Escape from Monkey Island Review

The most important thing I can say about Escape from Monkey Island (EFMI) is that it's the fourth game in the Monkey Island series. As obvious as that might sound, that's about all you need to know. Yes, the game does have its share of problems, but it still generally has the quality of humor and puzzles that one has come to expect from a Monkey Island game. However, with too many jokes based on previous games, it will appeal a little less to those who aren't already rushing out to buy it on seeing "Monkey Island" in the title.

As EFMI starts, Guybrush Threepwood, the lovable but terminally clueless pirate, and Elaine Marley, governor-for-life of Melee Island, are on their way home from an extended honeymoon. But instead of receiving the warm welcome they'd hoped for, Guybrush and Elaine discover that they've both been declared dead in their prolonged absence.

Being declared dead is the least of their problems -- a catapult operator is trying to destroy the Governor's Mansion, Elaine is no longer governor, and a real estate developer named Charles L. Charles and his Australian partner are out to turn Melee Island into yet another family-friendly tourist trap with a Starbucks ... err ... Starbuccaneers on every corner. Of course, the evil ghost pirate LeChuck also must make a return to threaten Guybrush and Elaine.

While I don't know that a game could be a Monkey Island sequel without LeChuck, there's too much of that "of course" factor throughout the entire game. Characters like Murray the talking skull return, but they don't do anything interesting, as if reminding you about jokes from previous games is good enough to be funny on its own. Obviously, these sorts of references will just confuse the beginning Monkey Islander, but they're not particularly funny as in-jokes either.

On the other hand, EFMI is very funny at times with new characters like the championship cliff diver named Marco de Pollo; the teacher who reforms pirates into upstanding, tourist-friendly citizens; or the nostrilly-challenged thief Pegnose Pete with his unusual duck phobia. There's plenty laugh at during the game, mainly when EFMI tries to be its own game.

EFMI also generally does quite well with its puzzles, with a few notable exceptions. Most of the puzzles can be solved from clues present in the game, if you're patient and careful enough to pay attention to them. Some of the puzzles can get tough, but even if you have to turn to hints or pure trial and error, you're likely to see that the puzzle made sense once you solve it.

But there is one notable exception, and it's known as Monkey Kombat. As you may remember, previous Monkey Island games have had "swordfighting" sequences where you won by collecting insults and responses to use against your opponents. In EFMI, however, the major insulting is in monkey speak. Specifically, you use combinations of monkey syllables to change between fighting positions in a Mortal Kombat parody. For the first fight or two, the concept and the animations are rather cute.

The problem with Monkey Kombat is that you have to do a lot of fighting to learn the moves you need from your opponents, and to make things worse, the combinations change randomly from game to game. That means a lot of busy work just to learn the combinations and then more busy work to keep track of them once you know them. If you get stuck in or just sick of Monkey Kombat, it's impossible for someone to give you hints to get you through, since you have to learn the combinations that apply to your game. Perhaps the designers figured that combining insult fighting, cute monkeys, and a Mortal Kombat spoof would work well, but it didn't.

Fortunately, the graphics are generally quite good, and both the background graphics and characters are depicted in an appropriately cartoonish and fun style. This time, the series has made the move to 3D, using an interface very similar to the one in Grim Fandango. While the background graphics and cut-scenes are pre-rendered, the characters are in 3D. Unlike Grim Fandango, EFMI requires hardware acceleration.

However, EFMI also takes one step back from Grim Fandango, complicating what was a elegantly simple interface by adding an inventory ring and a list of commands at the bottom of the screen. In Grim Fandando, your character was the entire interface -- he pointed his head at items of interest on screen once you were close, and you pressed the appropriate key (like "L" for "look") to act on that object.

Screens tend to be more densely populated in EFMI, so once you're looking in the general direction of an object, you will often have to use the PAGE UP/DOWN keys to select from a list of multiple objects in that area. The bottom of the screen suggests one action for each object, but you sometimes have to select a different action. For example, to pick up a banana, you might have to use the arrow keys to walk near the banana, press PAGE DOWN to change the active command from "Talk to monkey" to "Look at banana", and then press "P" to pick up the banana (keeping the "banana" part of the command but not the action). The interface is functional once you get used to it, but it's not as simple as either the text-line-free Grim Fandango or most point-and-click adventures.

You should also download the latest patch from LucasArts, since there are several bugs that can prevent you from finishing the game under certain conditions. After installing the patch, I still found a few bugs -- including one that made Guybrush keep walking in place until I restored a saved game and avoided the reproducible steps that triggered the bug.

Even with these problems, EFMI is a fun and funny game. It's not the best Monkey Island, and it's probably not the best way to start the series -- especially since Curse of Monkey Island (the third title) is still available as a discount title. If you've liked the previous titles in the series, though, you'll probably also enjoy this game.

-- Jason Strautman