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Review: Return to Monkey Island is must-play point-and-click brilliance

Enlarge / That’s the second-biggest title screen I’ve ever seen!
Terrible Toybox / Lucasfilm Games

For a certain kind of adventure gaming fan, no sentence is harder to hear than this: “I learned the secret of Monkey Island before you did.” But I can now say it. I’ve played, completed, and fallen madly for Return to Monkey Island, a sequel more than three decades in the making. This is a game full of laughs, whimsy, and puzzles as carefully constructed as the stories that surround them.

But I’m not here to spoil any of your upcoming pirate fun. I’ve been writing reviews for long enough to remember how great it felt to read about a new video game before playing a single minute of it. That’s how we did things while saving up enough money to get our own boxed copies of older Monkey Island games, then prying them open and figuring out their Dial-a-Pirate copy-protection puzzles.

Return to Monkey Island is nearly everything I’d hoped for in a modern return to the series. Its interface and controls split the difference between the expectations of hardcore genre fans and those of point-and-click novices. Its presentation and voice acting pair nicely to set an approachable and fiendishly hilarious tone. And the game’s full journey, from bumpy waters to smooth, silly sailing, consistently feels personal, vulnerable, and reflective of its creators—which is to say, this is the opposite of a nostalgia-reeking cash-in.

More accessibility, fewer verbs

Enlarge / I suppose this screenshot’s question is a big one for the adventure that we’re all about to embark on.
Terrible Toybox / Lucasfilm Games

I’d like to begin not by spoiling the game’s plot (you’re safe here!) but by applauding RtMI‘s clever refresh of the point-and-click adventure concept. Indeed, this game delivers some of the best stuff the genre has seen in years.

As the game’s title implies, players return to Monkey Island. The setting and characters are familiar, with wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood insisting that he has unfinished business on the titular island, and a lot of what he does resembles the series’ earliest games: solve puzzles, choose from lighthearted dialogue options, and pick between the jokes to find useful clues for the next objective.

Like other point-and-click classics, RtMI on PC supports the use of a mouse to do pretty much everything. Click the ground to move Threepwood around. Click to talk to people you see. Click to examine or pick up objects (so long as Threepwood can walk up to them). Click again to peruse an inventory of things you’ve found, then click some more to either combine those objects in clever ways or to use those objects on stuff around you. Classic example: find a key, walk to a door, and use the key on the door. Why, you’re a bona-fide master of unlocking!

Unlike the series’ earliest installments, RtMI skips the dated “verb” interface. Instead of having to clarify that you want to “look at,” “use,” or “talk to” something in the game, you now get one or two automatic verb suggestions while mousing over anything. Most modern adventure games have gone this route, so it’s unsurprising to see it here, and the results feel natural and comfortable enough.

Enlarge / Hold the “tab” key on a keyboard or the “left bumper” on a gamepad to highlight all interactive objects on screen.
Terrible Toybox / Lucasfilm Games

The same goes for other quality-of-life tweaks. If you’d like help recognizing which objects in a zone can be interacted with, hold down the “tab” key, and any interactive items get a faint highlight. (If that sounds bad to you, don’t touch that button.) And if you’d like to have a generally easier time interacting with the game’s worlds, trade the mouse-and-keyboard setup for a standard gamepad, which also includes shortcut buttons to highlight and auto-walk to useful objects. If not, don’t plug in a controller—though the system works fluidly and naturally if you’re on a gamepad-only platform like Nintendo Switch or Steam Deck.

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Returning to an age of friendly computer clubs

RtMI‘s biggest differentiator comes from a built-in hint system, which I found myself a lot more charmed by than I expected. Before I explain why I love the hint system, pro players can breathe easy: this optional system includes no witty jokes, no sly series references, and no other reasons to peek if you have the iron stomach for solving this game’s puzzles without help.

My time with RtMI reminded me of the computer gaming community of old: the one where the mere act of owning a gaming-grade computer bonded people together. Computer clubs had a common language of unique software and games, meaning you could expect to have peers who wanted to sleuth out certain games’ aggravating puzzles. When you played the two earliest Monkey Island games, you had a gameplay element that didn’t ship in the box: a nerdy support group. Hints from these groups came in gentler shapes than the ones found in the modern era’s online, SEO-obsessed hint guides.

