REVIEW: Return to Monkey Island will make you laugh more and think less
I'm selling these nostalgic leather jackets
Monkey Island is back! Thirteen years since the last Monkey Island game, we finally have a new entry in this beloved series. The Secret of Monkey Island, first released in 1990, was a major touchpoint of point-and-click adventure game design; An influence on nearly every adventure game that followed, it still holds up today thanks to its iconic brand of comedy. Secret was followed up only a year later by another well regarded classic, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. That was the last time that creator Ron Gilbert worked on the series in any capacity… until now. Thirty years later, he’s come back to revive the franchise with the appropriately titled Return to Monkey Island.
With Ron Gilbert back at the helm, Return to Monkey Island feels in many ways like the first “true” entry in the series since 1991. For that reason, fan expectations have been sky high. However, it must be acknowledged that it is no longer the 90s (as much as that hurts me to admit). Despite some earnest revival attempts, the heyday of the point-and-click adventure game has come and gone, and the gaming public’s appetite for these types of games has waned considerably in recent years. As a result, Return to Monkey Island is faced with an unenviable task: To recapture the games’ original spirit for series veterans, while also reintroducing the game’s world and sensibilities to newer gamers.
To their credit, Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and the rest of the Return to Monkey Island crew are clearly aware of fans’ insurmountable expectations. In many ways, the game’s story mirrors that of its creation. Once again we join the lovable (and impossibly named) series protagonist Guybrush Threepwood, as voiced by the inimitable Dominic Armato. Taking place years after Tales of Monkey Island, this is an older (though perhaps not much wiser) Guybrush, who now has a family of his own.
The story of Return to Monkey Island unfolds as Guybrush is relaying the events of a past adventure to his son, Boybrush (yes, really). It’s a clever framing device that allows for some cute jokes, and well earned character development, while still providing the classic Monkey Island adventure players have been hoping for. This time around, the adventure in question has to do with one of the longest running jokes of the series: Guybrush is finally taking on the quest to find the “secret” of Monkey Island. Of course, his arch nemesis, the ghost pirate LeChuck, is after the same thing. It’s a simple, but reliable setup, that sets the stage well for jokes and misadventures.
Previous Monkey Island sequels were rarely interested in reexamining the events of earlier games, but Return is very much an exploration of the past. That’s not to say that this is purely a nostalgia trip, but there’s a healthy amount of fan service here for point-and-click devotees. Many of the game’s explorable areas are reworked versions of areas from the original 1990 game, including Mêlée Island, and of course, Monkey Island itself. (Those first two games get the lion’s share of in-jokes and references, but every entry in the series is acknowledged and considered canon.) While I would have liked to see more new islands to explore, I can’t deny that coming back to these familiar locations feels like getting a warm digital hug from an old friend.
Return also doesn’t employ nostalgia just for the sake of it. Commentary on the nature of change is baked right into the game’s themes and narrative. Guybrush in particular spends most of his time pining for the glory days, making him a fitting avatar for older players. In that regard, some players might be disappointed by the direction this game’s plot takes. While the characters feel true to their personalities in past games, they’re definitely here in service of a larger message.
Ron Gilbert seems less interested in the minutiae of Monkey Island lore than he is in mining that lore for jokes and meta commentary, particularly toward the end of Return’s story. It feels like certain subplots and puzzle hooks may have been cut short due to budget or scheduling reasons. The end result is occasionally jarring, but in some ways it’s fitting, and it’ll go down easier if you’re not taking things too seriously. (This is a series that has long revolved around absurd concepts like three-headed monkeys, used ship salesmen, and spitting contests, so hopefully you aren’t taking it too seriously anyway.)
For my money, the most important aspect of a Monkey Island game is its humor, and on that front, you don’t need to worry. Ron Gilbert hasn’t missed a step since he last wrote for Guybrush and the rest of the cast, and the series’ familiar, absurdist humor remains well intact. Return to Monkey Island is filled with laugh out loud moments, and there’s no shortage of silly dialogue options to explore.
As the interface has evolved, even the clickable hotspots on screen are an opportunity for jokes now! For example, instead of trying to “take mop”, here an on-screen prompt will give you the option to “surreptitiously abscond with the mop”. Little moments of levity like that are bursting out of every corner of this game. Clearly, the writers had a lot of fun working on this, and it shows in just about every aspect.
The sense of humor may be the same, but Return features some big changes too. The most noticeable right off the bat is the game’s art style, which received a surprising amount of unnecessarily harsh pushback online when it was first revealed. The look is certainly a stark change from previous entries, but Monkey Island has never stuck to one aesthetic before. Personally, I don’t love every single character design, but broadly speaking, it’s hard to argue that the game doesn’t look fantastic in motion.
The backgrounds are animated and inviting. Inky blacks, greens and purples provide a welcoming atmosphere. The off-beat style really complements the game’s humor, especially when occasionally cutting to extreme Ren-and-Stimpy-style closeups of the action. The graphics may not translate as well to screenshots, or even trailers, but I loved exploring the game with this new style, and I’d be more than happy if it sticks around for another entry.
Of course, the writing and the atmosphere are only part of the experience of a Monkey Island game; the other hugely important factor is the puzzle design. This is where I think Return will be most divisive. Designing puzzles that work well for all players without being too easy or too hard is a nearly impossible challenge. Back in the good old days of the early 90s, point-and-click adventures were synonymous with frustrating, brain bending puzzles. (Monkey Island 2 in particular is infamous for a few of the most challenging puzzles in the genre.)
In the best instances, these puzzles were tough, but solvable given enough patience and some lateral thinking. At worst, players would be forced to resort to trial and error, attempting to combine every single inventory item with every single other inventory item until they stumbled into a solution or their mouse buttons stopped working.
