Thursday 22 March 2018

Thimbleweed Park - a review

What's this? A review!? We'll be getting into the weeds on this one...

For gamers of a certain age, point-and-click adventure games – the LucasArts classics from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, in particular – elicit a special kind of nostalgia. Personal computing began to hit the mainstream at that time and, for many, it was these games that occupied their first formative hours in front of a computer screen. Ron Gilbert’s SCUMM engine, first used on his and Gary Winnick’s Maniac Mansion, replaced the command line text input from earlier adventure games with a more intuitive user interface. An onscreen menu of verbs and items would allow the player to, for example, USE the CROWBAR on the DOOR simply by clicking the respective elements.

It’s still an elegant system, although after three decades of breadcrumb trails, glowing objects and handholding, it can feel a little archaic to a newcomer. However, Gilbert and Winnick’s mandate for the crowdfunded Thimbleweed Park wasn’t to reinvent or modernise the genre; they promised to take all the lessons learned from those historic titles and create an ‘undiscovered’ SCUMM game of that era, with only a smattering of modern conveniences. It was a pitch that translated into Kickstarter success, but does the end result hold up in the harsh light of 2018? And how does the experience translate to Switch?

The investigation begins in 1987 as FBI agents Reyes and Rey (Thimbleweed’s very own Mulder and Scully) arrive in the eponymous town to solve a murder. Along the way you’ll encounter further characters including Ransome, a washed-up celebrity clown, and Dolores Edmund, a young adventure game programmer. Working in tandem, each puzzle you solve will reveal that all is even stranger than it initially seems, which is fitting given the overt Twin Peaks and X-Files influences. The story threads wry nods to nerd culture throughout and even a passing knowledge of the LucasArts catalogue will have you grinning as you explore the various locales, from diner to sewer, post office to mansion, hotel to pillow factory.

Difficulty-wise, you are given complete control to tailor the game to your liking. The verb-noun interface may take some getting used to if you are unfamiliar with the system but anyone who has tinkered with the SCUMM engine will feel at home immediately. Casual mode reduces the number of puzzles for a breezier experience but, for those who want the full-fat game, the developers have also included a comprehensive ‘Tips Helpline’ accessed by dialling ‘HINT’ (4468) into any in-world telephone (and yes, one character does carry a pleasingly brick-like mobile phone.) This system is a godsend to those of us with brains averse to adventure game logic. Hints depend entirely on your progress and are cleverly oblique, nudging you in the right direction until, should your patience wear thin, they will state explicitly where you need to go, what you need to do and with who. Thankfully, no puzzle in Thimbleweed is as inscrutable as some of the LucasArts adventures, but the hint helpline prevents the kind of frustration that had this scribe quitting Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis twenty-five years ago. It’s also totally optional so hardcore gamers needn’t worry about their game being sullied in the name of convenience.

While your mileage may vary regarding the legacy interface, the quality of the writing is right up there with the original games. It would have been easy for Thimbleweed to buckle under the weight of references and knowing winks, but Gilbert takes the cheeky spirit of the classics and weaves nostalgia in without getting bogged down and alienating players who don’t have those reference points. Most of the references sit in the background and there is even an option to remove the in-jokes if you are easily confused and/or humourless. One imagines most players coming to this game will be acquainted with the lineage, but the story doesn’t assume knowledge.

Another area where Thimbleweed Park manages to match the classics is the visual presentation. Winnick’s pixel art beautifully captures the spirit of the old games and it looks great on the Switch’s 720p screen. Touch controls work as expected, although you will never achieve the precision of a pointer using your finger. Holding a digit on the screen for a moment will handily highlight all interactive elements. Although never a huge problem, your hand will necessarily obscure the screen as you tap and there is a little trial and error involved in selecting the smaller items. When docked, Joy-Con controls work well, too. Both sticks operate the cursor, with the right offering slower, finer movement. It is the best you will get on a conventional pad, although it is a shame pointer controls are not present to replicate the precision of a mouse. We will keep our fingers crossed for a patch.

For the most part, Thimbleweed Park succeeds marvellously in its goal to present an ‘unearthed’ treasure from the heyday of point-and-click, and the Switch version’s touchscreen controls and portability make it as accessible as possible. It’s not for everyone - if adventure games don’t set your pulse racing, there is nothing here that is going to convert you. But Thimbleweed Park proves to be more than a simple homage – it earns its place with The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle in the pantheon of great adventure games. For anybody curious about the genre, there’s no better place to start.

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