Available On: PC, Mac, Xbox One
Nearly every hugely successful Kickstarter game plays on the nostalgia of gaming yesteryear. Pillars of Eternity and Baldur’s Gate. Torment: Tides of Numenera and Planescape: Torment. Yooka-Laylee and Banjo-Kazooie.
Thimbleweed Park‘s campaign aimed its sights at a very distinct game style: classic LucasArts Adventures. The finished product not only succeeds at capturing the humor, gameplay, and essence from the era of Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, but also stands tall with adventure gaming classics as a great game in its own right.
A Clown, A Ghost, and A Game Developer Walk Into a Hotel
The story opens in the pixelated town of Thimbleweed Park, crica 1987. The town is suffering from economic collapse. The local pillow factory had mysteriously burned down, and its magnate Chuck Edmund recently passed. Two federal agents arrive to investigate the death of a foreign investor. Then things start to get weird.
Through several backstories we’re introduced to our other three protagonists: Delores, budding game developer, Franklin, her mild-mannered father turned ghost, and Ransome, an insult comic who’s also a clown. You can switch freely between all five characters. Many puzzles require clever coordination, such as dropping a dime down a sewer so a trapped character can use a payphone.
The murder mystery segues into an investigation of the pillow factory fire, and everything points back to Chuck Edmund. The tone reflects the small-town setting of rural 80s, with just the right amount of weirdness creeping in. It also wouldn’t be a LucasArts-style adventure without humor, and Thimbleweed Park comes fully loaded. Characters not only break the fourth wall but demolish it, making funny observations on the decade’s technology like Betamax to the gaming industry and adventure game design.
Each of our heroes has specific motivations, but some are better used than others. Ransome always felt like an outlier, and his *bleep* shtick got old fast. Agent Ray’s final motivations also felt goofy, though I enjoyed her Agent Scully attitude. Delores is the true stand-out hero, and the plot smartly focuses on her relationship with her Uncle Chuck and her chosen career path as a (gasp!) game designer.
The world of Thimbleweed Park opens up beyond the small town into the outlying areas, including a haunted hotel, the Edmund family mansion, and the factory itself. It never gets overwhelming thanks to a very handy To Do list that each character possesses, giving you an immediate rundown of the tasks you need to complete.
The final stages of the game don’t quite keep the same momentum going. The impressively meaty adventure took me over 15 hours on Hard mode, but much of the last third of the game is spent backtracking through areas. The factory is the only new area you unlock, and it’s pretty linear.
I enjoyed the length and overall pacing. But I would have preferred exploring new locations rather than wandering back through older ones. Thankfully once you acquire a map for everyone, getting around the world is a breeze.
Hive of SCUMM and Villainy
Thimbleweed Park is based on the old SCUMM engine, an adventure game engine that was developed by LucasArts and powered their titles throughout the 80s and 90s. It was most recognizable for the on-screen verbs the player used to interact with the world, such as “Push,” “Use,” and “Look at.”
Thimbleweed Park (developed by SCUMM creator Ron Gilbert) dives headfirst into recreating this exact system, and it works beautifully. Right-clicking lets you perform the most common task, such as talking to people or opening doors, and you can pick up anything that isn’t glued down (which is also a joke at one point).
The interface may feel a bit cumbersome to the uninitiated but the game never punishes you for guesswork. In fact there’s no death or fail state at all – a point that characters in the game literally tell you several times. One of the infamous hallmarks of the Adventure genre (Sierra games particularly) involved constant death and forced reloads. Or maybe you missed an item five hours ago and only just now realizing you’re stuck and have to restart.
None of those awful shenanigans wormed their way into Thimbleweed Park. Even if you lose an item, such as throwing a recyclable bottle into a trash can fire instead of trading it for some needed money (oops), that item will simply respawn back in its spot for you to grab again. The puzzles are designed to remain challenging and thought-provoking without letting you hang yourself.
Puzzle design is everything in an adventure game and it’s here where Thimbleweed Park truly shines. Gilbert and company flex their thirty year experience into crafting some intricate and clever multi-layered puzzles – and most of them are incredibly funny.
One of my favorite puzzles involved making a person sick by feeding them a bad burger, using another character to find out which hotel room they get sick in, then use the ghost to open the door to steal an item you need. The ghost character ends up being a fun monkey-wrench. He is very limited in what he can do and where he can go, but comes in handy for some specific puzzles.
By the end of the adventure you’ve navigated through a maze-like forest, manipulated a radio station, completed a criminal investigation, and unlocked the secrets of Chuck Edmund and the nearly abandoned town of Thimbleweed Park. I won’t spoil the ending but it involves a brilliant ARG-like puzzle and a hilariously awesome revelation that fits the constant fourth-wall breaking attitudes of every character.
Thimbleweed Park has not been rated by the ESRB. While the graphics are pixelated and the swearing is *bleeped,* there is some blood and some adult themes and jokes. Ransome in particular *bleeps* up a storm, including player-selected dialogue. A Casual Mode is available that includes a helpful tutorial as well as some of the trickier puzzles already solved.
We may long for the golden era of Adventure games but the genre is far from dead. Thimbleweed Park represents a triumphant return to classic LucasArts Adventures. It’s a lovingly hand-crafted story from the masters of the genre. If you have any affinity for a pixelated adventure that makes you think as much as smile, do not sleep on Thimbleweed Park.