Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Terrible Toybox
Publisher: Terrible Toybox
These days it’s hard to shake the feeling that videogames on Kickstarter are primarily fueled by tapping into people’s nostalgia, playing on their childhood memories and their desires for the good old days when you could really see the pixels. Thimbleweed Park doesn’t so much aim for the nostalgia center of your brain as it does strap a rocket to its butt and proceed to blow straight through it, offering up a point and click experience so retro that it honestly could have come straight from the golden era of the genre. Only it’s constant references and a few little tweaks oust it as something published in 2017.
Cue a brand new point and click game from the warped minds of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, the creators of Monkey Island, one of my favorite games of all time. It might be a 2017 title but Thimbleweed Park could easily be mistaken for something from the 90s.
The game opens with two agents arriving in Thimbleweed Park to investigate a murder. Rey is the grilled female veteran who answers most questions with a hefty dark of monotone sarcasm, while Reyes is the rookie, much more optimistic and willing to have a conversation. The murder, though, is mostly forgotten about in the game’s overarching plot that revolves around the strange town of Thimbleweed Park and the mysterious abandoned Pillow Factory. Other playable characters quickly become involved too, from the incredibly beeping rude Ransome the Clown to Franklin the ghost and Delores, the young game developer who wants to land a job at Mucus Flem Games, a loving jab at Lucas Arts. They all have their own goals that revolve around the strange factory and therefore will have to work together.
It’s a strange tale, part zany Monkey Island humor and part X-files/Twin Peaks, albeit never as funny as Monkey Island nor ever truly capturing the atmosphere of X-files or Twin Peaks. The sheriff is the most obvious example; the same man appears to be the town’s sheriff, coroner and hotel manager, yet he swears he isn’t the same person, affecting little speech quirks in an attempt to hide the fact. There’s even the Pigeon Brothers, a pair of sisters who handle plumbing and the supernatural while dressed as giant pigeons and constantly chattering about the signals. That’s as funny as it gets. The sparkling dialog of the Monkey Island games is never matched. Then there’s the game’s near obsession with breaking the fourth wall, constantly referencing various other adventure games to the point where it almost becomes annoying. Sometimes it nails the humor, though, like the agents guessing how long the corpse has been in the water based on how pixellated it is. Whether you’ll enjoy this or not will come down to your stance on breaking the fourth wall, and if you think it’s amusing for something to poke fun at a trope, cliche or problem while usually committing the same sin itself.
Then there’s the likely very divisive ending that I couldn’t quite figure out; was it going for smart? Funny? Thoughtful? All of these things? What I do know is it doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it should be, each character’s ending not given the time it needs. The closing moments feel inconsequential.
Speaking of the characters the voice acting is…er, passable? I’m honestly not sure if it’s a deliberate choice for the sake of authenticity or if the actors simply aren’t that good. Probably best to go with option A and give the game the benefit of the doubt.
Meanwhile, the murder mystery that the game kicks off with almost seems to get forgotten about entirely rather quickly, fading into the background in favor of the bigger overarching plot and never getting properly resolved.
The gameplay formula is very standard stuff, opting to stick to the established point and click template for the most part, occasionally deviating in small ways. In other words, it’s playing to a very specific audience, one who fell in love with the original point and click games. It’s smart, too, because while the games typically published by large companies that seek to please everyone can be fun they don’t often do anything particularly well, while a focused game like this can do one thing and do it very, very well.
Like you’d expect you’ll be exploring the reasonably sizable world, solving a whole bunch of puzzles to progress the storyline and picking up/stealing everything that isn’t nailed down in case it becomes useful later on. Where Thimbleweed Park seeks to set itself apart is its cast of five playable characters, all of whom you can swap between at will quite early on in the game. You’ll constantly need to hand items back and forth between them, move them around in order to distract someone while stealing keys or figure out which member of your group needs to speak to an NPC.
From a story perspective, there’s a poor job done bringing this eclectic bunch together. Despite barely speaking to each other or even really discussing goals they suddenly begin trading items and working together while being aware of things they shouldn’t be. For example, I took control of Agent Rey and went to meet Dolores for the first time. After Rey being brushed off because Dolores is busy I got to take control of Dolores. It didn’t take long for me to head into the world and begin handing items over to Agent Rey with barely a comment while also solving things begun by Rey. The story requires them to all come together, and yet they constantly act like none of the other people exist. There’s barely any conversations between any of them, either, missing an opportunity for some great dialog.
One area in which Thimbleweed has clearly used its modern origins as an advantage is in its puzzle design. The original point and click titles were infamous for their love of puzzles with incredibly contrived solutions that often made zero sense, leaving you to madly click on everything in the vague hope of making something happen that progresses the story. No, here the puzzles are pleasingly logical, requiring only the smallest of mental leaps to figure out. I can’t recall a single challenge that left me feeling frustrating because the solution turned out to be nonsense. The multiple controllable characters also means that if you get stuck there are usually quite a few other things going on that you can switch over to for a while. Furthermore, the game is good at dropping hints and clues via its dialogue and item descriptions, gently prodding you toward the solutions without ever really feeling like it’s making things too easy. Ron Gilbert has talked before about how you should never be left wandering around wondering what you’re supposed to be doing, you should be wandering about wondering how to do what you need to do. In Thimbleweed Park he puts this philosophy into practice in a very direct manner, giving each character their very own to-do list.
In case you do find the puzzles to be intellectually challenging, though, there’s an easy mode which removes roughly half of them, and thus basically guts the entire game. I’d personally advise not going near it and simply persevering because the sense of pride is more than worth the effort. In a way it’s an odd design choice because this is a game firmly aimed at an already established audience who will have likely worked their way through a myriad of obtuse puzzles before and thus probably would never even consider sticking easy mode on. Still, I guess the hope is that some folk may consider picking Thimbleweed Park up and giving it a go.
Pixel hunting, the name given to something the old point and click games loved to do when they made players hunt for interactive objects buried in the scenery, is also kept to a minimum. Indeed, the game even makes fun of it by including a lot of specks of dirt that you can pick up which do absolutely nothing except for unlock Achievements.
One concession for the modern age is controller support. Playing on Xbox One or on PC with a controller (I have no idea why you would do that) you can leap instantly between interactable objects on the screen to speed things up, and many actions become context sensitive so you don’t have to use the old-fashioned verb system.
Thimbleweed Park was made with a very specific audience in mind and that’s something I appreciate greatly because it has resulted in a great game that feels like it could have been an unpublished Lucas Arts title, but with more logical puzzles that don’t leave you with a completely rational desire to strangle the designers. Of course on the flipside this does mean that aside from the five playable characters Thimbleweed Park is about as innovative and new as a brick. But sometimes you don’t want new and innovative, sometimes you just want to build a damn house and bricks, despite their age, are bloody good at that. Terrible metaphor, I know, but I’m going with it. Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick knew exactly what they wanted to do and they did it. The story could be better executed, for reasons that I can’t really discuss without spoiling everything, and the humor never manages to even come close to matching the wit of Monkey Island, but the gameplay is thoroughly good stuff. If you’re a point and click fan this is absolutely an essential purchase. It’s not the best point and clicker ever, but it’s still pretty damn good. That’ll do for now.
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