SummarySomewhat fun, but too uncertain of itself.
The GoodI wasn't going to buy this game; I hated Monkey 3, and the fact that this was 3D made me surer in shying away. After all, I thought, Grim Fandango only worked because they elegantly sidestepped the problem: Everyone looking stylized and acting sort of stiff and lifeless was an integral part of the setting. But when I saw a used copy, I knew I couldn't resist seeing just how close it came to the mark.
The 3D characters actually work out better than I had expected - they're full-body caricatures in varying degrees of exaggeration, which mostly works allright. The best example of this is one of the first characters you meet, a man whose spine is absurdly curved from carrying heavy rocks. As usual with 3D characters, the sticking point is the way they move; it's either too stiff, or too fluid and liquid-like, but the suspension of disbelief required is not too great. Monkey 4 follows Grim Fandango in using practically the same quality of rendering for cutscenes as for in-game action, which means the transition goes almost unnoticed.
The pre-rendered backdrops go some way towards avoiding that cliché look, but don't quite get there; there's a suspicious absence of dirt and grime, and wherever there's a large flat space, the texture tiling becomes obvious. Combined with an overt fondness for round corners and happy pastel colors, the game often looks too much like an amusement park made entirely out of candy.
Also like Grim Fandango, Monkey 4 uses an Alone in the Dark-style control system, which can be annoying when you've come to know an area and just want to get around quickly. The controls are exceptionally awkward on the map scenes, where you're aching to just point to where you want to go, but instead have to direct Guybrush with the arrow keys, carefully navigating the turns and twists of the paths.
The inventory is a bit more abstract this time around. Pressing "I" brings up a carousel of the items currently stuffed down your pants, pressing "U" while looking at an item will make it drop out of the carousel; you can then select another item to combine it with. (Thank Shub. Wouldn't be Monkey Island if you couldn't try to make a longbow with a plunger and a fishing pole.)
It appears that the team have spent quite a bit of manpower on the conversation, which is one of the better things about this game; at several points in play I found myself unable to choose between conversation lines because I couldn't make up my mind which one would make the funnier joke, and there are many trains of conversation which are pure whimsy.
The references to previous games are actually not that imposing this time around, the recycling of known characters being kept to a reasonable level. The problem, though, is still the same; most of the new characters aren't very memorable. Now repeat after me, kids: "Milk & Cheese" is funny. "I. Cheese" is not. I'd commend the reference to the Monkey 2 puzzle that comes around twice, except that it's one of the worst puzzles in this game.
A nice touch is the variety of roaming characters: In a couple of towns there are random wandering people, you get to see Elaine campaigning around Mêlée Town, and characters can follow you. This goes some way towards helping the emptiness often felt in 3D games.
The BadIt doesn't begin with "deep in the Caribbean..."
But seriously, the things that really spoil this game are the anachronisms and out-of-place refs to US consumer/pop culture. In the first two Monkey Islands, there were plenty of anachronisms, but they were scattered and adapted to not spoil the pirate-era feeling too much; in Monkey 4, practically half the game is a blatant anachronism - especially jarring are the references to Starbucks and microbreweries. It doesn't become it, it feels like the designers really wanted to make a modern-era game.
The excuse for pulling these anachronisms is that the villain of the day plans to turn the Caribbean into a harmless, family-friendly tourist trap. It's ironic that the game seeks to lampoon this, while at the same time turning out to be the most harmless and uncontroversial of the series. Think about it: in Monkey 1 we have burglary, a decapitated talking head and a lunatic castaway cracking jokes over the corpse of his shipmate, in Monkey 2 voodoo dolls, necromancy and crossdressing, in Monkey 3 piracy and skin grafting without a license... Monkey 4 is an unceasing barrage of pastel shades and Guybrush being fickle and well-meaning, at most resorting to petty theft, serving alcohol to animals and reviving the occasional childhood trauma. I mean, they don't even dare use the word "hell." What the heck is that?
All this could be forgiven if the jokes were hilarious enough. And although there are laughs, they seem to have turned the 'wacky' screw one turn too far in. Now, the first Monkey Island refs Monty Python, whose comedy secret was not only absurdity, but deadpan; people performing absurd tasks with utterly solemn faces. And Monkey 1 & 2 were partially the result of understanding this. Monkey 4, however, goes for camp rather than subtlety, dangling things like steam-driven brass monkeys in front of you and shouting "Look, monkeys! Monkey funny! Laugh, damn you!"
True, they got it right that Guybrush bumbles about and gets insulted a lot, and Elaine seems more in character than in #3, but it's still not quite there.
The puzzles are a bipolar blend of well-hinted, fine-crafted, funny problems and awkward, out of place, poorly hinted ones. I'd say only about one-third of the puzzles are of the good kind: In particular, I disliked most of the puzzles on Lucre Island - even though the ideas behind them are very original, the execution fails badly. Not to mention the whole 'free prosthetic' puzzle, which made no sense at all. But, when the puzzles work, they work beautifully; finding the bronze hat, illuminating the seabed and stopping the demolition man are all memorable moments.
There are a few arcade-flavor sequences, which can get annoying, though they're mostly exercises in taking notes rather than split second timing. And there's one annoying time limit: At one point, the time you have in a location is barely enough to discover all the objects within it.
The music is okay, though it seems to aim to please a bit too much; I only found it noticeable when it recalled themes from the first two Monkey Islands. The modern incarnation of the iMuse sound system doesn't seem to make much of itself; nowhere did I notice any of the smooth transitions that were so brilliant in Monkey 2. On the other hand, the voices are pretty good; even though Guybrush's voice annoyed me in Monkey 3, I thought it worked nicely here. It's a shame though, they seem to be using some voice compression tech that mangles the high tones.
And finally, the last two chapters form a steep downhill slope, ending somewhat over-the-top, strained and hurried (though it's not nearly as pathetic as Monkey 3).
The Bottom LineThe end result is a mixed pleasure, fun in parts, but... I just wish the effort could have been spent on something where they didn't have to lean on past greatness, microwaving a dead monkey and jiggling it to make it look alive: Monkey Island without Ron Gilbert just isn't right.
Bonus point for allowing latin-1 characters in savegames.