In 1991, Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge dropped a bonkers cliffhanger on fans that wouldn’t ever get truly addressed. The man who created the series, Ron Gilbert, left Lucas Arts after the second game was released and with him, the exact plan for the story of Monkey Island was gone. But the series wouldn’t end there – several more adventures would be released that tried to capture the magic of the first two, and all the while Ron Gilbert dreamt about getting to make a third game. That dream would take three decades and the Monkey Island IP going to Disney to come true. Made by Terrible Toybox with Gilbert at the helm, Return to Monkey Island is a triumphant resurgence for a beloved series.
Return to Monkey Island kicks off with a young Boybrush and his friend Chuckie as they explore a theme park, an intro likely to set alarm bells ringing for long-time fans. The lads are reliving some of the epic tales of Boybrush’s father, Guybrush Threepwood the mighty (more like inept) pirate who has battled the dreaded ghost pirate Le Chuck numerous times and hunted for the mythical secret of Monkey Island all his life. Soon enough the boys stumble across Guybrush lounging on a park bench where he proceeds to tell his son the story of how he returned to Monkey Island in order to find the secret once and for all so that could finally find inner peace. And yes, Dominic Armate has once again stepped into the leather boots of Guybrush and hearing his voice immediately had my nostalgia glands tingling.
Guybrush heads to Melee Island with the intent of talking the Pirate Lords into financing his expedition, but what he finds is that things have changed a little since he left. Chiefly, there are three new Pirate Lords led by Madison, and they aren’t impressed with Guybrush, his plan or the fact that he once completed three trials. The more looming threat, though, is that of the ghost pirate Le Chuck who has also decided that the time is ripe for the secret of Monkey Island to be revealed, so it’s a race between the old foes to see who can discover the secret first. The race is on.
As soon as you step onto Monkey Island a warm, cosy feeling settles around your heart. Familiar faces inhabit the island and yet like Guybrush they’ve all aged and changed. Wally the map-maker is back, for example, but he’s found the confidence he was lacking before while Carla has settled into her role as the island’s mayor. The returning cast is as charming, likeable and funny as they ever were with enough sense of growth to keep them feeling fresh, but there are also plenty of new people to encounter, like the stoic locksmith who clearly finds Guybrush a bit stupid. While there is certainly a reliance on nostalgia, there’s never a feeling that Return to Monkey island is abusing it just for the sake of getting cheap reactions. As a sequel, it makes sense that old characters would still be around. And above all else, this really isn’t a game for newcomers. Sure, you could jump in and play it and probably even have a decent time, but it’s clear that Return to Monkey is fully intended to be experienced by fans who are intimately familiar with prior games.
The script is sharp and filled with the same acerbic wit of the first two games, firing off jokes, puns and daftness like a comedy machine gun. There’s a fun meta-tone wherein Guybrush and Le Chuck are once again locked in conflict over their obsession with Monkey Island, and yet none of the other people they encounter seems to care very much. Unlike our hero and his nemesis, the world has moved on from Monkey Island, and I have no doubt that Ron Gilbert and his team were worried that the world has moved on as well. I’m here for it, though, and while the script never quite had me busting a gut, it did put a huge grin on my face from start to finish. I’m positive that whether Return to Monkey Island is as well written as the first two games will be a heated debate amongst the hardcore fans, but I was more than happy with its twists and turns, characters and jokes.
A potentially confusing topic is exactly how Return to Monkey Island fits into the whole timeline. This is ostensibly a direct sequel to Monkey Island 2. Gilbert left after Monkey Island 2, and when the third game came out, Curse of Monkey Island, it attempted to deal with the second game’s ambiguous and slightly confusing theme park ending which left fans on something of a cliffhanger. Return to Monkey Island acts as Gilbert’s true sequel, but at the same time, the other Monkey Island titles remain canonical and are referenced. It makes for a slightly messy timeline and lore, with Gilbert and co commenting that in any instance of continuity getting in the way of telling a good story, they threw continuity out the nearest window.
On the gameplay front, this is classic point-and-click goodness, a warm and cosy blanket of puzzle solving that feels instantly familiar. You stuff every item you possibly can into Guybrush’s expansive coat pockets, click through dialogue options in the hopes of hearing the vital hint and scour every environment for clues that will move things along. Most of the puzzles are built around the classic concept of being presented with a problem and then working along an ever-growing chain of mini-problems to get the thing you need. The controls have been updated, too, so now when you hover over an object you’re usually given two options that are typically variants of using the thing or looking at the thing. Both options often get bespoke descriptions as well in the form of jokes, puns or something descriptive.