Shortly after RtMI begins, a character offers you a hint book with a winking acknowledgement that some sort of game-like thing is happening behind a fourth wall. (This book is not the same as Guybrush Threepwood’s to-do list, which has zero spoilers and reminds players what their next objectives are at any point in the quest.) Whenever you might get stuck or slowed down, tap the hint book in your inventory, and it will fill the screen with reminders of the tasks in your to-do list. Pick any of these, and the hint book will open with a vague suggestion, usually in the form of a mild rephrase of whatever the task is. Maybe that rephrasing is enough of a nudge to let you shut the hint book and try again.

Still stuck? Flip the page for a further clue, and the hint book will ask players a helpful, leading question. Maybe this will get the gears in your brain turning, or maybe it will remind you of a character or place you previously encountered. If that’s not enough, flip the hint page again, and you’ll get a firmer suggestion, often in the form of “go to this place and look more carefully.” From here, one or two more hints are available, which usually end by outright telling you what to do.

No longer need the training rudders

Every time I turned to the hint book, I felt like series creator Ron Gilbert and series co-writer Dave Grossman had peeked through my window to ask how things were going. I’d look at them and admit that I’d run into a dead end. “Okay,” they figuratively said with pleasant voices, “let’s hash it out for a second.” They rephrased the challenge I was facing. They kept stone faces while offering mildly helpful suggestions. And their tone never felt judgmental, even when I needed a second or third nudge—or in one case, an outright spoiler for a puzzle I’d brick-walled on.

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I was surprised how cared-for I felt by this hint system always being available—by its presentation, word choices, and increasing specificity of tips when I needed them (or even when I didn’t and had peeked back through the hints just to see what they would have suggested for puzzles I’d already figured out). I also appreciated that this system could only offer hints for anything fresh on my to-do list, preventing accidental spoilers of future puzzles.

When I got stuck, it was often because I hadn’t calibrated myself to Gilbert and Grossman’s writing and design styles. Sometimes, the solution could be found by returning to a room I hadn’t visited in a while. Sometimes, it required jotting notes whenever a character mentioned something they liked or needed, then keeping those notes handy. Sometimes, solutions could be found by re-examining everything in my inventory to make sure some logical combination of items wasn’t staring me down.

Multiple times in my playthrough, the hint book filled in the logical cracks that I had overlooked, though always gently enough to retune my adventure-gaming bearings. This happened enough times to help me shut the hint book by the time the game’s challenge ramped up. I no longer needed the co-creators’ training rudders to find my way on the game’s seas.

Dad joke percentage confirmed

Enlarge / You can say that again.
Terrible Toybox / Lucasfilm Games

Thankfully, I didn’t need to internalize the game’s puzzle stylings to find myself chuckling or even outright howling at its dialogue; the laughs pile up almost immediately, though not until after an interesting opening sequence throws series fans for a loop. (Gilbert and Grossman managed to hide the game’s opening premise for a long time, and it’s easy to see why. Don’t spoil it in the comments section, please.)

RtMI eases lapsed players into the fun via a handy but optional “scrapbook” in the game’s main menu, full of narration from Threepwood’s original voice actor. This scrapbook not only sums up the events of past games but also confirms that Monkey Island canon, as far as the series’ creators are concerned, stretches across every game in the series, including those they didn’t directly contribute to. If you missed the series outright or only played the first two titles, this scrapbook breezily clarifies which older games’ characters may figure into this sequel’s events.

Roughly 10 percent of the game’s best gags hinge on familiarity with older games and existing characters’ personalities or some long-standing beef they have with Threepwood, though these bits still land neatly enough for anyone who’s not a longtime fan. (Another 10 percent of the game’s gags are straight-up dad jokes; you’ve been warned.) For the most part, the scrapbook lets RtMI forgo overlong exposition and reminders of who Threepwood has previously met. The game’s writers and designers have new jokes to tell, and they waste no time establishing their comedic confidence.

