given a map, but you can fold and refold it, altering reality so you can navigate successfully through the maze. Still, the reuse of locations – and character models for nearly all of the NPCs – is one of the game’s biggest weaknesses.
In addition the PC release, Tales of Monkey Island was also released on the Wii as WiiWare downloads. Unfortunately, Nintendo gamers get the hose on this one. The episodes are more expensive – the whole season was released for $35, but the Wii version requires buying each individually for 1000 points, or $10 each. Each episode was released after its computer counterpart, usually by several weeks. The game obviously runs in a lower resolution, but it also suffers from a choppier frame rate and stuttering graphics. Furthermore, due to the size restrictions of WiiWare games, all of the dialogue is heavily compressed, making it sound significantly worse. The control scheme practically seems tailor made for the remote and nunchuck, but that’s the only thing the Wii release has going in its favor. The PlayStation 3 version is a bit more awkward to play due to the controller, but overall it’s far better, almost as good as the PC version.
Tales of Monkey Island was quite successful, sparking LucasArts’ further interest in the series. However, Telltale found more success with story-focused licensed games, particularly with their breakout The Walking Dead series, leaving them to abandon most of the classic adventure games they’d tried to resurrect. Still, if this is the last Monkey Island title, then it least it ended on a relative high note.