maanantai 2. lokakuuta 2017

REVIEW - Thimbleweed Park

GENRE(S): Adventure, Point 'n' click
AVAILABLE ON: Android, iOS, Linux, macOS, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One
DEVELOPER(S): Terrible Toybox
PUBLISHER(S): Terrible Toybox
RELEASE DATE: March 30, 2017 (Windows)

Early 2017, for me, was all about my anticipation and expectation of the return of the TV phenomenon known as Twin Peaks. Released 26 years after the show's cancellation, this 18-part third season was even more glorious and twisted than anyone could've ever imagined. Twin Peaks, in its entirety, has influenced dozens of video games through the decades - most notably the Silent Hill series, Alan Wake, and from what I hear, a game called Deadly Premonition, which has been on my wishlist for ages. Survival horror games, mostly. In early 2017, though, legendary Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island creators Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick reunited to bring us Thimbleweed Park - perhaps the most Twin Peaks-y game ever made (down to its abbreviation, "TP") - but paying homage to the classic TV series is not what the Kickstarter-funded project is for. It's homage, all right, to another phenomenon lost in time - SCUMM. Described by the developers themselves as a spiritual successor to Maniac Mansion, any gamer who was around back then sees the truth as soon as they start up the game. It IS Maniac Mansion, just (mostly) without permadeath, and instead of just one house, it's set in a whole crazy town where a dead body is DEFINITELY the least of your problems.

Then there were 80

Two federal agents with very different outlooks on life - Ray and Reyes - are forcefully partnered up to investigate a murder victim found from a riverbank in the very small town of Thimbleweed Park. Though no one seems to care for the murder OR its victim, their arrival stirs up the small community, bringing to light the secrets of the town's strange history and a choice few of its citizens, including the recently deceased business magnate Chuck Edmund and his disfunctional family.

I've been on yet another hiatus for almost five months, mainly due to having a lot of work on my plate and problems with concentrating on individual games; I've had some problems connecting with games on a level that I've set as a requirement for myself to write a review I can take seriously and not feel bad about it afterwards. Then of course, there's my girlfriend to consider - good thing she's a gamer, though, in fact the best damn gamer I know. The main reason for this confession, is that these last five months, I've spoken a lot about restarting the blog, especially after finishing "THE LIST 2.0", and often found myself kicking some invisible rocks around for not getting anything done. I've jumped from game to game whenever I have had spare time, and even if I've managed to concentrate on one individual game long enough to beat it to the hilt, I might've started to work on a review and get nothing done just because it's been too long and I can't come up with anything smart to say about 'em. Call it a writer's block if you will.

Where the madness begins.
Then came Thimbleweed Park. I heard about Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick reuniting for an old-school PC adventure game some time in mid-2015, ergo about six months into the start of the Kickstarter campaign. However, as I'd completely given up on ever using PC as a gaming platform again - except for the old stuff, of course - I didn't pay it that much attention, but I was intrigued to know more about it. After all, Ron Gilbert is one of my favourite designers of all time and I'm always interested in what he's got cooking up even if it didn't directly concern me. Gary Winnick's kept an extremely low profile since Day of the Tentacle, which made the game even more intriguing. By total coincidence and whim, I picked up a local gaming magazine from the supermarket some months ago, which included a review of Thimbleweed Park. I read it, I laughed my balls off at the facts and the screenshots alone, and I was very pleased that the guy who wrote that review was an old-school point 'n' click fan who obviously knew what he was talking about, and that he gave the game a gracious rating, much based on how its target audience would receive it - not working in the dumbass method of automatically underrating the game 'cause it's a retro-style game which (deliberately!) fails to meet the 2017 standards. Some jerks do that, regardless of their age and experience. Well, as I reached the end of the very short but to-the-point review, I noticed a small print that said the game was "coming soon" to the digital console storefronts. I remember this as the same day Twin Peaks: The Return premiered. What a day that was. I was seriously overwhelmed with all sorts of expectations.

