Thimbleweed Park has been highly anticipated ever since the Kickstarter campaign achieved almost double its original target in 2014, a fact to which I was oblivious. Suffice to say I am a complete newbie to adventure games. I dabbled a little in the Broken Sword franchise, but aside from that, I know nothing of the prestigious heritage of much loved point and click classics such as Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. The long history that Thimbleweed Park developers Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick, and David Fox have with the genre has eluded me. Somehow though, despite this gaping void in my gaming repertoire, Thimbleweed Park has been one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I’ve ever had. But also, I hate it a little bit. Not for any fault or flaw, but because after a particularly grueling 8-hour session, my head hurt, my back hurt, my eyes hurt, but I was cheering every for hard-fought, hard-won step. No other game has made me feel so good for achieving so little, and at the end of the journey, you’ll feel like you’ve climbed Everest. If Everest were an M. C. Escher painting.
The game starts simply enough. You witness a murder and two federal agents with their own hidden agendas show up to investigate. Agent Angela Ray is a no-nonsense, easily irked delight of a woman, while Agent Antonio Reyes is a naive, happy-go-lucky sort of chap. Thimbleweed Park allows you to explore what the game has to offer in these early stages. The puzzles in the first 2 of the 9 parts are almost secondary to learning about the layout of the town, the host of strange and intriguing characters, and the general gameplay mechanics. Those lucky veterans of point and click graphical adventures will know exactly what do, but for those like me, there’s an Easy mode to start you off. Easy mode offers a handy tutorial, and removes some of the puzzles from the campaign. My pride could only last 10 minutes on Easy mode before I started again on hard. I recommend doing the same: if you want to get the most from Thimbleweed Park, you need to enjoy all it has to offer, and that includes long stretches of insanity followed by the ecstatic revelations.
Chatting to certain inhabitants of the desolate town can trigger a playable flashback, giving you the chance to get to know the 5 playable characters a little more intimately. As well as Agent Ray and Agent Reyes, there’s Delores Edmund, an intelligent games designer who just wants to follow her own dreams, while her father Franklin is a spineless mess of a man, especially so when he becomes a ghost. Ransome the Clown is just a *beep*hole. It soon becomes apparent that the goals of these characters head towards the same end, and the difficulty through parts 3 and 4 really ramps up to a point where you’re controlling 3 of these characters in tandem to solve a particular puzzle. What I loved is that there is real logic to all of the solutions. The conundrums are seriously challenging, but I never really had to descend into ‘use-every-item-on-every-item’ territory. Though the game can be silly, this silliness doesn’t translate across to the puzzles, and you’ll be experiencing plenty of “ah, of course!” moments as you progress.
This is actually quite an achievement considering the monumental levels of silliness in Thimbleweed Park. The town Sheriff, Coroner, and Hotel manager are clearly the same person, but the townsfolk staunchly deny it. The Pigeon Plumbing Brothers company is run by two sisters (dressed as pigeons). A hugely successful pillow factory of all things was the town’s claim to fame. The entire game is rife with these playful antics, and it’s made even better by the fact the residents of Thimbleweed Park just get on with it as if it’s all normal. My only criticism of the humor, and this is almost certainly a personal view, is that there are a few too many jokes that break the fourth wall. The characters repeatedly show awareness of being part of an adventure game, and it does get a little stale after the first few instances. When it’s done right though, such as when Delores gets a job with the suspiciously familiar game company MmucasFlem (a play on Monkey Island devs LucasFilm), it’s very funny. This game had me laughing a lot in between all of the puzzle solving fun/torment.
That laughter was also driven by the excellently written and performed characters. Everyone is an oddball in their own way, and it’s a rarity of modern gaming to have such a memorably distinct cast. The voice acting is great overall, but there are some low points. For instance, Delores Edmund seems to only have one pattern of speech intonation, and as a result she can be quite boring during interactions. Aside from that, the ambient music that accompanies you during your adventure is suitably Film Noir; an apt choice that gels with the overall tone of the game. What’s great about the audio design though are the little things. The way Ransome the Clown’s shoes squeak when he walks. The satisfying thunk when you remove a vacuum tube from a machine. Franklin the Ghost’s otherworldly moans and groans. You can tell a lot of care and attention went into making everything sound as perfect as possible.
What really drew everything together was just how authentic it all felt. The interface looks like it was lifted straight from Monkey Island. While my cynical side wants to call this *beep*ing unoriginal, a much less Ransome-esque part of me felt like this homage made up for having missed so many of these games in the past. Items in your inventory are displayed along the bottom of the screen, and you can manipulate these items or use them in conjuction with the environment, such as “Give” the “Non-Trademark-Infringing-Poopsi” to “Man-Eating Plant” (this very real combination of actions only serves to makes the plant burp). The purposefully pixelated aesthetic style with new millennium layer of crispness adds to overall 90s adventure game vibe. As a result, Thimbleweed Park is actually quite nice to look at. These modern production values are upheld in how the game controls. Moving from place to place among any scene is quick and responsive, even for someone as impatient as me. Everything reacts to your input immediately, and there’s a pleasant lack of glitches and bugs.
If I was pushed to find a fault with the gameplay, it would be when a playable character leaves your party, so to speak. When that character becomes playable again, it’s not really signposted. I was left stuck for a while simply because I didn’t know I was able to switch back to a character that was previously unavailable. This feels like the nittiest of picks when made to nit-pick, but only because I really struggled to find anything drastically wrong with Thimbleweed Park. Perhaps the very beginning of the game could have been a little more engaging, and they could have made going up and down the elevator in the hotel a tad more convenient, but that’s about it.
Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick and David Fox have done a terrific job at and revitalizing the old-school adventure game genre for the modern age. They are simply masters of their craft. Wonderfully retro with all the mod-cons of today’s gaming, you’ll be hooked from the moment you step foot in the quirky town of Thimbleweed Park. If you were like me, and never gave this game or any of it’s spiritual predecessors a thought, you need to start. I can guarantee you’ll fall in love with this little gem-a-reno of a game-a-who!
Pick this up on March 20th on Steam or for the Xbox One for $19.99 and let us know what you think in the comments below!