Thimbleweed Park (2017)


When Ron Gilbert set out to do his retro adventure game Thimbleweed Park his main idea was to create a point 'n' click game like people remembered how they were, not how they actually were. That's a tough order, as there's a lot of rose tinted memories attached to the genre and a lot of modern gamers don't necessarily consider some mechanics of the genre as fun.  So how then create a game that could potentially please the old and new players alike. A huge dilemma indeed. And furthermore, does Thimbleweed Park succeed in doing so.

The story of Thimbleweed Park begins with a murder. And with two FBI agents, Ray and Rayes, who might not be on location by accident. Then there's the niece of a recently deceased local pillow/robot/vacuum tube manufacturer Delores who's back in town to hear her uncles will read, a foul-mouthed, cursed clown Ransome and an icing on the cake, also deceased brother of the businessman, Franklin, who's, well, trying to figure out his own demise. All playable characters, with stories that intertwine.

At the beginning you can only switch between the two FBI agents, Ray and Rayes, but as the game progresses you can get a control of the other characters as well, At first you do so during flashback scenes, but after you meet them during the investigation, you can change between them pretty freely and focus on their parts of the game.

Ray and Rayes at the crime scene. Soon things will get odder.

As a whole I can say without any doubt, that Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick and David Fox have managed to create a retro throwback game that is best of its kind: it looks and feels like an old Lucasfilm game and plays as one as well, but in the way that the rose tinted memories recall those games, not how they were. It feels like a game that could fit somewhere between Maniac Mansion and the Secret of Monkey Island, but at the same time, it has far better animations, background art and overall technical quality (though I'm sure someone will moan about iMuse, or lack of thereof, here). In a word, it is a classic game made by people who did not only create those games back in the day but understood what was wrong with their design and were serious in making something similar, but with some improvements despite using an archaic user interface like a verb menu.

Speaking of the interface, it's been designed pretty well to function in a modern fashion. I played the game by using a gamepad and after a little familiarisation, it felt very fluent. All the needed functions are on the pad and it feels very much like a solid way of playing a classic point 'n' click game, even one with a verb interface. A mouse works just as you'd expect a classic Lucasfilm game to work. But, as there's almost always one, I don't really think the game needs a number of verbs it has at its disposal. At least it didn't really feel like I needed all the verbs the game has. That can, of course, be credited on the way the game is designed and because of that you don't even notice that the verbs are used but, there's nothing here that really would advocate FOR the use of a multi-verb interface instead of more streamlined one.

9-verb interface and an another small reference to Maniac Mansion. Old Lucasfilm games didn't have scene graphics under the UI, just a black bar. In TP you can get a nicer view of the scenes with layered UI.

I mean, you look at things, use things, talk to people. Verbs like push and pull could have easily be trimmed under one "move", or even use, command and give-verb could have been dropped altogether and have that replaced by just clicking an item which would activate it for giving as a function of no other verb is pressed. But then again Thimbleweed Park is a retro throwback, so the use of 9-verbs is a good compromise considering Maniac Mansion, which was one of the biggest influences on the game, had 15 verbs or so. And the interface does work more smoothly than it ever did on those old  Lucasfilm games, so this is just some idle musings from my part of why the verb interface ended up as more streamlined smart cursor system we usually see in modern adventure games.

The retro approach doesn't stop on the interface, as graphically Thimbleweed Park is influenced by older games of Lucasfilm, Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken. Or maybe influenced is a poor way of saying, that the art was mostly created by two former Lucasfilm art geniuses, Mark Ferrari and Gary Winnick. As they were largely responsible of the styles of those old games, they certainly were a right match in creating something that feels very familiar as far style goes but is at the same time far above what those old games could offer.  And boy, does the art look good.

Still, images don't really do the game any justice, as unlike in many other 2D adventure games, the locations of Thimbleweed Park are highly layered. Each scene has multiple layers, which makes complex parallax scrolling possible, which in its own right gives these pixelated scenes amazing amount of depth that just wasn't feasible to do back in the 1980's. The same goes with character animation, as every character is nicely animated with several custom animations depending on what they do.

Ransome the insult clown doing his nasty show. Apparently, there's a DLC coming which will let his uncensored nastiness to air. And based on the *bleeps* his lines have his mouth will be filthy. 

The heritage of Lucasfilm is noticeable all around the town of Thimbleweed Park. There are graphical nods here and there to old games, some characters even get cameos in it. On one scene you can see the Edison family from Maniac Mansion in the crowd, more prominent are Sandy and Dave, the diner owners, who were also in Maniac Mansion. Dave was the main character, Sandy his girlfriend, whom Dr. Ed had kidnapped.

The story itself is filled with parody, 4th wall breaking jokes and references all around. You could always call TP a love letter towards the time that will never really come back, as it is, despite being a new game, also filled to brim with nostalgia. Now, you don't need to know those old games, but it will give some deeper meaning to some things you see around the relatively large game world.

The voice acting is mostly above average, which was a nice surprise considering that low budget adventure games don't always tend to get stellar casts. With TP I had issues only with one actor as such, but even he does a passable job in the end. Music is overall pretty solid and some of the tunes are even catchy.

Some familiar faces if you know Maniac Mansion

As Gilbert & co. have tried to make the game such, that even not so accustomed players can jump into the mystery of Thimbleweed Park, there are two difficulty levels in the offer. The hard mode doesn't spare any punches, laying out extra puzzles, of which some are a relatively old school in design. Mostly logical, but in that, at times things require you to jump through several hoops before the end. Casual mode, on the other hand, cuts out a lot of puzzles. A good example is a fingerprint kit, which in hard mode is missing fingerprint powder and tape, which you need to find from somewhere. On casual mode, you only need the tape, which is very easy to find item, whereas the powder needs some extra steps done with an another character.

In the end though I'm not so sure if the casual mode will bring any new fans to point 'n' click genre. While it does make the game a lot easier, it's still not as evolved as something like Telltale games are, which focus almost solely on the narrative element of the adventure genre. The hard mode, on the other hand, is most likely far too hard on casual players but should satisfy even some of the more hardcore fans of the genre.

All said and done, I do think Thimbleweed Park is a great game and a solid candidate to be a future classic. It doesn't only bring Ron Gilbert back the to the adventure genre, but it also shows that these retro-themed adventure games can be genuinely good.

Delores, Agent Rayes, Ransome and agent Ray. Note a small speck of dust net to Ray, a genius jab towards the collectable frenzy open world games suffer from. Take that bird feathers.

Very often new point 'n' click games do leave me pretty lukewarm. Some of them are good, some of them not so. From Thimbleweed Park I found a game, which feels like it genuinely understands the old genre. It might be nostalgic, but also understand what those games did well and what really did need to change, if you don't count the user interface, It uses pixel graphics, but at the same time it tries to elevate the art style above what most of the pixel artists. There wherein a lot of retro games the choice of art style feels like a lazy attempt to hide the crudeness of the graphics, here it feels like a genuine art style choice made by people who know how to make it work.

Thimbleweed Park is a game I can genuinely recommend, especially if you like old Lucasfilm games. It is a title, that feels like it comes from the past, but at the same time, it has a flair of modern aesthetics about it, that makes it feel fresh and modern.  As said, I don't know if it will win any new fans to the genre, but it's still a great game.

You can get Thimbleweed Park from Steam and GOG as well as for Xbox. It's also coming for mobile devices at some point, so there are options abound.

Franklin, the fifth playable character. He even has his own set of verbs.

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