"Return to Monkey Island" in the test: old genre, new charm

A quick recap for those in a hurry: Is Return to Monkey Island fun? Yes. Is “Monkey Island 6” also fun without having played the predecessors? Absolutely. Does the puzzle depth and gameplay live up to the predecessors? Quite. Does Ron Gilbert actually resolve the ‘Monkey Island 2’ cliffhanger? no Is this really the end of the series? It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

It’s been 13 years since the last Monkey Island, 32 years since the first game. The story of young Guybrush Threepwood, who clashes with ghost pirate LeChuck on his way to his dream job as a pirate, was once an idea of ​​Ron Gilbert – with the help of Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer.

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“Return to Monkey Island” in review

The first two Monkey Island adventures are considered milestones in the genre. After that, Gilbert left the LucasArts development studio; Games 3 through 5 were created with minimal input from the inventor at best. Gilbert and Grossman are back at the helm of the fifth sequel that has now been released. Publisher Devolver Digital and licensee Disney gave the developers a free hand for the story and implementation.

For two years, a 25-strong team quietly developed the sequel. Thanks to the consistent secrecy, Gilbert, Grossman & Co. were able to keep their backs free so as not to be overwhelmed by demands and well-meaning suggestions from fans. They’ve consistently done their thing and now it’s here – first for Windows/Steam and the Nintendo Switch.

The first images of the game were followed by the usual outcry: What does Guybrush look like all of a sudden? Then came the first gameplay trailer: wait, no verbs? Sacrilege. Nine years ago, Ron Gilbert spontaneously had one Chopped up a list of how he imagined a new “Monkey Island” adventure: as a retro game with a pixelated look, with no tutorial or in-game hints. None of that turned out to be “Return to Monkey Island”.

Gilbert has been insisting for months that “Return to Monkey Island” is no retro adventure. The developers don’t mean that the sixth game will ignore its ancestors – on the contrary: the graphics and gameplay have primarily been modernized. The loving implementation, the high level of the puzzles and the many gags, on the other hand, are very old.

Although the plot actually ties as promised ages ago, directly to the end of “Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge”. But that doesn’t mean that “Return to Monkey Island” ignores all other sequels. On the contrary: The entry “Scrapbook” in the main menu leads to a summary of the previous games with clickable “snapshots”, pictures and souvenirs from the past adventures.

A genuine pirate duel! The main argument is with words.
(Image: heise online)

The makers have found an elegant way to deal with the baggage that a 32-year-old story inevitably carries with it. On the one hand, the plot actually continues “Monkey Island 2”, but it also takes over elements from parts 3 to 5. In order not to be slavishly bound to the course of these games, Gilbert, Grossman & Co. rely on a clever narrative trick that room for interpretation in the case of the predecessors.

“Return to Monkey Island” again offers the choice between two levels of difficulty: Easy and Hard. In addition, the “Writer’s Cut” can be activated under “Text and Language”: “More ramblings, slower pace of narration”. I played the Writer’s Cut on hard mode: If “Monkey Island”, then please full blast.

The first steps in the game are pretty easy. Hovering over a hotspot – an object the hero can interact with – will bring up a tooltip, which left-click and right-click will do. When conversing with other characters, the game offers between two and six options that branch to different dialogues.

At some point the self-confident grin gives way to the first frown: Only then does it become clear that the first quarter of an hour was just a very well-concealed tutorial to demonstrate the operation and possibilities of the game. So if you want to complain about the level of difficulty at first, you should be patient: It’s going to be tricky enough – and how.

In contrast to other adventures, the puzzles here don’t just consist of the frantic “combine an object from the inventory with an object in the scene”: Many found objects require you to look at them first before they can go into the inventory. Some objects are only unlocked after Guybrush has successfully completed dialogues with other characters. To solve some tasks you have to think outside the box – fortunately not quite as bad as the puzzle with the pump in “Monkey Island 2”, whose dissolution Gilbert and Grossman still regret today.

All voice actors from past Monkey Island games have returned for this game, with one notable exception. Dominic Armato is Guybrush Threepwood again, Alexandra Boyd voices Elaine, Denny Delk is the sarcastic skull and crossbones Murray. On the other hand, villain LeChuck has a new voice: Earl Boen has been retired for five years, but Jess Harnell does just as well in the role.

As usual with “Monkey Island”, there is only an English language version, but it has German subtitles. The graphics in the game are Germanized where it makes sense – it’s still called “Mêlée Island”, but “Stan’s Used Ship Bazaar”. The usual composers are also back.

The soundtrack of “Return to Monkey Island” sounds fantastic and renews the interactive ideas of its ancestors. Brief indulgence in game prehistory: “Monkey Island 2” was the first game with an interactive soundtrack, in which the music adapted synchronously and smoothly to the gameplay. What dominates almost every game today was revolutionary at the time.

In “Monkey Island 6” too, the composers make full use of the possibilities for dynamic music adaptation: when Guybrush crosses the pirate pub “Scumm Bar”, electric guitars sound in the mix at exactly the moment when certain characters come into the picture. If Guybrush goes a few steps to the left again, the guitars disappear from the arrangement again.

Graphically, the adventure remains consistently two-dimensional. So when Guybrush changes walking direction in a scene, the game switches characters instead of rotating a 3D model. That doesn’t mean all scenes are flat, though. There’s definitely a perspective there: when Guybrush walks backwards in a scene, the character gets smaller accordingly.

For “Monkey Island” veterans, the graphic style used was already offending when the first videos were published. However, Guybrush has changed the look six times (!) in the past five games, from heaps of pixels to animation to real-time 3D. A new change of direction seems only logical – keeping one of the previous looks would probably have caused just as much resentment.

The graphic design comes from Rex Crowle and is reminiscent of his earlier “Knights and Bikes” – only it is implemented much more coherently here. Characters and locations known from past games are definitely recognizable. The facial animation only seems a bit strange for a few secondary characters. For example, the pirates in the Scumm Bar twist their heads like rubber when they speak. But that can definitely be seen as a style; You definitely can’t accuse “Return to Monkey Island” of a lack of love.

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