10 Jul 2009

REVIEW: Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal

As Telltale Games unleash their second brave revival of a cult LucasArts franchise it's hard not to imagine them ducking for cover behind their desks in anticipation of the uber-fan backlash. If the reception of the new Sam and Max games was anything to go by though, they should be fine. Take the bull by the horns I say, and so they have.

Saying that Monkey Island has a history is something of an understatement, but the ease at which this first episode, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal slips us back into the familiar world of Threepwood and co. is commendable. The instant insertion into a battle with Le Chuck minutes before the credits roll and the familiar sounds of the MI series kick in are stirring to say the least. It's like being held in the arms of your estranged wife years after she ran away to be with that Wookie-faced lover of hers. It doesn't even matter that she's only returned to you because she bled him dry, she's back you fool!

It's not all sweetness and light though. Consistent with Telltale's past projects, the humour in the game can range from well-timed slapsticked to dialogue that just seems as if the writers were trying that little bit too hard to draw a chuckle. There are some great moments though, led by a new addition to Threepwood's physique, and if it's not all laugh-out-loud hilarity it is at least a well-constructed tribute to those games of old.

The puzzles in adventure games are naturally what keep things ticking along and here they're generally well employed. If I were to nit-pick then I'd say that the game does at times tend to scream 'I'M A PUZZLE!' at you when you were already doing perfectly well coming to your own conclusions regarding the dog, the blowtorch and the chocolate eclair. Despite these mild cases of patronisation though the puzzles are nicely thought out, often leading to that ultimate pay-off of striking a solid gold solution with an exuberant 'Ohhhhh... yeah!'.

The game looks crisp and colourful as well, realising the vivid cartoon tones of the series for the first time in full 3D. Wandering about the locales, conversing with characters and inspecting curious objects is half the fun and seeking out little interactions placed amongst such well laid scenes is always a joy. Telltale still haven't made the leap to truly reinventing the genre, but it does mean that the game is accessible to adventure pros and newcomers alike. The former, however, are more likely to be disgruntled with the lack of progression with the format.

Without a doubt there are some things to be improved on with later episodes in this five parter. If the characters evolve enough to become as memorable as those we already associate with the series then it really could become the game that the fans have been waiting ten years for. Most people who play Launch of the Screaming Narwhal are likely to enjoy it a great deal if only for nostalgic value. Others, of course, will refuse to see anything good in it. Personally, I feel that if anyone's up to the task of rejuvenating the Monkey Island brand, it's Telltale.

VERDICT: A fine start to a resurrected classic.


No, my spleen hasn't spontaneously ruptured, nor have I trapped my wang in the bedroom door again. I am, in fact, currently experiencing the thirty level pre-release of the utterly brilliant AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity. Catchy, huh?

Dejoban Games, those of The Wonderful End of the World famousness - and if you've never heard of that game, walk this way - have created some kind of pleasure-giving software here that feeds off your adrenaline, combining the addictive qualities of extreme sports and flashing lights to contiually tempt you into having just... one... more... go.

So, each level begins with you on top of a tower or platform of ludicrous, unmeasured height with your main objective being to leap from it and reach the bottom not dead. Sounds easy? No? Well, you'll be happy to hear that a parachute has been provided for elegant, cushiony landings once you reach the bottom. Pay no attention to all the other towers and platformy death-traps on the way down though. They'll only break your body a little bit...

Djeeban's unique brand of infectious insanity has been implemented to great affect in Aaaaa!, marrying the sense of impending vertical doom with some sensational of-the-wall visual styling. It really is rather lovely to look at, but once you're careening downwards towards a sadistically placed points marker it'll probably be the last thing on your mind.

In line with it's arcade playability points are indeed the name of the game, unlocking levels and allowing access to certain abilities that will aid you in your quest to become the awesomest virtual base-jumper yet. Sticking close to walls and narrowly missing obstructions on your way down also boosts the payout at the end of each jump so it's up to you to replay and perfect your descents to really get the most bang for your buck.

Above all else, Aaaaa! will help you realise a kind of precision skill that you never knew existed within that pathetic brain of yours. So, I suggest you put your nerves to the test and jump right in. The game is now available on pre-order for just $15 from the developer's site and, with the thirty levels you'll be allowed access to once you put your money down, you'll find it eating up a sizeable amount of your time prior to Aaaaa!'s imminent release.

7 Jul 2009


I feel that there's a common attitude held amongst veteran gamers these days that stems from a nostalgic perception of what we were playing ten or twenty years ago. I'll admit I'm guilty of it myself at times. Many of us at one time or another are prone to saying that modern games appear dumbed down, unimaginative, too focused on aesthetics or just plain dull compared to what we may have experienced back in the day. Of course, this sort of uncompromising generalisation can ring true as much it can seem complete codswallop, but nevertheless we're guilty of saying it from time to time.

What I'm leading up to in a rather convoluted fashion is that whilst playing Frozenbyte's recently released co-op platformer, Trine, I had a revelation of sorts. Something about the childlike nature of the game was appealing in such a way that it occurred to me that it's something I wish I'd been able to play when I was younger, being the sort of game with enough creative energy and style to draw you in and really stick in your head for a good while. So much so that I can imagine people in years to come might say: 'Hey, do you remember that game with the wizard and you could move stuff around to solve puzzles? And you could switch characters? Games just don't do things like that anymore...'

