Just as the sun eventually set on the age of pirates a few hundred years ago, we find ourselves at the tail end of the Tales of Monkey Island episodic series. The adventure, which has spanned the past five months and taken us from exotic islands to the belly of a giant manatee and back again, has been a fitting adventure for our old friend Guybrush Threepwood. It's just unfortunate that the climax of the voyage is a bit ho-hum, failing to truly live up to the lofty expectations that the franchise has placed upon itself.
Episode four of the series culminated with the sudden and unexpected death of Guybrush, run through by the Voodoo Pirate LeChuck and sent to the afterlife. Thus the series' final chapter, Rise of the Pirate God, is set at the Crossroads, the penultimate stop for dead pirates and where they decide if they want to spend eternity as sword fighters, thieves or treasure hunters. Our hero has other plans, though, and he soon discovers that LeChuck once escaped the Crossroads by means of a voodoo ritual that allowed him to return to the physical realm. Armed with that bit of knowledge, Guybrush scours the Underworld for the keys to his escape.
The first half of the game is quite clever, combining typical item collection with a nice dose of lateral thinking. Some puzzles are very straightforward (distract this guy and then steal the thing he's guarding), while others take more contemplation. Perhaps the best puzzle of this first half involves the recipe for the voodoo spell, which is first locked away in a chest, then stolen by a thief and finally buried by a dog. This multi-part brainteaser is rather fun to figure out, particularly when it comes to discovering how to get the formula away from a thief who steals it right back every time. Really, the first half ramps up nicely, managing to be challenging in parts but never so frustrating that you feel like giving up and scouring the Internet for help. If you've come this far in the series, you can figure out these puzzles.
Where Rise of the Pirate God will lose some gamers is the second half, when things get considerably more complex, obtuse and generally annoying. At this point in the game, Guybrush has discovered the ability to travel between the Crossroads and the physical realm, but he still needs to take control of his body once more, keep from getting ejected back into the Crossroads and ultimately track down and finish off LeChuck. Things get incredibly complex, and it is likely that a good number of non-hardcore adventure gamers will start to fall away. Puzzles in the latter half are solved incrementally, and painfully so, and players will spend a lot of time walking around aimlessly and traveling to and from the far corners of both worlds simply to take the next menial step in their eventual success. There are also several occasions when you have to actively fail at what you're doing just so you can eventually advance.
This method of failure in order to succeed is most clearly evident in the final confrontation, which requires players to go through the steps in a very precise manner in order to find the eventual correct combination. In the meantime, poor Guybrush is being beaten senseless, and players are helpless to do anything but watch since you have to be physically thrown from one screen to another by your assailant. Also, this is one of a very few times in the series when you face what is in essence a timed puzzle (you have so many seconds on each screen before you are forcibly moved to the next), which really isn't something we've come to expect from Tales of Monkey Island. Ultimately, while the first half of the game stays right in the sweet spot of what has made this series so enjoyable, the second half transforms into a much harder, much different game, and one that will likely turn off quite a few players.
The tone of this final chapter is different as well, which makes sense given the subject matter. Since Guybrush spends a great deal of his time either dead or existing as little more than a reanimated corpse, the dialogue is more serious and dark, and the humor a bit more macabre. The conversations still fit very well into the universe Telltale has created, and it's fun to see the writers stretch beyond silly humor into more subtle and complex jokes. Purists shouldn't fret too much, though, as there is still enough slapstick and trademark Monkey Island humor to go around. Indeed, my favorite moment of the entire game involved not Guybrush, Elaine, LeChuck or any other major characters, but rather simple old Winslow and his precious map. It's this ability to endear seemingly throwaway characters that makes this franchise so memorable, and now I think we can add Winslow to the likes of Stan, Murray and all those other secondary characters who get more attention and love from the writers than anything else this side of "The Simpsons."
Rise of the Pirate God does a nice job of closing out this adventure while also setting the stage for the next, but it still manages to fall short of perfection in several key areas. The second half of the title feels like a totally different game than anything else we've played so far, and the added layers of difficulty could prove to be frustrating for some. Also, the final confrontation we've been building up for all this time is a bit of a letdown, as it essentially turns into a professional wrestling match. By that, I mean that the good guy spends the majority of the fight getting the snot beat out of him, only to magically triumph at the end through sheer force of will. It's weird, and the execution feels a bit botched. Those who have played this far will definitely want to see how things end, so if you've come this far, I wouldn't dare try and talk you out of seeing things through. The entire series has had its ups and downs, and this underwhelming performance is a bit of a pity. A mighty pirate deserves more.
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