REVIEW: Return to Monkey Island proves that going back can be a hard but rewarding thing
Updated: 2 days ago
When I was younger, Monkey Island and Final Fantasy 8 were among a handful of games that helped me to realize the potential of gaming as an art form. Guybrush Threepwood and Squall Leonhart (talk about dream dinner guests) helped show me that games were more than getting high scores and that they could be a powerful storytelling tool. In turn, I was introduced to a pair of series and genres that I still love to this day.
Monkey Island means a lot to me. So if that's a disclaimer you need heading into this review, there you go.
But don't take that to mean I'd simply gush over the series' first release in over a decade. That couldn't be further from the truth.
In fact, when the code hit my inbox, I hesitated. I was scared to start it. To find that the game was a far cry from the series I had revered for so long. To find that returning to the series would be a mistake. To find that maybe Guybrush's adventure wasn't for me anymore.
After 12 hours of swashbuckling, punning, and pirating, I am 100% totally ready to give you an ultimate verdict and I am not in any way hedging or procrastinating or delayi- OH LOOK BEHIND YOU! A THREE-HEADED MONKEY.
Just the Facts
Developer: Terrible Toybox
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform(s): PC*, Mac, Switch *platform reviewed on
Release Date: September 19, 2022
Review code provided by Tinsley PR.
Huh, I swore I saw one. Anyway. Let's talk about Return to Monkey Island.
Thirteen years removed from the series' last release and nearly 20 years since Lead Developer and Monkey Guru Ron Gilbert was last involved, Return to Monkey Island's title is literal in almost a dozen different ways.
In 2020, Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman realized they wanted to come back to the series and tell the story they'd left unfinished all those years ago. You see, the pair set the Monkey Island ship out to sea in 1990 and worked on the first two titles before continuing their legacies elsewhere. They'd managed to check back in on the series a few times over the years but had never quite finished the adventure they'd set up in the '90s.
Famously, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, ends on a fascinating yet frustrating cliffhanger that had puzzled fans for years. The kind of cliffhanger that genuinely comes out of left field and has you wondering just how the series could continue from there. Gilbert always intended to finish what he had envisioned for a third game but left LucasArts before he had the chance to do it. And so comes his chance. Return to Monkey Island starts immediately after the cliffhanger of Monkey Island 2, but retains the canonicity for the rest of the series all at once. The explanation, which we won't spoil here, is extremely satisfying and is a genius recontextualization of every game in the series.
Once that's out of the way, our story truly begins. And it begins in a very familiar and comfortable way.
Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate, is out to finally find the true and real Secret of Monkey Island! He needs a ship and a crew and he heads to Mêlée Island, where the adventures all began, to find them.
Of course, our slapstick hero finds his plans halted as quickly as they started when his rival, the evil Ghost Pirate LeChuck, has the only ship in the area and has poached the island of any viable crewmates. With no support from the new black magic-loving (and decidedly punk) Pirate Leaders, it's up to Guybrush to find his way to Monkey Island with the support of friends new and old.
There's his wife, the former Governor Elaine Marley who has her own adventure going on. Wally, the nearsighted mapmaker who wished he'd never met Guybrush. The mysterious Voodoo Lady whose shop is going out of business. Stan Stanman, the newly jailed but still charismatic snake oil salesman. And the fearsome fivesome that makes up LeChuck's crew on LeShip.
What ensues are a series of unexpected Guybrush successes — usually at the cost of anyone who dares pose an obstacle to his goals — across a wholly enjoyable five-part story that feels like one of the grand pirate adventures the series always aimed to emulate. While there's tons to enjoy for anyone who's been a fan of the series from the start, it feels like an approachable adventure for newcomers as well.
"...Terrible Toybox knows how to pluck the emotional strings well — and I'd say Return to Monkey Island's closing moments were a whole damn guitar solo."
