Thimbleweed Park Review
Thimbleweed Park is a phenomenal adventure game, from legendary creators Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, and a handful of talented others. It doesn't quite *do it* for me in the same way that certain Lucasarts Classics do, but it's still an exceptional thing and one of the best games released this year.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND...
Ron Gilbert is one of game design's true legends. He understands the art of putting together fun game mechanics in a way that few others do, and in his career he's created/helped produce several great classics that stood the test of time...particularly Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island.
Maniac Mansion is a puzzle box with a veneer of surreal horror comedy. The entire game takes place in one large mansion, but it has several different paths and solutions to its puzzles, making it fun to play through multiple times. You get to select a team from a field of zany characters who are trying to rescue Dave's girlfriend Sandy from the twisted mad scientist, Dr. Fred Edison. Also there's an evil meteor...and some tentacle monsters...and a hamster.
It has a straightforward, mechanical design that makes it immediately accessible...but numerous different roadblocks, timing-based scenarios, and multiple endings. If you're a "fiddler," Maniac Mansion is hyper playable and fun, even today. The easiest way to play it is as part of the recent Day of the Tentacle Remastered release on PS4 and PC, where it's included as a free extra.
The Secret of Monkey Island is much more focused on narrative over mechanics, and follows the adventure of Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate! It still has some of the fun fiddly puzzles and mechanics of Maniac, but now there's only one character to control and one inventory collection to think about. You have a much bigger world to explore, and much more story content to encounter. The balance is nicely struck, which is why Monkey Island is often heralded as a true classic. It was remastered last generation, and the PC version is probably the easiest to get ahold of now.
Now...what about Thimbleweed Park? It's somewhere in the middle of these two design philosophies...and it hits more than it misses.
Like Maniac Mansion, Thimbleweed Park has you controlling several different playable characters, each with their own inventories, and each with puzzles that only they can solve. Like Monkey Island, there's a large world to wander around and explore and a narrative to take in.
The interface is just like the classic SCUMM engine games, with a large collection of verbs at the bottom of the screen, a cross-shaped cursor, and only your mouse and your clicking finger to guide you. There are a couple of smart additions to the formula. You can hold down the left mouse button and your current character will follow the cursor around, and you can double-click to walk faster. That second one has shown up in a few other modern adventure games, but the first one was new to me.
Aside from these modern concessions, the gameplay experience is delightfully old-school in the best possible way. There are numerous complex inventory combination puzzles, and puzzles which require tiny leaps of cartoon logic.
The game includes two different difficulties, and a fully integrated hint system if you get stuck...so it doesn't have nearly the frustration factor that the older games in this genre had as a hallmark.
Once or twice, I found myself having to backtrack through areas more than I would have liked...and I missed the fiddly complexity of Maniac Mansion at times. The visual style here is remarkably similar to that classic game/franchise, and so it kept reminding me of how cool that game was.
With one or two tiny tweaks, this game could have been titled Maniac Mansion 3.
It's a direct follow-up to the events of the first game, and includes so many nods, references, and even characters from that classic universe that I'm kind of shocked it was able to legally release. Clearly, either Ron Gilbert and company still own enough of the original assets to get away with this, or some kind of secret deal was struck...but all of this is TOTALLY AWESOME.
Now, this content won't mean anything to you if you've never played Maniac Mansion...and fortunately, this game stands entirely on its own in spite of being chock full of classic Lucasfilm Games/Lucasarts fanservice. Other old games, like Monkey Island and Zak McKraken and The Alien Mindbenders are heavily referenced...but outside of its obvious Maniac Mansion follow-up aspirations, Thimbleweed Park tells a mostly engaging and entirely original tale. A tale which was a bit darker and more emotionally serious than what I expected, to be honest!
Without spoiling anything, the ending goes for some emotional gravitas that I don't think it totally earns or pulls off...but it comes close. The story is squarely in the middle of the pack for me when compared to classic adventures that I love. Its ending has a couple of twists that might upset some players, but I kind of dug the strange direction that it took.
Also, it's about twice as long as the average classic adventure story, so be prepared for it to go on a little longer when you think it's over!
Thimbleweed Park executes a perfect "retro" look, with just enough modern touches to impress. Everything about the art and animation here is fully exceptional.
The style is right in line with classic Lucasarts adventures...but the animation exceeds most of them. I think only Curse of Monkey Island has a more amazing look, and that's impressive, because Curse is one of the coolest-looking 2D games ever made.
I especially like the moments where the game seamlessly transitions between present day and flashback scenes with a wavy screen effect. Sure, it's not "impressive" by modern standards, but thinking about it in the context of old computer games, this made me go "Oooh!" every time.
The backgrounds are filled with little details, but communicative enough that you won't be frustrated trying to figure out what's interactive and what isn't. The characters have a surprising number of unique animations, and they're all beautiful.
This is legitimately one of the best-looking games of the year. It has a fully realized visual style and executes it perfectly.
Because I avoided some of the marketing and pre-release hype for this game...I had no idea until I played it that it was fully voiced.
This is really cool!
The game has exceptional voice acting, top to bottom, with plenty of memorable characters and many great line deliveries. I turned on the text for each character as well, because that's the way I used to play classic Lucasarts games. There's an inextricable link in my mind between floating colored text above characters and Lucasarts adventures. And you can even turn on the same font used in those old games, which I did immediately.
Music has a few standout tracks, including a fun fake rock song from Maniac Mansion band Razor and the Scummettes. Impressively, like the visual style, the music is executed with a sound reminiscent of old MIDI synthesis, and avoids using any samples that sound too modern or obviously realistic. The music didn't quite stick with me in the same way that classic tracks from the genre did, but it's still great.
Sound effects are subtle for the most part, and not quite as over-the-top cartoony as I expected from the pedigree.
There are a few weird mixing issues, too. Sometimes dialog will come from a random stereo channel for no apparent reason. Certain areas have nicely mixed ambient backgrounds and realistic panning, and other areas seem a little barren in the audio department.
Still, the voice acting and music are the true stars of the show in the sonic department, and they come through quite nicely. I played the entire thing through headphones with the new Windows 10 Dolby Atmos features turned on, because I'm a ridiculous person.
Thimbleweed Park is an exceptional classic adventure game that fully lives up to the legacy of the games it follows. It doesn't often exceed them, but it hit me right in the nostalgia of the little kid that loved these games.
And it holds up as a modern experience. The puzzles aren't too crazy, but still make you feel like a genius when you figure them out. And the inclusion of obvious objectives, a selectable difficulty, and a full hint system ensure that you'll be able to get to the end of the game with a little bit of perseverance.
For 20 bucks, you can't really ask for anything else. If you're a fan of the genre, you should have bought this back in March. If you're a new player, there's enough here to show you why this genre was at one time so beloved. Recommended without reservation.
Thimbleweed Park is available on most modern platforms, including computers, mobile devices and consoles.