In order to make it more welcoming to newcomers, Return to Monkey Island includes some new features. There’s now a hint book included in your inventory to help you out with puzzles, so you won’t need to look anything up online if you’re having trouble. I found these hints to be just about perfect in their style and presentation. They reveal aspects of puzzles little by little as you click through them, allowing you to dictate the exact pace of how much help you receive. It’s a great way to make sure you’re on the right track without simply being given the solution.
Along those same lines, Guybrush now has a To-Do List, which features an automatically updated checklist of all your current goals. This helps you get your bearings and keeps you from forgetting what you’re trying to do. There’s also a difficulty toggle before the game begins; Hard Mode is the complete experience as the designers intended, while Casual Mode removes a few steps from various puzzles to make them less complex. All of these are great features that can be utilized or ignored by players depending on their level of adventure game prowess.
When it comes to the puzzles themselves, I think Return misses the mark by just a bit. In past Monkey Island games, puzzles were frequently dictated by a cartoonish logic that forced players to think outside the box. Not all of these puzzles were home runs, and some were frankly too unintuitive to be enjoyed, but when they worked, they worked well. Many of those solutions were satisfying and humorous to unravel, even after hours (or days) of contemplation.
In Return to Monkey Island, the majority of the puzzle solutions are relatively clear and straightforward, in spite of their abstract flavor. There were only two or three times throughout the game that I really felt the hint book was necessary, which is a shame since it’s so well implemented. I rarely got frustrated or dismayed by my lack of progress, but I wasn’t really surprised or impressed by most of the solutions either.
Many puzzle sequences in the game are designed like a sort of “domino effect”: You’ll be tasked with attaining an item (A), which requires you to get a second item (B), which in turn requires you to get a third item (C), and then another (D), and so on. When you first encounter these tasks, it seems like there’s a long, complicated series of puzzles ahead of you because of all the steps involved. In practice though, as soon as you complete the first step of the puzzle, everything else falls into place easily.
Someone gives you Item D, which is exactly what you needed to get Item C, which can then be traded in for Item B, and therefore smoothly grants access to Item A. Tip one domino, and the rest fall down automatically. The result of this style of puzzle is that few solutions really feel satisfying to discover. To use another metaphor, it’s a bit like kicking off a complicated Rube Goldberg machine someone else prepared for you: Impressive to watch, but you’re not really accomplishing much; All you did was set it in motion.
To be clear, very few of Return’s puzzles are insultingly easy, and there are several that are actually quite clever and fun to solve. Unfortunately, I’m one of those annoying old school gamers who grew up playing these games, and I was looking forward to more of a challenge. I like the feeling of having to put the game down for a while when I get stuck, coming back to it later with a fresh perspective, but that was rarely necessary in Return. Worse, there are a few instances where it feels like more steps should be required to find a solution, but instead the puzzle just fizzles out without providing much gratification.
All that said, new players (or older players who found those aspects more frustrating than fun) could see these simpler puzzles as a marked improvement over the old ways. Certainly, the flow of the game is improved. Since it’s unlikely you’ll get truly stuck too often, the story moves at a faster pace without interruption. There’s less getting in your way, so nothing is keeping you from the next set of jokes and one-liners. I wish there had been a better balance between these elements, but for many the trade-off will probably be worth it.
Another adjustment I had to make as a point-and-click veteran was adapting to the Switch version from the traditional computer interface. The Steam version of Return requires you to move your mouse cursor around in order to discover clickable hotspots. On the Switch, all of those hotspots are highlighted for you as you approach them, doing away with any pixel hunting whatsoever. Some gamers may not like this change, but I think it was necessary to make the game playable with a standard controller, and I adapted quickly. Accessing or scrolling through interactive locations is smoother and easier than ever, as is navigating and traversing the game world.
I played the game entirely on its highest graphical setting and had no problems running it on Switch in handheld or docked mode. (Return is also a perfect game to play in handheld mode right before bed.) Another setting you may want to toggle on is the game’s “Writer Mode” which adds expanded dialogue, supposedly at the expense of the story’s pacing. Eager to read every word the game had to offer, I turned this one on right away. For my money, it’s the way to play the game, as I never ran into any sections that I felt dragged or didn’t flow as well. After all, it’s a Monkey Island game. You’re playing this one for the writing, so you should get as much of it as you can!
In many ways, Return to Monkey Island is a contradictory game. It goes out of its way to be accessible to newcomers, but the story and jokes are so heavily laden with references to past games, I’m not sure how much first-timers are really going to get out of it. The game might have been more effective had it focused more on new players, or appealed more to hardcore puzzle solvers, rather than trying to please both audiences at once.
That said, this game made me laugh! A lot! Very few games are able to do that, so I’m always going to be impressed when one manages to pull it off. Above everything else, the series’ humor and Guybrush Threepwood’s legacy remain intact. Return to Monkey Island certainly isn’t perfect, but then, all of the Monkey Island games have had their flaws. In that sense, Return fits perfectly alongside the others. Like Guybrush himself, it’s a bit weird and rough around the edges, but undeniably lovable.
This is an excellent episode! I just wish the game was a bit longer. Humor is perfect, so is the nostalgic sentiment, a wonderful experience from start to finish. My only gripe comes from the writer's cut. It should be on by default and removable from the option menu, not the other way around. At first I thought it was to turn on the crew comments like in the special editions, so I may unfortunately have missed a few jokes before turning it on. I hope there will be a sequel or a spin-off starring Boybrush!
Nice review. Echos my own thoughts. Loved the humour.