The game is, in its own way, all about nostalgia. All about returning to a familiar place and seeing how things have changed. How a world, a community, a place, can morph into something both recognizable and unfamiliar at a moment's notice. The player and Guybrush are both in sync as you stroll from the Mêlée Island lookout post down to the Scumm Bar. You're both shocked when you find how the game's new art style paints these familiar haunts. It's the same but not. You go talk to the Pirate Leaders, only to see the stereotypical old pirates replaced by rowdy, makeup-wearing, graffiti-spreading young'uns. It's the same but not.
This feeling lingers from beginning to end. It's meta, familiar, and powerful. Gilbert, Grossman, and Guybrush talk about finishing what they started, no matter the cost — no matter what it means to go back to some place or some forgotten goal, long after you've left it. Everyone's feeling a little bit replaced. A little bit like the world has moved on without them. Like they might not belong. But it's about pushing forward regardless and finding the joy in the story anyway.
And it's easy to find joy in a Monkey Island game. Return to Monkey Island is just as funny as ever and its earnest corniness is still intact. There's all of the same eye-roll-inducing pun work and cheeky one-liners. A staple of the franchise is the constant subversion of expectations, either making puzzle solutions as obvious as you'd expect or as convoluted as possible.
Return manages to lampoon reality as well, with one major storyline focusing on Elaine (the much much better half to Guybrush) attempting to address a public health scare with an easy fix, backed by science and facts, that no one seems to want to even bother with.
She's out to help fight back against the common pirate ailment, scurvy. And she's grown an island full of limes to help. But no one wants to take them. It culminates brilliantly with a discussion about marketing and a collision with tinfoil pirate hat-wearing goons.
The writing is clever and there's a lot of it. Tons of dialogue options that you might miss in one playthrough, where you'll have to pick from the best of a few goofy concepts and Guybrush-musings about things in the world that are easy to miss. We recommend seeking out every line you can, to fully appreciate how much story was written for this grand return.
But beyond the laughs, it's the more emotionally impactful stuff that surprised us.
The game is full of heart as much as adventure: reckoning with legacy, the passing down of stories and traditions. Monkey Island has always had heart at its core, but with 20+ years of experience under their belts, Gilbert and Grossman and the entire team at Terrible Toybox have a more mature slapstick pirate adventure here in Return to Monkey Island.
There's a lot of talk about nailing the ending of a story, as Guybrush reminisces over adventures of old and Gilbert reminisces on the issues he's had finishing games in the past. Of the difficulty and the complications that can arise in telling a story. This might be the last time we see Monkey Island and its wacky set of characters, and the first time the developers know they have a shot at nailing the ending that eluded them in the past. And they do. I know the exact point that a wry smile planted itself on my face and tears started to well up, knowing what Gilbert and Co. were doing with this game's ending. The emotions swelled as I witnessed the closing of the book, the turning out of the lights, and saying goodbye. I will concede that it definitely hits harder for those who have experienced Guybrush's previous adventures, but Terrible Toybox knows how to pluck the emotional strings well — and I'd say Return to Monkey Island's closing moments were a whole damn guitar solo.
"Everyone's feeling a little bit replaced. A little bit like the world has moved on without them. Like they might not belong. But it's about pushing forward regardless and finding the joy in the story anyway."
Story's important and all that, but it's time we talk about the high-octane point-and-clicking action. How do those clicks feel? How does puzzlin' work?
As you might expect, Return to Monkey Island has done away with the verb-based action of adventure games of yore. The series hasn't had it for a while, but it was surprising still to not even see a throwback system reminiscent of it at all. No looking, picking up, pushing, pulling, or talking — instead replaced with a simple contextual two-action system.
This creates a much more straightforward point-and-click experience. Hovering over interactable items in your environment offers up two actions (sometimes the second only comes after an initial poke at something). These usually break out between "what is this" and "interact with this." Previous titles were plagued with the issue of identifying important items and figuring out exactly how the game wanted you to interact with them. Return has no such problem, as the game dictates exactly what can be interacted with further.
