When the creators of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, decide to release a new game, you can almost hear the retro fueled sighs of contentment echo around the world. When that game is revealed to be a retro puzzle adventure game in the old school mode, the sighs turn into a hum of pleasure. Now that the game is here, has the wait been worth it, and does it hold a candle to the old games that are being mentioned? I headed into Thimbleweed Park to find out.
The story revolves around a corpse by a bridge, and the arrival into town of two Federal agents, Agent Ray and Agent Reyes. Each appears to have their own motive for wanting the murder solved, and then to be free to pursue their own agendas. Obviously, we don’t know what these agendas are, and a large part of the fun of games like this is exploring the character’s back stories and finally understanding what makes them tick. The setup here is very nicely done, and it isn’t too long before you really start to invest in the characters that you control, and are wracking your brain trying to figure out what you need to do next to advance. As is usual in these games, there are some leaps of deductive logic required, that then seem obvious in retrospect, but luckily there aren’t too many moments in the game where I am reduced to trying to push or pull things in an attempt to make progress.
In an inspired move from the creators, given the limited time that a lot of us have to play these games, and the difficulty of Thimbleweed Park, there has been a casual mode added in. In this mode, a lot of the work is taken out, leaving you free to enjoy the story and solve the majority of puzzles without having to cause yourself a headache by trying to follow how the creators of the game think! The real challenge will be in Hard mode though, and if this game appeals to you, I personally think that you owe it to yourself to at least try Hard before going to Casual to get the most out of the game. Once the difficulty is selected, it is binding, so if you want to try the other difficulty you will have to start a new run through.
Starting off with the aforementioned corpse under the bridge, the two Federal agents, Ray and Reyes, are tasked with finding out not only how he died and who killed him, but also with who he is and how he came to be here. The game starts off slowly, introducing the different commands that can possibly be carried out, also showing you how to chain items together with the command prompts. As an example from the start of the game, one of the Feds has a camera, the other has the film. You have to give the film to the agent with the camera, using the Give command, and then switch characters (which is done with the trigger buttons and can be done at any time) and Use the film with the camera, then Use the camera on the corpse to photograph the body. This is all in the first five minutes, so the chances of spoilers is minimal, but it gives you an idea of the type of commands it is possible to build up with just a few keyphrases.
The fact that building these commands up is this easy is testament to the thought and the time that has gone into the interface design. Even little touches like using the shoulder bumpers to skip between interactable items on the screen makes your life much easier than inching the cursor around the screen, watching like a hawk for the description to change to indicate an item you can do something with. Each object in the game also has a command assigned to it that can be actioned and carried out with a jab of the X button. So for example, an elevator call button has a default command of Push associated with it, so you can call the elevator by pressing X. It hasn’t been applied across the board sadly – looking at light switches is a personal favourite of mine, but all can be resolved by choosing Use before highlighting the switch. The D-pad is mapped straight to the command list, so hitting a direction will let you choose a command faster than moving the cursor into that area of the screen. All in all, the control method has been optimised for the Xbox pad particularly well, and I can’t really think of any way it could be done better.
Graphically, Thimbleweed Park is unashamedly retro looking, as a glance at the screenshots will tell you. What static images don’t portray, however, is how charming the animation is on these characters. Little flickers of personality are constantly on display, and in a slight spoiler, a sequence where each character has to vomit is even charming and full of humour. You’re not just limited to just the two Feds as characters either, as you progress through the game and speak to the relevant people, you are introduced to three other characters via the medium of a flashback, complete with old skool “wibbly wobbly” screen effect. As you complete the flashbacks for each character, they are unlocked and can then add their strengths to whatever you are trying to achieve. These extra characters include Ransome the *beephole* Clown, a clown who is cursed to never be able to take off his makeup and as a result has become somewhat withdrawn from community, Delores Edmund who dreams of escaping from Thimbleweed Park to become a game programmer for MMucasFlem Games (remind you of any game companies who were famous for point and click adventures back in the day?) and Francis Edmund who has come to a sticky end and just wants the chance to talk to his daughter, Delores, one more time. With a cast like this, what could go wrong?
The voice acting and general sound atmosphere is also of a very high standard. From Agent Ray’s bored sounding speech, to Ransome’s expletive laden, *beep* ridden speech each character, even each NPC, has a unique sound. The exception being the Sheriff of Thimbleweed Park, who may also be the Coroner and the Hotel Manager…
One thing that grated for me, however, is the amount of fourth wall breaking, where the characters either speak directly to the player or reference that they are in a video game. Back in the day, this kind of thing was common, and appeared in a lot of adventure games, but in Thimbleweed, the developers have gone for the “more is more” approach and peppered the dialogue with references to other games. One example that stuck in my mind is again from the beginning of the game, when the corpse is found. When looking at it, Agents Ray and Reyes made no less than three references to the body “beginning to pixelate” in two minutes, and what was humorous the first time, was tedious the third. In another example, when I asked Delores to perform a certain action, she gave me a answer about how “if this was a text based adventure, I’d be be dead about now” and so on and so on. Luckily, after about Chapter 3, they eased off on the self referential gags and the story stepped in to pick up the slack, resulting in a tighter game and better experience, to be blunt. The game also pokes fun at the tendency in games to have collectibles to pick up, and the cast this time around are tasked with collecting specks of dust. These are obviously quite hard to see, being a little white pixel on the ground and collecting them all will be a challenge. There’s also an achievement for finishing the game without collecting any, so the choice is yours!
Speaking of the story, this is the standout hook of the experience. It starts off as a straightforward murder mystery, and by the time you’ve worked out who did it, the game is just getting into its stride and the character’s real motivations start to come to the fore. This causes the story to open up and also new locations to become available, and obviously even more puzzles to be created. How will we get to the Hotel penthouse? What is the secret of the Abandoned Factory? How can I get a hamburger in the Diner? These questions and more will be answered by playing the game, as I’m obviously not going to indulge in any spoilers here. Suffice it to say that the story has more than its share of twists and turns, and the ending will certainly raise an eyebrow! In and around the story there is so much to see as well, from little nods to the classic era of these games to a library in the mansion, that is fully stocked with books written by Kickstarter backers. The phonebook lists over 3000 names, and again these are largely Kickstarter backers, and these people have recorded answer phone messages that can be heard by ringing their number from the phone book. You really do get the feeling that this is almost a love letter to the games of the late 1980s/early 1990s.
All in all then, there’s really not much to criticise here at all, apart from the aforementioned fourth wall breaking, and this is a testament to the care and attention to detail that has gone into Thimbleweed Park. The story will hook you in and keep you playing, some of the puzzles will have you banging your head on the wall (or sneaking onto Youtube for a look at the solution), and the animation and personality of the characters will have you really caring what happens to them. If you never liked this type of game, this probably won’t change your mind, but for everyone else, the crazy world of Thimbleweed Park comes highly recommended.