Well, the game was finally released about two weeks before the Twin Peaks series finale; of course I downloaded it immediately, but I decided to push back my first trip to Thimbleweed Park until the series was over, 'cause I didn't actually know anything about the plot, and depending on how close it was to the series in its oddity, I was afraid the game and the series would mess each other up by some degree. Well, that wouldn't have happened, that's for sure. Thimbleweed Park, although there are many connections to Twin Peaks, is very different in tone. This is probably what a Twin Peaks game would've looked like if it was licensed by LucasArts in the early 90's - strange, surreal, but above all, distinctively humorous. This was the just the kind of game I needed to truly captivate me and get me off my proverbial ass in terms of writing reviews again - some of the first games I ever reviewed were SCUMM. I love reviewing SCUMM. After summing up my feelings of expecting and finally heading into this over-the-top laughfest, in this much excess, I think it's finally time to tell you what it's all about.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck would chuck wood, Chuck?

Thimbleweed Park is a retro-style point 'n' click game that utilizes the 9-verb, illustrated SCUMM interface as it was presented in Monkey Island 2 in 1991. Its whacked-out (almost non-existent) storyline takes place in the year 1987 - the release year of Maniac Mansion. The Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island franchises are constantly spoofed in just about every possible turn - as long as you set the "annoying in-jokes" option to ON - but so is just about everyone and everything in 80's pop culture, including but definitely not limited to Star Wars (of course), Indiana Jones (mm-hmmm), Michael Jackson, Max Headroom, Star Trek (then brand new The Next Generation, in particular), and David Lynch's distinctive cinematic work in general. Even Sierra On-Line gets their share of ridicule, BY NAME. All we need is a Sam & Max reference or cameo, and this would be like any LucasArts adventure game of old - of course, the license is currently owned by Telltale Games, but I wouldn't be surprised if they'd made an exception for Thimbleweed Park. Maybe it is there - I just haven't spotted it. It's impossible to spot 'em all at once.

Franklin and some 1st world problems.
The game begins as a murder mystery investigated by two very different characters - the self-consciously cold-hearted bitch Agent Ray, and his quirky and borderline annoying Mexican partner, Agent Reyes. Solving the murder covers the first three chapters of the game's nine-chapter story, and long before the investigation is over, you'll probably have noticed that the murder is nothing more than red herring to serve as somewhat of a prologue to this madness they call a story. At steady intervals before the investigation concludes, we are introduced to three more playable characters. First up, the foul-mouthed Ransome the Insult Clown, the most hated person in town, who has been cursed by a local voodoo enchantress to never be able to remove his clown make-up or attire, due to an inappropriate joke the clown served her in the past. Delores Edmund is a geeky teenager who once traded millions of inheritance for her aspiration to be a game developer, and is now trying to cope with the consequences upon her uncle Chuck's passing. Her father, Franklin, roams the local hotel - also owned by the Edmund family - as a ghost, desperate to state a last goodbye to his daughter and get closure to his difficult relationship with his late brother. In the classic style of Maniac Mansion, each character needs to help one another to achieve certain goals, and finally, come together in one final chapter that will just leave you speechless, in better and worse.

All in all, Thimbleweed Park is an awesome game - a heartwarming, nostalgic experience that certainly doesn't fall short on surprises or laughs. End of review? Not quite, I'm afraid.

*beep*

The one core feature of old-school SCUMM is, of course, puzzle dependency. As fully expected, the puzzles of Thimbleweed Park are absolutely fiendish. There are two things to make them even harder to figure out than they are in concept alone; one, five playable characters with mostly inter-exchangeable inventories (the most notable exception is Franklin, who can't pick up anything or interact with any other playable character). Two, literally tens of acquirable items that serve NO purpose whatsoever. Guess which of these things I love, and which I don't particularly like. Sure, maybe Maniac Mansion had absolutely useless stuff lying around (and sure, even The Secret of Monkey Island had some), but since they went with the Monkey Island 2 version of the engine, they could've also removed all the crap from the field and let the player focus on things that truly matter. It's a big world for a game of this type, and there are so many variables to begin with, that we really don't need this sort of dead weight and a bunch of red herrings to lure us into a trap.