Ultimately, this makes Return to Monkey Island a much easier game than its predecessors. With the more straightforward gameplay system, the puzzles do get to be a little more clever, and everything just feels so much more intuitive than usual. I never really struggled too much in my playthrough, but I did have a ton of exciting AHA moments when puzzles clicked, which makes for an infinitely more enjoyable play experience than something with obscure puzzle solutions that are just frustrating to discover in the end.
Not to say that the game didn't have a few eye-rollers by the end, but those proved to be slight bumps in the road of an otherwise enjoyable experience.
Terrible Toybox does a few things to make it even more accessible if you aren't a traditional adventure game fan, too. A series staple since Monkey Island 2, there are difficulty options (Casual and Hard) that can add steps to puzzles and make things a little more complicated. On top of that, there's a fun in-game solution for those who just need a little nudge toward puzzle solutions: a living hint book that the Voodoo Lady gives you early on. Whether you're writing the proper apology on a frog, learning to swab the deck, trying to trick a judge, or using Guybrush's charms to get your way, all of the core action is just damn fun.
So we're finding joy in the narrative. We're finding joy in the gameplay. What else brings joy in Return to Monkey Island?
Pre-release, there was much ado about the game's unique art style. Art Director Rex Crowle, fresh off of his work as creative director on Knights and Bikes, brought his distinct angular and vibrant illustrated style to the table and it, for some reason, shocked the world. The discourse surrounding it nearly chased Ron Gilbert off the Internet, as Gamers™ continued to prove that they can be just the worst, calling the game "ruined" among other horrible things because of the new style.
And I just don't get it. Return to Monkey Island is beautiful.
With the sea-inspired color palette from previous games and a few perfect modern lighting techniques, iconic locales like Mêlée Island have been beautifully transformed. Funny enough, the game's gorgeous painted backgrounds are reminiscent of LucasArts adventure game legends like Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit the Road. They're bold, colorful, and dense. It translates perfectly for the genre.
Crowle's work is vibrant and charming from afar but some of the game's cutaways with moments of focused grotesqueness, used for comedy, are even more satisfying. There are entire sequences that feel ripped out of classic Ren and Stimpy era cartoons, in all the right ways.
I want several full-screen illustrations from this game on my wall and I need those yesterday. In motion, Return is dripping with character. Inventory items shimmer and shake, background elements flow and breathe, and characters swing their arms around with puppet-like animation.
But none of that can come alive — not the writing, the art, or the gameplay itself — without the vocal artists that breathe life into these characters. Return to Monkey Island is full of top-notch performances. It feels like Dominic Armato and Alexandra Boyd, voice actors for Guybrush and Elaine respectively, haven't skipped a beat. And newcomers like LeChuck (Jess Harnell replaces retired series veteran Eric Boen), Flambe (Jim Pirri), Captain Lila (Annie Q. Riegel), and so many more feel so much part of the family that it's as if they've been there since the beginning.
And to complete the auditory package, Monkey Island's bustling sea-shanty-inspired score hits the mark once again. Clint Bajakian, Michael Land, and Peter McConnell's pirate-y score perfectly elevate each scene and bring the final layer of personality needed to each new location.
Add in the unique layered track variants that take a location's soundscape and give it new flair — like Mêlée Island's classic orchestrated track getting a punk tilt, electric guitars and all, when you're around the new pirate leaders. It's a fun way to inject some life into an already iconic score and it again just helps to elevate the personality of each scene.
It took a lot to Return to Monkey Island. Like I said in my intro, there was a lot of hesitation that came with me starting this game. Media revivals are extremely hit-and-miss, and I couldn't stand to watch a franchise so close to me fall apart. But when the credits rolled and I wiped the tears from my eyes, I realized why I was actually scared.
I already knew when I started that I didn't want it to be over.
video games are good and Return to Monkey Island is . . . GREAT. (9.5/10)
+ vibrant, character-full visuals, an accessible point-and-click adventure with a hilarious and surprisingly poignant story, a fitting end to an iconic franchise
- most of the game is way easier than expected but there still are a few frustratingly obtuse puzzle solutions to balance it out
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