I’m also super happy to be able to tell you that Return to Monkey Island does not suffer the same obtuse puzzle designs as its predecessors. The franchise became well known for some of the absurd leaps of logic required to progress, most of which made you question what drugs the designers were on and where you could get some. But if you happen to get stuck then there’s an awesome hint book in your inventory that magically knows what you’re doing. You can ask it for help on whatever puzzle you’re currently stuck on and it will provide a gentle nudge in the right direction. Continue to question it and those hints will become more and more detailed until it almost hands you the solution. It’s a great way to make the game as easy or as hard as players really want it to be, and is the best example of a hint system I’ve encountered in a point-and-click yet. And there’s even a difficulty select when you begin the adventure, asking if you’d rather just play for the story or go for the full challenge which includes extra puzzles. Naturally, as a seasoned veteran, I went for the second one.
With that said, Return to Monkey Island is a pretty easy game, and between that and being able to make Guybrush run by double clicking you can breeze through the whole thing very quickly. It took me about 7-hours to wrap up the story, although there were plenty of extra Achievements to aim for if I want to go back for a little more. I’ve seen people complain that Return to Monkey Island is too easy compared to the previous games, but I’d counter that point by saying that it probably feels that way because of the lack of bewildering solutions that would leave you desperately trying to combine every single thing in your inventory in the vague hope of salvation. Without those moments and with the hint system it’s unlikely you’re ever going to get stuck for long.
However, I do think there aren’t as many memorable puzzle sequences and ideas in Return to Monkey Island. There’s nothing here that quite matches up to learning how to swordfight using insults or juggling acidic grog, nor, indeed, figuring out exactly how to make a monkey wrench in Monkey Island 2. And certainly, the game does tend to be clearer about what it wants, meaning a few puzzles can end up feeling more like fetch quests as you jog across islands to find the item needed. Still, almost every puzzle feels satisfying to solve and fun to do, and I actually appreciated the relaxed vibe. Sure, it can be good to have your brain taxed to the max, but it’s also nice to kick back and make steady progress, letting you soak up the game’s lovely music and nostalgic atmosphere.
After a while, you get to leave Melee Island and venture out to other locations, like the icy Brr-muda or Scurvy Island. It’s an exciting moment, a chance to really flex those puzzle muscles and soak up some new scenery instead of just running around the same handful of areas. Sadly, these areas just don’t feel fleshed out, most of them only offering a couple of spots to visit. I would’ve loved to have them built up more, but they’re more like fleeting stop-offs or, at worst, feel like they were added in to make you navigate an entire map just to get one object.
Right up until the ending, Return to Monkey Island is a fabulous adventure and may even be the best game in the series, although that’s a contentious point. Some fans will love the sleeker puzzle designs, while others may miss the more brain-bending logic or even the more complex, multi-stage elements of some sequences. Once you hit the credits, however, things become interesting, delivering an ending that has already divided fans, sparked interesting debates and even ruined the game for some folk who believe the destination is just as important as the journey.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into specifics and spoil anything, but I do want to touch upon the ending more. In many respects, Return to Monkey Island dwells on sequels and the challenges that come with them, especially when returning to a series that has been dormant for so long. More specifically, it needs to tackle the question of what the secret of Monkey Island actually is, all while setting up the idea that there can be more adventures for Guybrush Threepwood in the future. With numerous games, all focused on the secret and years and years of fan speculation, was it ever going to be possible to deliver something that would live up to the hype? Or is it best to never actually reveal the mystery? These are all questions that Return to Monkey Island tries to answer by delivering a bold ending that ties in with motifs from the previous games. It’s a finale likely to spark a lot more conversation, and I think people’s thoughts on it will probably change a lot over time.
But as divisive as the ending is proving to be, it’s nothing compared to the truly polarising aspect of Return to Monkey Island: the art style. It’s a bold departure from the somewhat realistic vibes of the originals and even from the more cartoony looks of Curse. This one is all geometric shapes and bright blobs of colours, like the artist refused to give up his or her ruler and crayons. It’s almost a deliberate message to the fans to show that time has passed and that this is a different Monkey Island, and yet that’s not really the case since this sequel deals quite heavily in nostalgia. In the end, I neither dislike nor like the art style. I’m largely indifferent to it but do vastly prefer the look of the Special Edition versions of the first two games.
Return to Monkey Island is an excellent return to form for a legendary series that means so much to me and so many others. Although it took just over three decades for Ron Gilbert to take the helm once again the wait has been mostly worthwhile. Only the ending plunders the rest of the game’s quality, likely leaving just as many people frustrated as it will happy. Regardless, I do hope Guybrush will return again for more adventures.