Format: PC (Version Tested), Wii
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Genre: Point & Click Adventure
Time for a second spoonful. Say arrrrrrrrr...
Making episodic games is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, your first episode only has to succeed in entertaining gamers for a few hours before it's declared a success, dramatically reducing the pressure on the developer for that first crucial instalment. On the other hand, your audience becomes more difficult to please with each successive episode, expecting bigger and better from you each and every time. Flaws become more apparent, triumphs are somewhat diminished... is it any wonder that Valve are taking so long to release Half Life: Episode 3? So in many ways it's make or break for Tales of Monkey Island right now, as episode two – The Seige of Spinner Cay – goes live to a group of gamers who, lest we forget, were so enthusiastic over the first episode that Telltale Games' website crashed out under the strain on launch day. Having impressed us their scripting, their humour and their honest-to-goodness Monkey Island nous in Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, can Dave Grossman's team catch lightening in a bottle for a second time?
The game begins, as one would expect, exactly at the moment that episode one ended, with Guybrush at the end of a sword. The sword, as it turns out, belongs to the infamous pirate hunter Morgan LeFay, and she's been hired by the deliciously deranged Marquis de Singe to take Guybrush's pox-infected hand, undead or alive. LeFay also seems to be something of a Guybrush fan, having studied all of his adventures and learned all of his Insult Swordfighting moves, forcing him (and by “him”, of course, we mean “you”) to find another way of defeating her. Impressive, dramatically-speaking, and certainly very funny, but unfortunately it leads directly to the episode's first let-down, because the puzzle that follows is a direct rehash of the hand-fighting scene that ended episode one. If you don't see this as a problem, imagine playing the two episodes back to back – something which, in all fairness, all episodic games should be designed to accommodate. As it stands, however, coming on the shoulders of a month's salivating expectation, it's merely a disappointment, and one which colours your expectation from that moment forward. Not exactly auspicious, sadly.
The Seige of Spinner Cay sees Guybrush escape LeFay's clutches minus his evil hand and, having suffered a broken mast, limping his ship into the nearby Jerkbait Islands to seek repair. There he finds Elaine, a race of suspiciously alluring androgynous merpeople, and the freshly-human LeChuck, along with fresh orders to find and assemble the three golden artefacts required to reveal the resting place of the legendary Le Esponja Grande – a gigantic sponge with the power to cleanse the Caribbean of the demonic pox that Guybrush dim-wittedly unleashed in episode one. So far, so good. It's here that we hit our second snag – the bulk of the game involves running around a multi-pathed jungle. Again. And this time there's no quick-map to warp you to the landmarks that you've already visited. Frustratingly, the reason for this apparently oversight only becomes apparent towards the end of the episode, and it's a flimsy one at best; there's a puzzle involving a liquid which becomes unusable after Guybrush has passed through a certain number of screens, forcing you to find a shorter route to your goal. It's a nice puzzle, to be sure, but it's certainly not worth the three hours of irritation and map-drawing that follow it especially when, again, an almost identical mechanic was such a big part of the preceding episode.
The good news is that the remainder of the game is highly enjoyable despite the frustrating level of rehash. The dialogue and humour remain as superlatively sharp as ever, and the new puzzles on offer are pleasantly head-scratching. As with Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, however, help is never far away if you get stuck; if you go a certain length of time without solving a puzzle on your own, Guybrush will make a rhetorical non sequitur (in other words, he'll talk to his gamer!) designed to prompt you on your way. It's a fantastic piece of game design, neither holding you by the hand nor leaving you to get bored and switch off, and it's a welcome addition (some might say “evolution”) to the point and click genre. There's also some great cross-over with objects used in the previous episode (the Pyrite Parrot, the magic-eye lens and the Merfolk key all have a prominent part to play), helping to provide a sense of continuity which Telltale's earlier episodic efforts – Sam & Max in particular – were distinctly lacking. In addition, The Seige of Spinner Cay ramps up the self-reference factor, with another large helping of in-jokes and a fantastic set-piece – involving Guybrush teaching LeChuck how to solve adventure game puzzles – almost feeling like a reward for nigh-on twenty years of fandom. Playing on that nostalgia factor may be a cheap trick for Telltale to pull, but hey, it works. There's a lot to be said for that warm and fuzzy feeling.
Guybrush Threepwood only had to face Three Trials, but Telltale are facing five. Is The Seige of Spinner Cay a success? Yes, just about. There's more than enough here to please the most hardcore of Monkey Island fans. Is it a success on its own merits? That's a more difficult question to answer: it's probably fair to say that time will tell on that one. For now it's two down, three to go – let's hope that they bring their A-game for episode three.