Thimbleweed Park Review

By Sam Quirke,
My earliest memory of gaming lies in the LucasArts point-and-click era with games like Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and my personal favourite, The Secret of Monkey Island. Since then, Telltale Games has risen from the ashes to usher in a new era of adventure gaming, much more focused on cinematics and player choice than on puzzles and inventory juggling. With so many retro games filtering onto the market via ID@Xbox, it seems like the right time for the traditional format to make a comeback. If you're going to do it then it has to be done right, which means bringing back some household names from the LucasArts golden age. Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick are back and they're inviting us on a bizarre and creepy tour of Thimbleweed Park.

Turn back-a-reno!Turn back-a-reno!

The journey through this strange and sinister county is full of surprising twists and turns. It's primarily a mystery thriller, although only in terms of plot; the actual gameplay involves a lot less investigation work than one would assume given that our two starting characters are "agents" of some kind, bearing a striking resemblance to Mulder and Scully. You'll eventually play as five separate characters throughout the course of the game, each with their own hidden agendas and reasons to be meddling in a federal case. The plot is pretty brilliant, expertly walking the fine line between daft absurdity and compelling creepiness that Gilbert perfected with Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. The twist ending was a little predictable but it perfectly fits the tone of the rest of the game: equal parts sinister, silly and self-aware. There's no doubt that ardent fans, not to mention Kickstarter backers, will love every second of it.

Adventure games from the late eighties and early nineties always had a tendency to break the fourth wall; many of the most meme-friendly gags dating back from this era were a direct result of characters addressing the player or acknowledging they are in a computer game. Thimbleweed Park is primarily aimed at genre fans so plenty of self-referential jokes were expected, but not quite so many of them were expected to arrive straight out of the gate, and they're pretty on the nose.

Within the first 15 minutes you can find yourself in a long discussion of the merits of LucasArts' adventure gaming over competitors at the time, as well as modern games, taking a fairly smug jab at Sierra's back catalogue in the process. It's funny but it goes on for way too long and this happens several times throughout the game. It doesn't exactly feel like arrogance, but it does feel like the actual developers are trying a bit too hard to deliver the fan service, as though earnestly trying to justify the game's existence. This is totally unnecessary; behind all the self-referential waffle is a cracking mystery in a beautifully realised setting that feels right at home in the ID@Xbox catalogue.

It would be beautiful, if not for all the murders and such.It would be beautiful, if not for all the murders and such.

A lot of this bluster disappears after the first third of the game, when the writing and puzzling really hits its stride. From a technical standpoint, Thimbleweed Park can be seen as a new benchmark for the form. The puzzle solutions retain the daft spirit of old LucasArts titles but follow a much more coherent internal logic. You'll still be combining actions and items in very silly ways, but they all make a certain amount of sense. Never before have I reached the end of a traditional adventure game without screaming at the screen at the stupidity of the solution, but here we have a wonderful exception. Despite getting stuck plenty of times, eventually working out the solution never felt like a random combination or a terrible joke. It felt right and all the more rewarding for it.

As you would expect from the creator of The Secret of Monkey Island, the humour is mostly on point, resulting in several laugh-out-loud moments. A lot of the best moments come from reading items and investigating objects rather than from dialogue, although there are some stand out moments here, too. Ransome the Clown acts as the Cartman of the troupe, constantly spewing *beep*ed out curse words. Unfortunately, genuinely hilarious moments of censored profanity are drowned out by the sheer volume of Ransome's outbursts.

Just like breaking the fourth wall, censored cussing works best in comedy when you use it sparingly; it's all in the timing. Thimbleweed Park seems content to vomit it about all over the place. Your tolerance for this sort of thing will directly impact your overall enjoyment of the game. Luckily, with five playable characters you can shift away from any that prove too irritating or boring.

Try eating a hot dog. See what happens.Try eating a hot dog. See what happens.

The classic interface handles really well on a console controller, which is a surprise given how many studios have desperately tried to shake up the formula over the years. You'll have to move a cursor to the verbs, inventory and scenery in order to make combinations, and a few shortcuts speed up the process. Firstly, a quick tap of the shoulder buttons will cycle through available hotspots on the current screen, making it a lot easier to quickly find interaction points. Secondly, a lot of items in the inventory and the world are mapped to a logical "default" verb. When you hover over the elevator button in the hotel, the "Push" verb is highlighted and a quick tap of X immediately calls it into action, saving you having to scroll down to the bottom of the screen and back.

It's only a shame that it wasn't comprehensively implemented. You'll spend a lot of time accidentally "Looking at" light switches because for some reason this is the default mapping, although it's a minor gripe. The gameplay is still ultimately a matter of pointing and clicking. The game won't win over any staunch critics of the genre and is arguably less accessible to the casual gamer than your average Telltale fare.

