This is a Guest Review by Christian Wagner
Tales of Monkey Island is a five-episode adventure game from Telltale Games, and the latest in the Monkey Island franchise of games previously created and published by Lucasarts. Telltale was formed largely out of former Lucasarts developers, and since Lucasarts is no longer in the adventure game business, Telltale was able to license the property from them. The first Monkey Island game came out in 1990, the fourth in 2000, and this is the first Monkey Island game since then. (A full history of the series can be found in the usual places).
The first episode of TOMI was released in July 2009, and the final episode in December. Now that the game is complete, it can be reviewed as a whole instead of as individual episodes. This is important, because unlike some episodic games, the TOMI episodes form a larger story, and no individual episode is a standalone piece. In addition, the quality of the episodes varies a bit, although not drastically.
The thing about TOMI is that there are two distinct audiences for the game, who will have different expectations and reactions to it. That means that this review has to be two reviews in one.
The first audience consists of the majority of people who will play TOMI: they are people who are new to the franchise. Their expectations are simple; they just want a good game that holds up on its own.
The second audience consists of the people who are fans of earlier games in the franchise. These people have been waiting a long time for a new game in the series, and will not only judge TOMI by the quality of the game itself, but by how well it follows the previous games. Some of the earlier games set a very high standard for their quality of writing, animation, art direction, and voice acting.
The good news is that TOMI works well as both a game for new players, and as part of the franchise. It isn't perfect, and the limited budget of the Telltale episodic game model shows in many places, but the pedigree of the game's developers shines through.
TOMI is set in a Not Very Historically Accurate version of the 18th-century Caribbean, which owes more to the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disneyland and Warner Brothers cartoons than it does to any real locations. (The Monkey Island series pre-dates the "Pirates" movie franchise by over a decade.) This is a world of vending machines full of Grog™, self-loading cannons that never run out of ammunition, pirates that never seem to actually raid any ships, and the Demon Pirate LeChuck (formerly the Zombie Pirate LeChuck, Ghost Pirate LeChunk, and so on). TOMI is primarily a humor game, driven mostly by dialogue, although in places TOMI gets considerably darker than previous games in the series. In the end, though, any game with a protagonist named "Guybrush Threepwood" is unlikely to drift far from its humor base.
TOMI follows the standard adventure game model, where the player controls a protagonist who travels through various distinct locations, collecting items, interacting with other characters, and solving puzzles in order to further a story. It has fully 3D environments and characters, and does not use any pre-rendered video. All scenes are rendered within the game engine, even the large set-piece sequences. As in most 3D games with a third-person perspective, there are occasional camera problems, but they are almost entirely ironed out by the end of the first episode.
The controls, at least on the PC, are designed to be usable entirely with the mouse. However, the mouse-only movement method does not work very well, and some tasks can be cumbersome. The game becomes immensely more playable if you switch to a keyboard/mouse combination. The WADS keys can be used for movement, holding shift to run, and the tab key can be used to open and close the inventory screen. The space key pauses the game (even in cutscenes), and the right mouse button skips lines of dialogue.
The graphics in TOMI range from good to merely tolerable. The primary characters are well-modeled and well-animated. But a problem becomes obvious very quickly: TOMI's limited budget and development time has lead to shortcuts, the most obvious one being the re-use of models for different secondary characters with few changes between them. At a couple of points in the game the developers even mock themselves for it, but in the end it's a little jarring. Luckily, it's not so bad as to ruin the game, but it's one of the major signs that TOMI had a much lower budget compared to previous Monkey Island games.
Similarly, the environments and locations in TOMI are very well-done, but heavily re-used. Many locations are revisited during the course of game, and some of them are suspiciously similar to each other. Again, this is noticeable but is not so jarring as to ruin one's enjoyment of the game. The environments themselves feature lush special effects, good use of lighting, and enough detail to make the scenes interesting but not so much that they feel cluttered.
Before this becomes a litany of disappointments, I should point out that there are two things that have not been skimped on in any way, which is a good thing because they are the two most important things for a Monkey Island game. These two things are the writing and the voice acting.
Here's why TOMI is a good game regardless of whatever budget problems it may have: it is funny. In the first episode, the writing has not quite found its feet yet, and relies a little bit too much on "something happened off-screen and you just missed it" sort of jokes, but by middle of the second episode it is in full swing. A combination of very smart dialogue, self-aware characters, hideous puns, self-parody, renamed inventory objects, sight gags, and unexpected cultural references (I never thought I'd see a "The Music Man" joke in a game made in 2009) make TOMI one of the funniest games I've played in recent memory. And the quality of the writing is reinforced by the quality of the game's voices.
It's hard to find games these days where the voice acting is uniformly good, but TOMI is one of them. Because Telltale hired veteran Monkey Island voice actors for the major characters, the primary voice cast is fantastic. And unlike most games, I didn't run into anyone who sounded like a janitor they pulled into the recording booth. The secondary and background characters are all competently voiced, and some of them are very, very good (such as the disturbingly androgynous mer-person "Anemone"). This is incredibly important, because the game's humor would not work nearly as well without the quality of the voice acting, and Telltale did not skimp on it.
The quality of the writing also extends to the puzzles. The very first Monkey Island game became legendary for having the most nonsensical inventory item in any adventure game ever made: a rubber chicken with a pulley embedded in it. TOMI continues that tradition by presenting a combination of mundane and exceeding weird inventory items to collect, and puzzles that range from the obvious to the bizarre. Those puzzles never feel arbitrary or forced, however. There is always a logic to them, however odd that logic ends up being.
I should also mention that TOMI follows the tradition of Lucasarts adventure games of not punishing the player. It is literally impossible to have the game end without actually choosing "exit game" from the menu, or by reaching the end of an episode. You cannot kill off the protagonist (although at some points he may wish you had), and you cannot make a choice which will render the game unfinishable. This encourages experimenting, which is good for both puzzle-solving and for creating new and funny situations that might not have occurred if the player was afraid of dying or making a mistake.
There are minor quibbles to be had about the gameplay: there is a little too much running around and backtracking in places, and some of the puzzles require very tight timing and can be frustrating to get right even once you know what to do. There are also occasional graphical glitches, and there are subtitle errors in many places. But these problems are over quickly when they occur, so they don't hurt the game too much.
Finally, the question that the long-time Monkey Island fan will have is this: is its heart in the right place? The answer to that is a resounding yes. Telltale's decisions to retain the styles of art direction, writing, and voice acting from beloved games like Curse of Monkey Island make TOMI feel like a trip home, regardless of how many shortcuts the developers were forced to take. It is full of nods to the previous games, but they never feel gratuitous or tacked-on. Instead, they feel like a natural part of the game, in the same way that TOMI feels like a natural part of the Monkey Island "mythos" and not a tacked-on attempt to cash in on a franchise.
Players who are new to Monkey Island will find TOMI to be a game that is funny to listen to and fun to play, slightly hobbled by a low budget. Players who are fans of previous Monkey Island games will find largely the same thing. TOMI is a proper sequel to the series, in many ways superior to the one that came before it, but is again hobbled by its limited budget. Monkey Island fans will remember the salad days of high-quality cel-style animation, orchestrated music scores, and lavish hand-drawn backgrounds, but for what it is, TOMI does not disappoint.
Telltale Games gets an "A" for effort, and a "B" for budget.