For decades, it seemed very unlikely that Ron Gilbert would return to the series he created back in the late 1980s while working at Lucasfilm Games. While new Monkey Island games dropped now and then, as a whole, it seemed that Gilbert, one of the original creators of the series, had left it behind him after the 2nd game in the series. And when Disney bought Lucasfilm, his return seemed even less of a possibility. And then Gilbert dropped the news: he was developing a new Monkey Island game, in fact, he had been developing it since 2020.
The story seems to begin where Monkey Island 2 ended. Two kids run out from a carnival ride to their parents, but they aren't their parents, the kids are just goofing off. They run and play around the park until they finally find Guybrush's father, who has been waiting for his son, Guybrush junior. There, senior begins to tell him the story of how he actually found the secret of Monkey Island. The secret of which nature many people have speculated since the ending of MI2. None of the following games really shed much light on it, which was for some annoying, but in hindsight a good thing.
Mêlée Island has changed. The old pirate leaders are out and a new, more eager and younger and ruthless generation has taken their place. They have no sympathy towards Guybrush's plead for financing his next epic expedition in seeking the secret and his wife, Elaine, is too busy trying to set up a scurvy relief campaign for the benefit of the health of the Caribbean pirates. But, as luck has it, LeChuck is in town, seeking a new crew for his own expedition, so Guybrush has no other choice but to disguise himself and hitch a ride with his nemesis.
In a very familiar fashion, the narrative is divided into different chapters. At the midpoint, the gameplay opens up a bit more, allowing Guybrush to sail his own ship between a handful of other islands that hold the golden keys he needs to finally unlock the secret that has eluded everyone for so long. His task isn't easy though, as it's not only LeChuck who is after the secret as Guybrush finds out his enemies are teaming up.
There was some heated discussion about the appearance of Return to Monkey Island, so I guess I should say something about this as well. At first, after I had seen some footage in trailers and so on, I wasn't a huge fan of the style. the backgrounds they showed before the release were okay, but the characters, not so much. Now that I've played the game, here's my take on the art style.
The background art is absolutely gorgeous. The familiar places look different, but still very similar. While a lot has changed in Mêlée Island, it still has the same atmosphere, despite it being a town in turmoil. There's even a new governor. The same can be said about the Monkey Island locations we get to see. Different, but still similar. Despite the style being a bit skewed, some even call it "Flash-like" (a sentiment I don't really share), it is more detailed than what we ever saw in the 1st game. It's both superficially nostalgic and new and it works fantastically.
The characters, they are more of a hit-and-miss, some of them looking rather unappealing. The scrapbook style doesn't quite suit everyone, but it's also a style that grows on you after a while. In the end, you won't really notice it all, with an expectation of one aspect, which relates to animation. For some unfathomable reason, there's this jittery, jelly wobble-like movement on characters' heads when they talk. It's frankly a tremendously annoying choice and I kept wishing for an option to turn it off. I guess you could call it a high-resolution version of the wobble characters had in the pixel art of Monkey Island 1, but the style just doesn't work in high resolution and is very offputting. That really is my biggest complaint in what comes to art after finishing the game and I just couldn't get used to it.
The UI has been modernized quite a bit as well. In his previous adventure game, more retro-themed, and rather good, Thimbleweed Park Ron Gilbert decided to go with the verb menu system similar to early Lucasfilm games had, here, the UI is a modern two-button smart cursor with an additional line of flourish text on every hotspot suggesting a bit further what each click does. The inventory is opened from an icon in the lower left corner. As usual, you can examine items there, connect them and use them to solve puzzles on locations. Overall, it's a solid system that works fine, making gameplay rather simple.
As for puzzles, Return to Monkey Island is on the easier side. It does offer two difficulty modes, a hard mode with additional puzzles for more seasoned adventurers and a casual mode, but there's also an in-game hint system you can refer to if you get stuck. The hint system isn't quite as smart as Tex Murphy games had for example, but it's a nice addition, that doesn't spoil the puzzles instantly, but gives nudges towards the right direction. The differences between the hard and the casual modes are quite noticeable. A lot of the longer, more complicated puzzles have been removed or toned down considerably and the casual mode feels more or less just that, casual, whereas the hard mode offers a noticeable increase in challenge, especially for novice adventurers.
The puzzles are mostly pretty fair and logical. The couple of times I got stuck, and I can admit I did, was more because I had failed to notice an item of importance somewhere. Even in those cases, I had already solved the puzzle, but I just lacked the right item to solve it. So, in general, it pays off to go through the scenes you enter into.
So, is the Secret of Monkey Island revealed in the end? Yes, it is, kind of. Was it worth it? I guess it depends on your perspective and what you were expecting the secret to be. Some people might have guessed it already over the years, but like Gilbert himself said, after such a long time, there are people who are bound to be disappointed, no matter what the secret is. And in the end, I do think he took the answer that actually suits them quite well in the series if you think about it. Besides, the actual secret has never been that important, to begin with. It has always been a MacGuffin, just like Marcellus Wallace's briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Whatever is in it doesn't matter, as the end result is always the same.
Return to Monkey Island is, overall, a very satisfying game. The puzzles are nice, the story is funny and I laughed out loud multiple times during the game. It looks great, the voice acting is good and the soundtrack is fantastic. I can, without a doubt, recommend it to any adventure fan.