The monkeys. I still hear them in my sleep, they’re getting closer, pawing me with their calloused little banana-odoured fingers. We love a woman with a bit of spirit. And huge breasts. The title delivers a false promise. There is no escape from Monkey Island.
There never was. Its pirate residents never grow old and die; its gritty beaches are never free from washed-up grog barrels; its estuaries always knock and scrape with the adventure genre’s comic flotsam. Its secrets and curses have ensnared us since 1990, and the fourth in the series beckons us straight back into its interior.
Newcomers to the region may find the weight of its history off-putting like that of Disney Magic Kingdoms. Controlling the actions of Guybrush Threepwood, would-be pirate leader and ingenuous anti-hero, you encounter numerous characters and locations from the previous episodes. Delightfully charming this may be for fans, for first-timers it is alienatingly self-referential. Threepwood has finally defeated ghost pirate LeChuck and married his sweetheart Elaine, the governor of Melee Island. Alas, returning from their honeymoon they find Elaine declared dead by foolish bureaucrats, her home on the verge of demolition, her job challenged by a rival politician, her island’s industry the target of a hostile corporate take-over, and a dangerous burglar at large.
Upshot: a 3D puzzle-solving story involving lawyers, theme restaurants, groggacino coffee and sushi. Perhaps not the sort of buccaneereal antics you might expect, but then it doesn’t say Treasure Island on the box.
Grim Fandango’s engine has been overhauled to give LucasArts its new 3D interface. As you walk past objects Guybrush looks at them, and possible actions are suggested at the base of the screen in words. You can accept the action, hit [P] to force a Pick Up option or [U] for use. In each case, a sentence is formed and you hit [ENTER] to act on it. It may sound unwieldy but this unexpected tribute to classic text adventuring blends well with the updated visuals – and is less intrusive than many recent point-and-click innovations. The graphics themselves are stylised and cartoon-like, and while they’re not cutting edge they’re distinctive enough to define a taut sense of place. Forget the clipping and marginal flaws of Grim Fandango: this’un is slicker.
It’s attention to detail that makes Escape a success. Moving forward but with one eye (the other is patched) on the past, it begs to be called post-modern while remaining naively nostalgic. It mocks itself while celebrating its own traditions. Time and again it pauses to show you how foolish the whole thing is – characters routinely refer to their presence in ‘this game’ and Guybrush discovers a bar where he can buy LucasArts memorabilia. It could be clumsy, but it isn’t: it boasts devilish remember-the-first-time-you-saw-Airplane irreverence.
You could argue there’s too much clever-clever self-awareness here. A better criticism, however, lies in the dialogue. You get an earful of it, and it warbles on much too long. You can skip it, but hours of static – but, OK, funny – talking are inevitable. And the puzzles are growing ever more obscure… Stretching a sheet of human skin over with a drain to create a trampoline so you can bounce up to a window sounds like part The Silence of the Lambs, not a high-seas yarn. But there is no escape from Monkey Island. It is the best adventure game for years, it has a sly, well-plotted purpose and it points the way to the 3D adventures of the future.
Don’t fear the monkeys: embrace them.