Speaking of casual gamers, a note of warning for those tempted to start on Casual difficulty instead of Hard — choose wisely! Hard mode is not actually particularly hard, just a little more long-winded. Entire cutscenes, map locations and long-winded jokes are missing from Casual mode, so you are not getting anything like the full experience. Although LucasArts fans will be familiar with this setup, the game doesn't do a good enough job to warn a new player just how truncated an experience Casual mode is. While communicating the differences in more depth would have been useful, the real and full experience is the so-called Hard mode and the better option would have been to just have a single mode with some kind of hint system for casual players.

Casual mode cuts out one of the few times Ransome is genuinely *beep*ing funny.Casual mode cuts out one of the few times Ransome is genuinely *beep*ing funny.

The audiovisual design in Thimbleweed Park is brilliant. The main theme is wonderfully bluesy, instantly calling to mind shows like Twin Peaks, and a devilishly creepy gust of wind kicks up as you wander around town. Even the menu screen elevator Musak is hilariously accurate. The voice work is competent; it grates occasionally, but the quality of the writing makes up for this on the whole. Considering the entire game is in pixel art, the characters are very well drawn and well-animated, while the scenic backdrops are pretty enough to make you pause on your hunt for the next puzzle item.

The only real issue in the design is the fact that the playable characters barely interact with each other. When you swap from one character to another, the previous character stands dormant; if you're on the same screen as one of these dormant characters, it feels really odd to have scenes and revelations play out while they just stand there. Apart from a few key cutscenes, the only time these characters talk to each other is a short grunt of gratefulness or derision as you hand over an item. Seeing as the characters are technically working together to solve the same problem, it feels incredibly odd that they don't ever want to talk about it with each other.

If there's one unique factor inside Thimbleweed Park, it's got to be the amount of affection these developers have for the medium, for their long-term fans and their Kickstarter backers. It's a beautiful thing to see. The mansion library contains hundreds of books, each containing two pages written by fans. The Thimbleweed phone book is bursting with names and numbers; phone any of the contacts in bold lettering and you'll get an answerphone message recorded and submitted by Kickstarter backers. Some are hilarious while others will make you cringe, but all are adorable in their own way. Even the end credits take a considerable amount of time thanking the audience; older gamers should watch all the way through to the end for an incredibly nostalgic scene.

A playable game programmer could have come off as arrogant, but is instead rather sweet.A playable game programmer could have come off as arrogant, but is instead rather sweet.

The achievement list plays into the nostalgia factor. The game's entirely optional and pointless collectible is the speck of dust, both a comment on modern-day collectible hunts and the notorious pixel-sized items of early adventuring. You'll need 75 in total, but these can be earned across several saves. Aside from the story-related achievements, you'll need to play through twice, in Hard and Casual; I suggest a Hard playthrough first, as even without a guide you'll be able to rip through Casual from memory in a couple of hours. Several achievements need you to trigger a specific event unrelated to the story; easy enough once the guides start appearing. There's also just a little bit more love for the community backers in the list, as you'll need to listen to 100 of their voicemails and read 100 of their books too. It's a typical adventure game list on the whole: very easy if you have a guide, a little time consuming if you don't.

Summary

Thimbleweed Park is a strange ride. It's compelling throughout, with a strange story full of eccentric characters coupled with some very competent and rewarding puzzle construction; arguably the best of its kind, even including the LucasArts classics. It takes a while to get going and stumbles on a few points along the way, particularly with its incessant fourth-wall breaking and a lack of meaningful engagement between the playable characters. As a lovingly-crafted piece of fan service, there are few games out there that can match the level of passion and community spirit on display here, and it proves that there is still a place in the market for some traditional point-and-click puzzling. It's not going to win over staunch critics of the format, but for anyone looking for a fresh twist on a classic genre, Thimbleweed Park is highly recommended.
4 / 5
Thimbleweed Park
Positives
  • An intriguing mystery full of oddball characters
  • Fresh, intricate and rewarding puzzling
  • Loads of hidden gags and references to dig out
  • Lovingly crafted and a treat for long-term fans
Negatives
  • Breaks the fourth wall a little too much for comfort
  • Lack of interactions between the central cast feels jarring
  • Casual mode is misleading and a pale shade of the full experience
  • Ransome's *beeping* gets tedious
Ethics
The reviewer played the game on Xbox One and he spent nearly 16 hours searching for dust and chuckling away in the library, eventually earning all of the game's 33 achievements. A code was provided by ID@Xbox for the purpose of this review.
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been a Newshound since 2016 and is now the Editor for both TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies. He loves gaming on all devices and in all genres. He remains a stubborn Assassin's Creed and Pokémon fan.