Plumbers *slash* ghostbusters dressed as giant pigeons are
one of the more normal sights to see in this town.
Speaking of puzzles and difficulty, there's also a casual mode which removes certain steps from the lengthier puzzles, switches key item placements, and finally removes whole locations from the world map. As opposed to easIER modes in some previous SCUMM adventures, the easy mode in this game is kinda insulting. There's even less logic to some already illogical puzzles; some important, somewhat explanatory bits in the narrative are completely skipped; and the game all-around offers the player the conclusion on a silver plate; you practically walk through this game with minimal effort, be you a veteran or a complete beginner.

Besides, even if you are a beginner (and in case you aren't too judgemental towards yourself), the standard gameplay mode offers you a hintline you can call any time, and as many times you like, as long as you have a phone nearby (Ray is the only character with a cellphone). The game drops contextual hints to any problem you might have, one at a time, until if and when you spam the hintline enough to prompt it to tell you exactly what you need to do to proceed, in verb-specific detail. It's not a secret, either - there are several advertisements of the hintline scattered across town, as well as a highlighted entry on the local phonebook. Even in the versions that support achievements, you are not punished for its use in any way. It's really hard to pass solid judgement on this one; while it does piss on the game's level of difficulty by an extreme bit, it's completely optional. It's not like the game tells you exactly what to do after you fail enough times - the choice of picking up that phone and dialing that number time and time again is yours, and yours alone. Considering just how fiendish some of these puzzles are, I'm not condemning anyone for the use of the hintline, as long as you use it in moderation. I personally think going at the game on casual mode is more of a disgrace than the occasional call for help - seriously, the casual mode fails to live up to the lowest standards of an adventure game. If "Monkey Lite" in Monkey Island 2 was the choice difficulty level for game critics, this is one for Telltale Games fans. (Keep in mind that I love Telltale's more recent titles for what they are, but for wholly different reasons.)

Finally, the narrative turns such a convoluted mess towards the end of the game, that at some point it's not even funny anymore. The ending - and many things leading into it during the last three or four chapters - is totally different from what we started from, and not in a delightfully surreal way, it occasionally feels like the game is comprised of two different projects. "Like a joke without a punchline", that's what I was looking for; keeping the humorous and non-sensical nature of the game in mind, I do feel like several jokes were missing punchlines here. Well, to be completely honest, even the high and mighty LucasArts didn't always get those endings right. It was nearly always the game and the experience it offered, that truly counted - and so it is here. Thimbleweed Park is such an experience, it will go down in history as one of the greatest point 'n' clicks ever made, even if just because it proves that even today, classic SCUMM works like a charm. No need for the more interactive GrimE, or any Special Edition or Remastered updates - give us nine verbs, an illustrated inventory, and a bogus world where nothing makes any sense all the while making all the sense in the world, and we're ready to raise hell.

VERDICT

Thimbleweed Park most definitely has its flaws, and it's not the picture-perfect throwback you might imagine based on who made the game, and how much historic easter eggs are hidden within its being. But, it is a DAMN good game, which needs to be experienced by EVERYONE who was ever into any SCUMM game in existence. Considering how relatively weak the whole year has been in terms of exciting game releases (as opposed to truly exciting game reveals), I dare to say that in my books, Thimbleweed Park is a Game of the Year candidate. Time to re-install ScummVM.

UPS
+ Absolutely fantastic humour spanning up to four decades of pop culture, the history of adventure games at the front and center
+ Tongue-in-cheek homage guaranteed to draw the interest of fans of David Lynch and in particular, Twin Peaks (YO! RIGHT HERE!)
+ *Beeping* great playable characters, memorable NPC interaction
+ Thimbleweed Park may be a small town, but from your perspective, it's a huge world to explore in a genre game
+ Classic SCUMM as it was in (some of) the best PC game(s) ever made

DOWNS
- Loads of useless items lying around
- The "story" turns a bit too convoluted towards the end, much more than it was probably intended to
- The Casual Mode is an insult to all gamers, regardless of their experience with this type of gameplay; if you play a version with any achievement tracking, you MUST play through Casual Mode to be able to truly complete the game
- Some random inconsistencies with both puzzles and dialogue - that have just about always been there
- Even on standard mode, the game offers a very detailed hint service without any punishment involved, which makes the game a bit too easy for gamers who are not too judgemental towards themselves, as well as achievement hunters

< 8.6 >

1 kommentti: