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Escape from Monkey Island (Windows)

Aye, ‘tis a black day for adventures: the last great series is dying.

The Good
When talking of recent Hollywood comedies like American Pie or Road Trip, you would most likely describe them as really funny movies, though no necessarily good ones. That description fits perfectly well on Escape from Monkey Island.

The fourth instalment of the famous series of adventure games is still guaranteed to make you laugh. Nice dialogues and the occasional slapstick animation make for a relaxed and humorous ambience that encourages you to press on -- eager to hear the next punch line.
However, the feat of being a funny game is lessened if you take into account that all the good gags are either allusions to past episodes (“Oh yeah? You fight like a cow!”) or even the recycling of humorous mechanisms introduced with Monkey Island 1 (take a closer look at the course of many dialogues). As EFMI contents itself with cycling through all the well-known characters and locations, it neglects the need for originality.

The Bad
A good adventure needs to be thrilling like a film, yet interactive like a computer game. That is to say that its two most important features are the presentation (scenario, characters, plot) and the puzzles. Unfortunately, Escape from Monkey Island is weak in exactly these two categories.

Suppose a friend invited you to her home, and for one reason or the other she didn’t give you her house number. You’d be forced to ring at every door in the entire street, probably going through some embarrassing situations. This is a lot like the puzzles in Escape from Monkey Island: you know the task at hand, but there’s often not the slightest hint on the next step for fulfilling that mission. You’re thus inclined to go from door to door, sorry, location to location, trying anything, sensible or not, to see if you’re lucky.
An example: to enrage one old businessman, Guybrush has to spray cologne at a stuffed animal in the guy’s mansion. This is a strange puzzle all right, but what is more, you are never told that the animal might be of any use, nor that the man might react to the perfume. Consequently, you can only find the solution by guessing. This is a grave mistake in design -- to solve a puzzle, you need to know that it’s there. The majority of puzzles in EFMI are unnecessarily complicated due to a lack of hints and guidance. Don’t get me wrong -- I don’t want to suggest that the solution should be apparent. But the parts of the problem should be. As a mathematician would put it: you cannot solve an equation if there are too many unknowns. It is ample evidence of incapacity if a game forces its players to resort to wild guessing and trial-and-error item usage rather than logical thinking.

Ryan Prendiville has stated in his review that “A few of the puzzles in the game were near impossible, but they were rare.” Although this is true, it is not the point. The point is that not a single puzzle in the game is really cool.

You should think that the pirate scenario is idiot-proof, and to a certain extent this is true. Even though Escape from Monkey Islands stains the pirate flair with a half-hearted attempt at consume criticism, there is still magic in the idea of a Caribbean adventure. However, every scenario is only as good as the characters that make it come alive. The persons populating EFMI are uninspired stereotypes. LucasArts has done a remarkable job at turning Guybrush’s and Elaine’s relationship into the strong-woman-weak-man cliché that even daily soaps are ashamed to use any more. Guybrush is stripped of everything but his childlike naiveté and left to be humiliated at every occasion, pirates are toothless Disney-type cuddly toys, and arch-enemy LeChuck is reduced to a rather clueless brawler with few scenes. Does it even matter that the vindictive, bloodthirsty ghost pirate first appears at Guybrush’s mansion for a brief chat, then walks the streets of the town without anyone seeming to care too much? The plot is weak, full of holes and altogether hardly a reward for the player’s efforts.

Let me give one last comment on the presentation and control of the game. Mark Isaakson said in his review that “The more free flowing gameplay (less use of the mouse) is an interesting move, but in the end, it's a good one.” I do not see where the abolishment of the mouse contributed to a more free flowing gameplay. On the contrary, I am now forced to control the protagonist by hand, aim at objects, avoid bumping into obstacles, scroll endlessly through the inventory and use 11 (!) keys to perform actions, all of which I could do with one single click of the mouse.
Personally, I think the rendered backgrounds with their plastic look to be cold and empty, but that is a matter of taste.

The Bottom Line
Escape from Monkey Island is not a bad game, but it is definitely a disappointment. Lacking the sparkling brilliancy of its predecessors and suffering from some severe mistakes in game design, the weakest episode of the series is also a step backwards for the whole adventure genre.

By -Chris on April 18th, 2023

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England Championship Special (Atari ST)

Wow, it’s a mediocre Kick Off rip-off endorsed by a mediocre national team!

The Good
Now England’s national football squad doesn’t exactly rank among the World’s Finest. So one thing that’s interesting about England Championship Special is how painfully accurately it recreates the experience of losing to superior teams, i.e. most of them. Never mind the humiliation (on top of having bought the game, that is), there are those moments of thrilled exhilaration when breathless turbo passes make the ball whiz across the field at goal approach velocity, and then there’s this tiny chest-swelling boost to the atmosphere when you realize that the player clone you just sprint with is actually Gary Lineker, and over there’s Paul Gascoigne and looks the same. Brilliant! Even if it's not the team that sucked so badly at Euro 92.

The Bad
It’s always a mysterious, certainly difficult decision-making process that has developers analyze games they find worthy of plagiarism, then come up with something indefinitely worse.

While England Championship Special may be stripped down to the bare action-football basics, they probably shouldn’t have stripped it of such things as, say, the ability to pass the ball to the next player. Passes are blind hope-and-pray shots in the general direction of where a team member might be standing, which is difficult to judge because the camera is so close to the field that most of it remains obscure. Instead we learn that football players have big heads.

While the AI is fundamentally primitive, it has two quirks that make it a bitch to play, especially since top teams such as Italy outskill most of England’s crew. True, the computer knows no tactics other than passing the ball towards the goal in straight lines, but it does know where its team members stand. In addition, and much more unnerving, it doesn’t dribble. It sends the ball goalwards in lightning-quick pass relays, with little to no time for even the quickest of England’s players to tackle. On the other hand, your players' shot power depends on how long you press the action key, which means that in critical pursuits and tight situations, by the time your player swings his leg for the saving pass across the field, there’ll be nothing but air to hit. Coincidentally, the AI doesn’t seem to suffer from this impediment.

There’s still the weak teams to take on in single matches, and Stuart Pearce as the top scorer in a 10:0 solo run frenzy against Austria is a sight to behold. Also there’s the two-player mode, and tournaments suddenly become a challenge if both players suffer from the same handicaps. But then again, there’s also Kick Off. And the English national squad, well... it isn’t that good anyway.

The Bottom Line
A Kick Off clone messed up badly and patched up with a fig-leaf license -- that’s as unappetizing as it is ultimately superfluous.

By -Chris on April 10th, 2008

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