Escape from Monkey Island
I even scored some pretty lengthy -- no word on the interest level -- interviews with LucasArts staff, and one Q&A with the game's developers was featured on the company's homepage for a while. Plus, I got a nifty free t-shirt and copy of the game...
...which turned out to be a good thing because zero dollars is probably all it's worth. Like a good hack, I shamelessly wrote a positive review of my free copy. But with several years' distance between myself and the game, I can honestly say it's awful. The jokes are unfunny (example: one location is a parody of Starbucks, and just seems tired and lazy), and the plot is not that riveting.
The 3D graphics are nice in places but they make the main characters look a little weird. And the charm of the first two games is entirely gone here. It no longer "feels" like you're playing a pirate game set in a wacky Caribbean. Rather, it's like a sugary version of a generic adventure game that has tenuous links to pirates.
And don't even get me started on the ending. The secret of Monkey Island is a robot? That fights another robot? For fuck's sake.
I'm sure there was all kinds of nerdy up-in-armsness about the move to 3D leading up to the game's release, so, to look at it in a positive light, it was nice to be a whiny, geeky prick for years and actually be right for once. That's right, contrary to what you hippie free-thinkers are always on about, change is a bad thing. I remember thinking something was wrong the moment I started up the game. Rather than a painstakingly animated, epic-looking introduction and credits sequence accompanied by a gorgeous orchestral swell, a bunch of shoddy 3D flash cards with people's names on them flipped by as the, well, same exact orchestra swelled because they reused the exact same music track. It felt like what it was; a game produced as quickly as possible to cash in on whatever interest the third game had rekindled with only a minor percentage of the budget of that previous title. Considering the effort and care that went into creating all of the Monkey Island games up until that point, it was particularly disheartening to begin this one with the sense immediately creeping up on you that this was something of a budget title.
To wit, the engine was the one created for Grim Fandango and, while some form of SCUMM had been the engine of choice for all of LucasArts' previous adventure games, it had at least gone through some changes and evolutions. With EMI, it felt like you were playing a game that had been shoehorned into working with another game's engine. The controls and inventory system are fairly shite (if you're trying to play it on a laptop keyboard, you've got another thing coming) and, while Grim was a beautiful, highly stylized game (the Day of the Dead style suits models that are sure to come out blocky already), EMI gave us crappy, blocky sort-of-people unconvincingly propped up in front of 2D environments that made some effort (but not enough of one) to replicate the look of CMI. It really just doesn't work, for the most part, and the use of primary colors gives the impression you're running around an amusement park, rather than the Caribbean (though some argument can be made for this being in line with the plot, I suppose).
Back when I first played the game, the one positive aspect I stuck to was that, unlike every game in the series thus far, I actually shockingly found it funny. Sean Clark and Mark Stemmle, who were behind the fairly dark and twisted Sam & Mix Hit the Road, headed this one up, which explains the change in mood, plus the Teen rating the game garnered. I recall that, at the time, people kept insisting the humor was not Monkey Island-like, but seemed to be referring to Curse of Monkey Island as a representation of how the humor should be, which is way off base, in my opinion. Again, CMI was far more family-friendly in style than the older games had been so, if anything, EMI came closer to the original style. However, I recently played through a bit of EMI again and discovered I didn't find it nearly as funny as I thought I did and found much of (but not all of) the writing to be far less well-crafted. So, oops. Regardless, the reinsertion of "hell" and "damn" into the dialogue is something I had no issue with, but other people seemed to.
The only things that really remained intact here were top-notch music and voice acting. Guybrush looked and behaved even more naive and childish and Dominic Armato seemed to jaunty up his voice a tad more to reflect that, which worked well. Elaine changed from British to American, which didn't really bother me either way and Stan actually got a voice that came slightly closer to what I imagined for him. Further, some characters from the older games, like Carla and Otis, were voiced for the first time ever and I think were done pretty well. The music, again, was good, but generally came closer to being simply pleasing and unobtrusive. Of course, when considering the unfair standard set by CMI's soundtrack, EMI never really had a prayer. Clearly, and not unexpectedly, an orchestra had not been brought in this time and, whereas I actually noticed the music as being incredible in its own right in CMI, EMI's was content to provide a background and was sort of just there (however, I will say that the in-game menu music is awesome and quite memorable). Also, the re-usage of several tracks of CMI was fine in the sense that those songs were still great, but they stuck out for those of us who'd played the last game and would always call to attention the cheaper production values.
There are all kinds of problems with Escape from Monkey Island. Perhaps most gamers (and most critics seemingly) would find an essentially decent game here, which, I suppose it is. But for fans of the series or even just the genre, it's got all kinds of unintuitive junk from the controls to the layout of areas as well as multiple sound and graphic issues that scream low budget. However, the biggest crime here is that the story isn't very engaging and the puzzles seem to fall along a spectrum that goes from "really easy" to "stupid as hell." I tried booting the game up a month or so ago for the second time ever and didn't bother making it past the second act. Comparatively, I've played every other game in the Monkey Island series multiple times each so, yeah, that's not good.
Is it a bad game? No, not really. Is it a bad Monkey Island game? Yeah, it's easily the worse of the lot, no question. Kind of sad when you look at the other great games that EMI's co-directors, Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark, had a hand in. Trying to pinpoint where everything went wrong is probably best left to those willing to do the digging but on the surface it just looks they kept throwing crap into the game without seeing what stuck or made sense.
The addition of a new villain was a bit of a welcome change or it would be if the villain was interesting, trading up a demonic pirate for an Australian land developer is the opposite of awesome and I still have no idea what his "evil" plan was. LeChuck still plays a part here but he's been reduced to the "Henchman #1" spot and pretty much does nothing the entire game. There was also a pirate with no nose that impersonates Guybrush early on and then just hangs around.
Speaking of Guybrush, once again his personality is changed. This time they made him completely stupid along with being married to Elaine so there's plenty of marriage jokes, just what everybody loves to hear. He's not the only one to get messed up, series regular Herman Toothrot has his entire back story changed for no reason other than the writer's convenience. Then there's Stan and Murray showing up for no reason whatsoever; you can pretty much finish the game without even acknowledging them.
While 3D graphics where the new format for everything at the time and the previous LucasArts game, Grim Fandango, used them well enough, but here everything just looks terrible. Plastic looking trees, terrible city layouts and just boring building designs really bring things down considering that the Monkey Island games always had great visuals. Luckily the music and voice acting is still top notch. Too bad everything else falls flat.
If you've read my crap on the other games, you'd know that I wasn't all that crazy about Insult Sword Fighting and, thankfully, it's not in this game. Nope, instead we get Insult Arm Wrestling...woo-hoo. Good thing it doesn't take long to slog through that section and then there's nothing else to bog the game down later on OH WAIT, I forgot about Monkey Kombat. Yeah, if there's a reason to not play this game, it's Monkey Kombat. Bad enough you had to learn to play it but it's also used at the very end of the game in the stupidest way possible.
I just didn't get much out of this one and probably never will. If the adventure game genre wasn't already dead at the time of its release, EMI would've killed it. It takes these great characters along with the series' rich story and just completely destroys everything, laughing at you the whole time. Basically, this game shouldn't exist; instead let's just pretend that The Curse of Monkey Island was the last game until Tales of Monkey Island is released.
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