Return to Monkey Island is like seeing an old friend after a very long time. They may look different, but the soul is still there.
It’s nice to have seen the return of the point & click adventure game over the past few years. In the 90s they were prolific, with so many themes catered for, and even movie tie-ins and experimental efforts. Of course, it’s well known that LucasArts were the masters of the genre — although that certainly wasn’t the limit of their talents — having produced numerous now-iconic adventures. Best known amongst them was the Monkey Island series, with the first two games being incredibly fondly remembered. I have memories of playing them along with my sister as children, and still have nightmares about that damned monkey wrench puzzle. So it’s with tremendous delight that I’ve had the chance to play through a return to those classics through a new instalment brought by some of the original creative team.
Interestingly, Return to Monkey Island uses the end of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge as a framing device, with Guybrush’s son re-enacting the final moments of that game with a friend, before running into his dad and asking him to tell him a story. Guybrush recounts the time he finally discovered the actual secret of Monkey Island as he and dread pirate LeChuck raced to the titular island to claim whatever lies beneath. So begins a nautical adventure spread across islands and ocean, filled with devious puzzles, hilarious moments, and some lovely moments for fans of the series to pick up on.
The gameplay itself feels like little has changed for the most part. Clicking moves you, interacts with points of interest and selects dialogue choices. I do miss the verb-driven system of the class SCUMM games as they could often lead to hilarious consequences, but the streamlined system of left-click inspects and right-click interacts was just fine and certainly made it easier to figure out how to progress. There’s still no shortage of funny moments as you try to use an item on a completely unrelated object.
Those puzzles are really solid too, harkening back to the genre’s glory days. Initially, things are simple enough as you find one object to deliver to a person and other such tasks to progress the plot. But by the fourth of the five acts, you’ll be navigating puzzles that intertwine with one another to a sinister degree. If you bog yourself down in one puzzle chain at the expense of others then you’ll have a hard time moving forward. It’s a genuine throwback in that regard, and genre fans will adore the structure of them and the “Eureka!” moments when they finally solve one puzzle that opens up everything else. Once you reach the conclusion you’ll be solving devious challenges to reach your final goal, with an ending to rival the silliness of any of the games that have come before.
Of course, this is the era of the internet, so those puzzles will only be difficult for as long as you can resist looking up a walkthrough online. Many would consider this cheating, so the developers at Terrible Toybox have put in a couple of mitigations. Firstly, there are two difficulties, with hard being more akin to the classic challenge, and a casual mode that simplifies things by removing steps from certain puzzles. For example, in casual mode, Guybrush needs to buy an item to apologise to another character which then moves the story on, whilst in the hard mode he also has to write a letter that includes certain facts about the character in question. It’s a nice system for those who want to breeze through the game or don’t have the patience for elaborate puzzles. The story remains the same, so it’s a fine option. Secondly, there’s a robust hint system that you acquire quite early in the game in the form of a book that pushes you in the right direction. Combined with the to-do list, this can support you through some trickier challenges without outright giving you the solutions. These are nice additions for those that want to use them, and for those that complain about games getting “too easy” these days, just leave them turned off.
Whilst puzzling and exploring you’ll come across countless references to previous games, with beloved characters making cameos and even becoming integral to the story. Carla, who trained Guybrush in insult sword fighting — a feature that is sadly not present beyond a few nods — used-ship salesman Stan, and former crew member Otis all appear and have fun moments. Some of them are involved in incidental puzzles that serve no other purpose than to bring back fond memories of games gone by. I enjoyed these moments, but occasionally it was a little annoying to work your way towards solving a puzzle only to find it wasn’t related to progressing the story at all.
Something that got the internet talking before Return To Monkey Island’s release was the art style, with some people complaining about how the game looked compared to previous titles. It’s worth remembering that across the series the art style has changed. Look at the first game compared to the third and there are considerable differences in art direction, so it’s an odd gripe to have. This game does have a rather distinctive look, and I for one quite like it. It’s bright, and everything stands out beautifully. I liked moments where you would get a close-up of something particularly gross or bizarre in an almost Ren & Stimpy style. It’s fun, and the characters you know and love are all present and look as you might expect. I honestly can’t understand the complaints.
The sound design is wonderful too. The classic theme is here and sounds as good as ever, and the voice work is excellent. Each conversation flows really well, making those punchlines hit perfectly thanks to well-timed lines. LeChuck lands especially well in the scenes he appears in.
I had such a great time reminiscing about Return to Monkey Island. Whilst there are some tricky puzzles that may be off-putting to some, there’s really very little to complain about here. This is the way a return to a classic series should be done, with heart and respect for the previous material whilst also doing enough to create its own story. The ending to this game feels like a fitting final send off to that series I grew up with, and whilst I’d always love more, I’d be quite happy if Monkey Island left us on this wonderful high.
Return to Monkey Island is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.