13-Aug-2001 Computer games are making strides in provoking meaningful responses in players. They have the ability to terrify us with a palpable atmosphere of pure horror in games such as System Shock 2, and make us care for believable characters and their fortunes in games such as Planescape: Torment and Deus Ex. But, along the way, they seem to have forgotten the skill most artists consider the hardest to master: the ability to make us laugh.
Most people's closest memory of a good laugh during a game is probably watching scientists fall down a lift shaft in Half-Life. But even that was a result of a shocking moment delivered with impeccable timing - like Marvin's head being blown to pieces accidentally in the back of Vincent and Jules' car in Pulp Fiction - not an example of finely crafted comedy. Traditionally, the format that has fitted comedy most perfectly has been the point 'n' click adventure, which LucasArts managed to make consistently and riotously funny with titles like Sam & Max, Day Of The Tentacle and Monkey Island 1 & 2.
Whether comedy disappeared from games because of the waning popularity of adventures or whether adventure games died out because all the comic talent packed its bags and got a proper job remains a mystery. The only thing that concerns us right now is that LucasArts has finally opened the cage to its Adventure Games Department and let all the monkeys loose for another puzzle-packed romp.
And guess what? It's actually bloody funny.
The plot sees Guybrush and Elaine returning to Melee Island from their long honeymoon cruise. So long, in fact, that Elaine has been declared dead and thus is no longer the governor of the island. Not only that, there is an Australian land developer who has been acquiring every property he can lay his hands on by challenging and defeating all the pirates to insult duels.
Saving the governor's mansion, clearing his name after being framed for a bank robbery and obtaining the formidable voodoo Ultimate Insult are just some of the jobs Guybrush sets about completing. He meets almost all the characters from The Secret Of Monkey Island along the way, not least of which is his ever-present opponent the ghost pirate LeChuck.
But a few things have moved on since then, and a quick look at our Games Review Checklist tells us it must have something to do with Graphics, Interface, Sound and Gameplay.
The first of those is the most obvious improvement and does much to scrub away the stained memory of Monkey Island 3, which used some very patchy Shockwave-looking graphics. Escape uses an updated version of the GRIME engine first used in the wonderful Grim Fandango, with 3D via a fixed camera, a complete absence of pointing and clicking, and a very simple but extremely functional interface. While I spent a lot of time stroking my unsupported mouse, longing for the days when you were in control of an almighty pointer on the screen, complete with action instructions and a catalogue of items, I have to confess running around using only the keyboard works pretty well. Admittedly, I still can't understand why the GRIME engine won't allow the option of using a mouse.
As for the sound, the music is as great as it ever was and all the voice acting is nothing short of superb. And, for a game with non-stop dialogue, this is an essential element. But there's another thing that it is essential to get right, and that's the puzzles.
USE PUZZLE ON JOKE
Adventure game puzzles always stretch the limits of reason, with their warped logic and a very limited freedom that only allows you to do what the game wants you to do. Perhaps the reason adventure games have been so far and few between of late is their failure to move beyond the 'use object on other object' stage.
Making it 3D and taking away the point 'n' click aspect doesn't really count as progress. The massively underrated Discworld Noir is the only adventure game to have tried something new, with a system of clues that could be used on each other to make logical connections, and a werewolf act where you used scents more than objects. But the game was almost wholly ignored and its inventive thinking went largely unnoticed.
Escape From Monkey Island doesn't do anything new in this area, and simply continues the tradition of earlier Monkey games with a healthy dose of Grim Fandango-ness. The interplay between the frustration of being stuck and the elation at finally solving the offending puzzle is at the core of adventure gameplay, and Escape manages to keep a nice balance most of the time.
Most of the puzzles make sense, although there are some you're more likely to solve by the good old method of trying everything in your inventory with everything in the game, rather than through abstract reasoning. The US edition of the game actually comes with a full walkthrough, and although this may encourage lazy and constant cheating, it at least removes the annoyance of being stuck for weeks.
IN IT FOR THE MONKEY
Escape From Monkey Island does its damnedest to go back to its roots and re-enact the magic of the first two games (and try to pretend the third one never happened). In fact, it displays some positively cannibalistic tendencies as it roots around the old titles for plotlines, characters and jokes. Not that this is entirely a bad thing, since they were both masterpieces with brilliant plotlines, hilarious jokes and unforgettable characters. If you haven't played them you'll miss a lot of the references.
On the other hand, long-time fans are less likely to be impressed by what is largely a collection of old ideas. However, they are executed with so much class that it makes the whole thing more than worthwhile, and there are enough new ones to captivate your attention all the way through.
But despite the cleverly subversive jokes that pop up now and again, you can't escape the feeling that LucasArts is playing it safe, resurrecting a big name instead of developing an original idea like it did with Grim Fandango. Maybe it was the only way the Ideas unit could convince the Finance section that making an adventure game was a Viable Option.
The theme of commerciality is a recurrent one throughout Escape, mostly because the makers fully understand the cynical (and probably justified) view seasoned gamers are likely to take. There are gentle jabs at George Lucas (someone give them a medal!), when a former termite trainer complains that most of the money his act earned went to the head of the LucreArts Entertainment Consortium.
One of the main plot elements involves someone trying to buy all the islands to turn them into a sort of pirate Disneyland, and Charles L Charles transforms the legendary grog-soaked Scumm Bar into a sanitised and fashionable sushi bar. Marketing madness reaches its peak on Tambalaya Island where you can find Planet Threepwood (selling Guybrush hamburgers) and Starbucaneer's Coffee.
We haven't come across anyone resembling Jar Jar Binks, but we wouldn't be surprised to see some Phantom Menace satirisation (after all, Escape does a much better job of recapturing the spirit of the Monkey series than Episode I did with Star Wars).
It's easy to be cynical and view it as a game manufactured by a group of workers paid to come up with jokes rather than the spontaneous outburst of one person's talent. But while Ron Gilbert has had absolutely nothing to do with Escape, you should remember that The Simpsons - possibly the funniest thing ever created - is the work of a group of writers paid to come up with jokes rather than the single mind of Matt Groening. Most important, however, is the fact that the main men behind Monkey 4 are the ones who brought us Sam & Max - possibly the funniest adventure ever created.
Escape From Monkey Island is an enjoyable, professionally created and amiably funny game. It doesn't do anything startlingly new, but is still an essential title for the hordes of people who grew up playing adventures. Because you are still out there, aren't you?
That's the third funniest Monkey game I've ever seen
Funny Good, and mostly logical, puzzles Great voice acting
Graphics only 640 x 480 Relies too much on the original Monkey games