A point-and-click nostalgia trip.
Developer: Terrible Toybox
Publisher: Terrible Toybox
Format: Xbox One, PS4, iOS, Android, Nintendo Switch, PC (Reviewed)
Released: March 30, 2017
Let’s be honest, point-and-click adventure games have been in need of a modern update in terms of accessibility for a while now. Sure, puzzle-light and story-driven experiences seen in just about every Telltale game following The Walking Dead are a lot easier for genre newcomers to pick up and play. But what about the niche point-and-clicks that harken back to their glory days from the 90s, with a heavy emphasis on “rub X on Y until something happens” puzzles and fourth wall breaks aplenty? How can you make a game with a well-known leap of logic puzzle structure that appeals to long-time genre fans without also making it a barrier of entry to those who don’t remember a time when Pogs were still a thing?
This is a conundrum that Terrible Toybox, a team including ex-Lucas Arts developer duo Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, may have paved the first steps towards cracking with Thimbleweed Park. A game that, while not perfect, offers a fun nostalgic throwback to traditional point-and-clicks with just enough modern sensibilities mixed in for newcomers.
Our story begins, like so many do, in 1987. Thimbleweed Park, a once-prosperous county made famous for housing the state’s largest pillow factory, is now a run-down ghost town that nobody looks for, but everyone always seems to find. In the Edmund Mansion mansion, Delores, a game programmer, has returned to her hometown for the reading of her very dead and very rich uncle’s will. In the nearby abandoned circus grounds, Ransome the Clown tries once more to remove the cursed makeup forever attached to his face. On the thirteenth floor of the Edmund Hotel, a man named Franklin wakes up with no idea how he got there, let alone why he’s now a ghost. Meanwhile, special agents Ray and Reyes are called in to investigate a dead body found floating in the town’s river, both unaware that the other has an ulterior motive for taking on the case. Tonight, these individuals all share a connected fate that will lead them to uncover the dark truth behind the strange happenings in Thimbleweed Park.
Fans of 90s point-and-clicks will feel right at home from the first moment they interact with the world. Graphically, Thimbleweed Park is a polished window to adventure game’s past, sporting a classic SCUMM interface and old-school cartoonish pixilation reminiscent of games like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, made all the more eye-catching thanks to smooth HD animation. Even the soundtrack echoes the heydays of Lucas Arts adventures, effortlessly switching between half upbeat tunes to fit its wackier elements, and half slow noir jazz to fit the mysterious tone of its plot.
The game is chock full of references to both 80s pop-culture and the adventure games of the time, perhaps to its own detriment. It isn’t long into the opening sequence that the game takes a wrecking ball to the fourth wall, constantly reminding you — like many comedic point-and-clicks — that it is, indeed, a game. This does lead to some chuckle-worthy scenes, including moment during the game’s opening in which two characters discuss the benefits of the game having a Lucas Arts-esqe lack of death states. But as the game went on, I felt as though the game was relying a little too much on its referential humour, with some punchlines basically boiling down to “it’s funny because you’ve heard/seen it somewhere before”.
Thankfully, not all of its humour is reliant on fourth wall breaks and pointing out that Back to the Future exists. I actually found most of game’s comedic highlights in its weird and wonderful cast. As you unravel the mysteries of the town, you’ll come across characters like the Pidgeon Brother Plumbing sisters, full time handywomen and part-time paranormal investigators who dress up in pidgeon costumes. And my personal favourite, the town’s coin-flipping sheriff/coroner/hotel manager, a character who appears around the town doing various jobs while spouting different Ned Flanders-like suffixes like “a-reno” and “a-boo” to the end of phrases depending on which occupation he’s currently undertaking.
I also absolutely loved the Manic Mansion-reminiscent mechanic of controlling multiple characters. As the story progresses, you’ll eventually find yourself controlling the game’s five main characters at once, swapping between them to either help another character solve a puzzle they’re interacting with, or to gain access to areas that other characters can’t. But what’s really interesting about this mechanic is that the characters don’t have different abilities, but different kinds of knowledge and permanent inventory items.
For example, a point comes around the mid-point of the game that requires the agents to fix a broken machine. However, with no technical knowledge, both agents have no idea what they need to fix, or even what kind of part they need to do it. But since Delores is a tech geek who knows her way around the town’s machines, she is able to quickly identify which parts to replace, where to find them, and how to install them – allowing the agents’ story to progress.
And while this adds an extra layer of thought to solving puzzles, I found that the mechanic didn’t really fit into the context of the plot. While the characters all end up working together towards a common goal near the game’s finale, they have (and in some cases, want) nothing to do with each other up until that point in the story. But nevertheless, they’re more than happy to swap items between one another, as if they had some off-screen agreement to work together and become BFFs. It doesn’t break the game or the logic of the puzzles, but it certainly pulls you out of the narrative a little when the main characters interact with each other in such a way despite barely being acquaintances at best.
But besides that slight narrative dissonance, the game’s puzzles are wonderfully designed and seriously challenging. Even as a veteran to point-and-click puzzles, I still found myself getting stumped a few times and needing the occasional break before trying it again. But I never felt like any of the puzzles came down to me rubbing items against everything on screen until something happened. They always had a fairly straightforward solution that usually required an item I had missed on first glance, or simply needed a specific character to approach it. And as a handy inclusion for the sake of accessibility, each character even carries around a to-do list which not only helps players keep track of what puzzles still need to be solved, but it even updates itself with additional steps if new puzzles arise.
And in move that I absolutely adore, Thimbleweed Park also includes two different difficulty modes: “Casual” and “Expert”. As you might expect, Expert mode is how the game is intended to be played, catering to an audience that’s familiar with unorthodox adventure game logic. Meanwhile, Casual mode simplifies or removes some of the game’s more complicated puzzles completely. I thought this was a fantastic way to introduce new players to the genre, while also offering a mode that allows players to enjoy the story and jokes, without the frustration of dealing with loopy logic puzzles. Unfortunately, it does feel as though this mode was somewhat of an afterthought, as some of the items and characters involved in the puzzles from Expert mode haven’t been removed. And I can see that potentially leading to some infuriating scenarios involving players getting stuck because they were trying to interact with these leftover red herrings in the hope of progressing.
Nevertheless, I still enjoyed my time with Thimbleweed Park. While it certainly has some noticeable issues and some disappointing shortcomings, it’s still offers a rather accessible and charming experience for genre newcomers, while offering a satisfying sense of nostalgic joy for long-time genre fans. If you have even a passing interest in point-and-clicks, Thimbleweed Park is absolutely worth your time.
A flawed, but enjoyable take on adventure games’ past for fan and newcomer alike