Sat. Jun 3rd, 2023
Some of the best moments of the game are when it plays tricks with its mechanics.
enlarge / Some of the best moments of the game are when it plays tricks with its mechanics.

The only classic LucasArts adventure game I ever played when it was new was Monkey Island 4so i guess Thimbleweed Park was not made with me in mind. With legendary LucasArts designers Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick behind it, as well as a Kickstarter campaign promising a spiritual successor to Maniac mansionthis new adventure is definitely rooted in nostalgia for another era of adventure games.

Even if I didn’t grow up in the era of The Secret of Monkey Island and Indiana Jones and the Fate of AtlantisI know enough to recognize its DNA in Thimbleweed Park. Like the LucasArts games of yore, Thimbleweed overflowing with pixel art so sharp you could cut yourself. There’s the familiar verb-driven interface that asks you to select actions to “talk”, “use” and “look at” various objects in the environment to accomplish the next set of goals.

Finally, Thimbleweed Park is so full of fourth-wall jokes about adventure games and 80s pop culture that I got the feeling that the developers were deliberately speaking in code to keep youngsters like me away. There is, in fact, a whole puzzle based around telling the era-appropriate jargon, aside from 1970s and 90s jargon to prove how cool you are (the game is set in 1987, for the record).

Even as a kid of the ’90s, I thought the temporary references were some of the best jokes in this irreverent murder mystery. When it’s at its best, Thimbleweed Park takes its tough, nostalgic center and twists it into logic puzzles where the references feel interesting as well as just “familiar”. Unfortunately, compared to those highs, a lot of this point-and-clicker feels like busy work and pointless picking up things to use for other things.

For the hardcore audience – or not

Oddly enough (and maybe fortunately) the game allows you To elect how much pressure you want. From the get-go, players can choose between “casual” and “hard” modes (apparently there’s no option for those who want an average “normal” experience). The former cuts many of the game’s obtuse puzzles and adds a very simple bit of tutorial for those new to a point-and-click adventure game, while the latter gives you the “full” Thimbleweed Park experience.

However, after going through all the extra hard mode puzzles, I don’t think I can recommend it. Just as the game is lacquered with adventure references from the late ’80s and early ’90s, the puzzle design feels like it’s stuck in the past decade. While the game is constantly making meta-jokes about this dated design, that doesn’t really matter anymore pleasure. Many of the problems in Thimbleweed Park can only be solved by randomly scrolling through pixels on the screen looking for items to use on other items, without any sign of hints or common sense telling you Why (which, as experienced LucasArts players will know, is a pretty authentic recreation of how adventure game puzzles used to play). Many of these brain teasers don’t come with any accompanying jokes or characterizations either, and they’re just as frustrating now as they used to be.

Over hill and valley

Thimbleweed Park makes a pretty solid first impression by introducing you to Federal Agents Ray and Reyes, there in town investigating a corpse washed up from a nearby river. Through them, I met eccentric townspeople, such as the conspiracy theorist nurse plumbers who dress like pigeons and a sheriff who clearly pretended to be several people.

I even have to to be some of these local goofballs. Thimbleweed Park quickly introduces a total cast of five characters, forcing you to switch on the fly to progress. The Maniac mansion-like manipulation required to maneuver the various characters with different inventories and personalities into just the right positions started out promising, but that’s when I actually started doing it and the boredom soon set in.

Thimbleweed Park is not a big place (it’s only 80 people deep, after all), but after having to move different characters through its winding paths to the same place and back two, three or four times in a row, I was already tired of it. Then Thimbleweed Park made me repeat that process for hour.

In one particularly egregious example, I had to Star Trek-loving NPC to work with me by demanding that I give him a cheeseburger. There is a restaurant in Thimbleweed Park, so of course I went there to buy one. The owner wouldn’t sell me the burger until I bought all their disgusting hot dogs. Since the hot dogs were basically disgusting, no character would eat more than one. So I had to drag four of my five playable cast members into the restaurant, make them eat a hot dog, watch a movie of them barfing in an alley with identical dialogues, then take the burger and take it back to the nerd. After that I had to return all the hot dog eaters to their respective posts for other puzzles.

Thimbleweed Park does have some sort of fast travel system, but it can only be accessed from a specific location in every major part of the game’s world. That means if you’re on the other side of the main street of the city, you’ll have to march your character across multiple screens to get to the place where you can “fast travel”. Multiply that by four characters (the fifth doesn’t do much travel) and it’s bound to get annoying. Especially when the reward – eating raunchy hot dogs, for example – doesn’t really involve jokes or interesting characterizations or story development, which is especially the case in the game’s slack middle third. It all feels like busy work.

Loss of Interactivity

What’s especially frustrating is that I can see the seams where Thimbleweed Park could have filled in more interesting interactions. With a few exceptions, the game’s playable party doesn’t really interact in a narratively meaningful way. Despite the fact that the federal agents, the cursed clown, the spineless ghost, and the heiress’ computer programmer all have to work together to solve puzzles, they largely pretend to be unaware of each other’s existence.

There is no fateful encounter at the beginning of the game to explain why they work together. They can’t talk to each other even if you try to force them with a manual command. Instead, all the main characters move a little inertly through each other’s space, quietly doing things together.

Not only would it be a great place to build characters and tell jokes, but it would also be a good place to include optional hints for the more obtuse puzzles. When my character needed a check, but just refused to pick up the very obvious checkbook for them, maybe another character could have suggested I should Open the checkbook first. Instead, those other characters just float around, ghostly (and I don’t mean just the actual ghost), until the last minute, when they start chatting friendly as if they’ve been doing that all along.

That last act regains some of Thimbleweed Park’s early, goofy momentum. It even makes up for the fourth wall humor in a way that, while I saw it coming, could still make me feel good about constant dated references that weren’t personally associated with me.

But I had to go through a lot of stupid puzzles to get to that point. Maybe when I grew up developing a tolerance for putting two items together to make a third, and then using That item on another item, I could endure that repetitive process better today. As it is, I recommend using Casual mode to cut out some of the most tedious parts of the game, although that mode might eliminate the busy work puzzles, the stark silence of the protagonists, or the constant meaningless walking from A to B.

Although I know I’m not the kind of die-hard fan of adventure games that Thimbleweed Park was probably made for, it’s hard for me to believe that even fans of the genre will enjoy the non-intuitive puzzle design and spaced out character work on display here.

The good

  • Cute, crazy characters
  • An interesting use of referential humor in puzzle design
  • A strong introduction and conclusion

The bad

  • A repetitive middle chapter
  • Stump puzzle design with no diegetic hints
  • Your characters never really feel connected
  • Move multiple characters slowly and laboriously to specific puzzle-solving positions

the ugly one

  • Choosing between “Casual” and “Hard” modes makes you feel like there’s no good middle ground

verdict: Try before you buy. Thimbleweed Park is an unabashed adventure game back with all the good and bad that comes with it. When it turns that love of a bygone era into interesting challenges, it borders on great. If it just mimics the past, it’s a real slog.

By akfire1

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