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To plant my piratey flag up front, I am an extremely huge fan of the Monkey Island series, and am therefore almost exactly who Return To Monkey Island is aimed at. After several adventures with other devs, sometime-mighty pirate Guybrush Threepwood (a name that invites as many tedious jokes as Benedict Cumberbatch, which is a trap I won’t be falling into) is back with his some of his original progenitors Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman – Gilbert being the director for the first two Islands Monkey.
I was expecting Return To Monkey Island to be a delightful croquembouche of point and click puzzles artfully piled up with puns and meta jokes, all slathered in the sticky, sugary caramel of nostalgia. And it is that. But I wasn’t expecting it to contain a gentle rumination on getting old and figuring out what things are really worth caring about.
Guybrush’s latest story of lovely piratical nonsense sees him going on a quest to actually find the secret of Monkey Island, given that he got diverted in the first game. He’s once again racing the zombie pirate captain Le Chuck, as well as the new, more modern Pirate Lords who care more about profit margins and raids than the romance or cool story potential of piracy. This is not a metaphor for anything. You visit a couple of classic locations from the earlier games, as well as some brand new ones like the ice triangle of Brrr-Muda, and run into a lot of new and fan favourite characters – including my beloved Murray the demonic skull.
These people and locations all look fantastic in the new art style, which is vibrant and lovely, capturing the spirit of the earlier games but in a storybook style that is extremely fitting for this new adventure. It’s hard to believe that this wasn’t always how Monkey Island looked, to be honest, and there are great extra animations in the fore- and background that brings everything alive.
But since this is a point and click puzzle adventure, you can’t just sightsee all day. The game is progressed by you solving a series of puzzles that form a long daisy-chain into the one thing you actually need. You need a disguise to get onto a ship, so you need an eyepatch, so you need a key, so you need the serial number on the lock; you also need a mop, so you need a special tree, so you need a map, so you need a sample of wood from that same tree you haven’t found yet. We’re well beyond the years of the nine verb menu, so Guybrush has a drag-and-drop inventory, and when you mouse over an object you can left lick to look at it and get a comment from Guybrush, or right click to perform a suggested action. This might be picking the thing up, but it changes with context. If you’re already holding a mop, for example, the prompt on a blob of chicken grease will be to mop it up.
It’s a streamlined, modern system that makes a famously opaque genre much easier for first-timers to enjoy, augmented by a hint book dolling out gradual tips if you get stuck. Return To Monkey Island also has a casual mode that simplifies some of the puzzles, removing a step or two for players who haven’t gotten used to the kind of logic that dictates setting a foodstuff on fire is, in a sense, equivalent to putting very hot pepper on it. I’d recommend the harder mode if you’re a hardcore adventure puzzler, but the easier mode doesn’t actually detract from the spirit of the game. I judge it to be very well done.
Despite these efforts to welcome newcomers though, you should be under no illusion that the primary audience for Return To Monkey Island is people who, like me, get a little swoop in their tummy when the theme music plays and the title card comes up. I’m not kidding about the nostalgia caramel. There are points where you come across something and the only thing Guybrush can do with it is remember the past. To the dev’s credit, it’s not mandatory to indulge in all the nostalgia, but it’s kind of hard to have a conversation with most of the supporting cast without it cropping up, because Guybrush already knows Wally and the Voodoo Lady and Stan the used ship salesman. Even Cobb the Ask Me About LOOM guy is still here, and he has a whole bit about how he’s really tired of people asking him about Loom.
The entirely new bits are good on their own merit, though. Brrr-Muda is a small frozen tundra with a hard-labour ice prison and a very unusual system of government. Elaine, an impressive self-rescuer who is just generally more competent than her loveable floppy-haired pirate husband, has started an anti-scurvy charity and turned an island into a monoculture lime grove. This is part of the turn for the unexpected, because she has to leave it when she realises that Guybrush’s quest to get the actual Secret Of Monkey Island is ruining a lot of people’s lives.
One of the extended puzzles is that LeChuck’s crew of ghosts, zombies, skeletons and demons do a sort of soft mutiny because they don’t actually want to go to Monkey Island. The Secret, they think, is kind of an unhealthy obsession with him, driven in part by his equally unhealthy obsession with Guybrush himself. Some of the crew have forgotten what they found inspiring about LeChuck in the first place. Elaine supports Guybrush on his quest, but tries to temper his expectations and get him to examine what he’s been doing this whole time.
It’s not that Return To Monkey Island gets too serious, as much as it is gently self-aware in ways that it wasn’t before. It’s clear from the start that the ending, which I won’t spoil, is going to be a bit metatextual in a way that tiny babies will get cross about – but I thought it was perfect. It’s about growing and changing, and what the important bits of the stories we love actually are. I do think it’s one of the best point and click games to give someone in the year of 2022 to prove that point and click games are good. But I’m also self-aware enough myself to know I wouldn’t have loved Return To Monkey Island quite as much if I didn’t have a history with the series. But I do. So I did. Yo ho ho, and a bottle of fun.