And because this is a game, not a TV series, humor drips from every element. Maybe Threepwood has to pick from five dialogue options in a sensitive conversation, and each happens to equally incriminate the series’ famously unremarkable pirate. Maybe Threepwood has to put his lips on something to solve a puzzle but, for some incomprehensible reason, always puts his lips on that object in the most inefficient way possible. Or maybe players finally piece together a few items that have been sitting in Threepwood’s inventory for hours, only to realize that this solution results in a howl-worthy visual gag—and then they get to giggle with anticipation as they guide Threepwood toward the awkward moment of handing this object to its intended recipient.

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Surprising 3D effects in newly revamped graphics engine

Monkey Island games, yet the character is embraced to great effect in this year’s sequel.”>
Enlarge / If I showed you what was on the other side of this cut scene, it would spoil the fun. In the meantime, you can make out a bit of the 3D modeling on Guybrush’s face with this zoom. All major characters are built in full 3D, turns out.
Terrible Toybox / Lucasfilm Games

I’ll admit, a few of the game’s objects and characters left me unmoved, usually because they were too still or static in an otherwise lively scene. I can close my eyes and imagine a more carefully animated cartoon version of RtMI. But I was sated when it came to the crucial stuff: an art style that accentuated the game’s jokes and storylines instead of hampering them.

An easy pick for our 2022 best-of list

Return to Monkey Island is a funny game, and not just when everyone’s laughing at poor Guybrush Threepwood.”><em>Return to Monkey Island</em> is a funny game, and not just when everyone’s laughing at poor Guybrush Threepwood.” src=”×551.jpg” width=”980″ height=”551″></a><figcaption class=
Enlarge / Return to Monkey Island is a funny game, and not just when everyone’s laughing at poor Guybrush Threepwood.
Terrible Toybox / Lucasfilm Games

I am mostly satisfied by the game’s dense 10-hour runtime, though a Steam menu confirmed that my work isn’t done if I want to be a completionist. Plenty of optional and hidden challenges remain, and based on the optional objectives I’ve already beaten, these are probably inherently funny in one way or another, so I’ll be double-dipping. The script encourages repeat playthroughs thanks to a number of dialogue trees that end in different jokes; Threepwood doesn’t have multiple endings or destinies hidden in this game, but if you’re here for the gags and groaners alike, you’ll want to revisit the moments in question.

I’ll admit a certain greediness, however. I would like to have seen one more extra-long puzzle sequence, as RtMI only includes one chain of puzzles and challenges that truly stretches across a variety of environments like the series’ games of old. Most of the game’s chapters are focused on smaller environments, and while they’re challenging and amusing enough, the across-multiple-islands quest that I’m thinking of is some of the meatiest and most satisfying puzzling I’ve bit into in years. The game ended shortly after this sequence, just as it had revved my appetite for all things Monkey Island.

But “could’ve been longer” is my harshest RtMI criticism. I never felt like the game’s puzzle-solving logic was obtuse or archaic. I liked that I was rewarded for naturally interacting with the game’s humor with equal parts memorably funny moments and useful puzzle hints. And I deeply appreciated Threepwood’s progression as a character—even if I had to discover Monkey Island’s secret in order to crystallize this part of the game.

The writing in this game comes with plenty of biting satire and sarcasm that lands in amusing-not-preachy territory, but on more than a few occasions, you can see an older, wiser design team wanting to share a different kind of adventure game story through the eyes of characters they’ve grown up writing for. I began Return to Monkey Island thinking this game would merely be a fun, comforting return to a classic, but I left the island believing that I’d played a refreshing and absolutely necessary game—one that employs interactivity to speak to the human spirit in ways that a film or book never could. I love Return to Monkey Island, and I’m excited for you to learn its secrets, too.

The good:

  • One of the funniest video games in years, and its veteran creators still somehow find new comedy to mine from the classic point-and-click genre.
  • Quality-of-life tweaks across the board: nifty gamepad mapping, an optional “casual” mode, and a carefully produced hint guide.
  • Art direction and custom-made game engine boost the game’s comedy and pair well with tremendous voice actors.
  • Puzzle design reaches a zenith of complex, satisfying island-hopping challenges by game’s end.

The bad:

  • I didn’t want it to end—and while the game’s 10 hours are dense, its conclusion left me wanting more.

The ugly:

  • My crying upon reaching the game’s surprisingly touching ending.

Verdict: Buy now. Don’t wait for its inclusion on our year-end list of 2022’s best games.