So, I'd like to preface this piece with a little advice to those as cynical as me: Remember that computer games exist for our enjoyment and that time can cloud judgements. Games like Trine are here to remind us of that.

Right. Now that the fluffy, over-sensitive babble is out of the way I'll get on with the review proper.

I'll go ahead and predict that one thing which will crop up in many reviews of this game is the word 'charming'. This is because Trine is charming to the core. From the introductory video through to the character design and the vivid variety of the visuals, playing through the game is like being read a fairytale before bedtime. What with the three noble heroes, the classical fantasy setting and a nasty skeleton horde to dismantle as you please, you may as well be rescuing a princess from a tower. Except you're not.

The plot, in fact, revolves around the discovery of a magical artifact called the Trine by three very different people. The Thief - all sarcasm and slyness - is the first to happen across the object, after which comes the womanising Wizard and finally the burly, oafish Knight. As their hands each touch the stone we discover that they've been bound together in one body with the ability to switch forms on the fly. Hence, we have our first major gameplay device.

All of the above is swiftly and seamlessly delivered by way of three short tutorials in which you control each character as they approach the ancient stone. From then on you're let loose on a quest to dispel the evil of the land and find a way to release your souls from the stone.

Before I go on, I need to point out that my first experience with the game was less than magical. Setting up the control system for two player co-op took a good half hour, mainly due to the insane default configuration of the gamepad controls. Admittedly, I don't have a 360 controller which I imagine most games are geared towards these days, but when a handful of essential button-presses are bound to several directions on the right thumbstick it's easy to become more than a little peeved by the trial and error approach required for controller configuration. However, compared to these initial issues, once you're actually playing it controls like a dream.

The actions are responsive, the controls intuitive and the visual feedback that you get from jumping and moving around is spot on, meaning that you rarely get caught out by tricky maneuvers. All of this is paramount for a game that is built around such kinetic use of simulated physics.

Throughout the levels - besides the evil skeletons you'll want to be killing - are spread many blocked paths and seemingly impassable areas. The beauty of the game is the way in which you work around them using the powers available to your trio. The Wizard can move objects around in the world and construct boxes and the Thief's ability to grapple and swing from anything wooden makes her indisposable for certain tasks. The Knight, well, he's just a brute. Switching between characters to suit your needs at the press of a button is an excellent system and one of Trine's main selling points.

The puzzles in the game are certainly not mind-bending conundrums. The focus here is on using teamwork and inventiveness to bypass problems in the best possible way. The lack of chin-scratching is definitely a good thing though, allowing the players to be experimental and construct solutions on the fly without losing the excellent pacing of the game.

Taking all of the above into account as well as the ability to play through the game with company means that Trine is guaranteed to make you laugh a lot, most likely through your own ineptitude or that of your partner's. At some point you'll think you've concocted the perfect solution to a puzzle only to end up flying off the screen or dropping serenely into a vat of lava. Well placed checkpoints that revive your party ensure that these sorts of events never frustrate.

On top of the standard platforming you'll also be presented with a simple leveling system that allows you to advance by collecting experience points from downed enemies or finding potions scattered about the levels. It makes for a compelling reward system and if you keep your eyes open you'll also discover many chests dotted about that contain magical trinkets or armaments to enhance any character's performance.

Depite my love for Trine, I have to admit to one minor failing of the game. I played it through with my girlfriend and it took us around nine hours to complete. The first eight and a half were fantastic. It's fair to say we were completely captivated by the style, beauty and endless dicking about that it allowed us. The last half hour of play, however, stunk. After adventuring through such varied locations and making the most of the exploration that the game encourages we were confronted by the ultimate platormer horror: A RISING LAVA LEVEL.

We were horrified. Two days of gorgeousness for this? It was as if the game had collapsed under it's own brilliance, hurling everything it had at us from above whilst perpetrating one of the worst genre-cliches in the business. It was like a physics-vomit within the depths of hell and even after the satisfaction of finally succeeding and completing the game, we were left with a bitter taste in our mouths and angry beyond belief. For those who fancy a challenge then you may find it to be a cakewalk, but for us it was a disappointing departure from everything that had come before.

That said, soon after the infuriating finale, we did the best thing we could to cleanse those unhappy feelings, and started the game again. Bliss.

With Trine, Frozenbyte have come up with their own unique selling point. Three characters, three sets of abilities and three ways to solve problems. Despite the wealth of alt-platform games we've received in the last couple of years, Trine still manages to be a breath of fresh air. It may not have the ego or ambition of the competition but, as it is, Trine remains a consistently fun and beautifully compelling game. Playing it alone is enjoyable enough, but cooperatively the possibility of inadvertant comedy and a multitude of puzzle solutions just makes it so much better.

I may have knocked the game for the woefully generic final level and the control issues I encountered, but there's no denying that this is a game to be played and enjoyed in the purest sense. No mind-bending situations to puzzle over, no grinding for points or pixel-perfect jumps. It's just great platform gaming with a few neat tricks thrown in for good measure. So, take my advice - parents play it with your kids, girlfriends play it with your boyfriends and friends play it with your other friends. If this happens then I'm pretty sure we'll all look back at some point in the future with very fond memories of Trine.

VERDICT: Compellingly versatile, Trine is a platforming gem.

EDIT: Frozenbyte have contacted me since this review was posted to say that they're planning on releasing a patch for Trine very soon that will lessen the difficulty of the final level as well as allowing the difficulty setting to be changed easily on dying. This should go some way to relieving any frustrations.