Return To Monkey Island Review: Rekindling The Magic

  • Beautiful, highly-stylized visuals
  • Loads of nods to other games in the series
  • A near-perfect Monkey Island adventure
  • Can play on Hard mode for more (and trickier) puzzles
  • Several accessibility options for on-screen text
  • Interface can be clunky under certain circumstances
  • Some details and text a bit small for handheld mode

Everyone who enjoys playing video games has at least one series that they'd call a favorite; a series they almost never miss; games they reliably go back to every now and then; something they use as a kind of shorthand to explain what they love. For me, it's got to be "Metroid."

But then there are the games that work their way into you on a way more subtle level. Games that you do fondly remember, and would probably say you love, but they aren't always at the forefront of your mind. These are the games that make you go "Oh yeah! I used to play that!" and then spend several days replaying them out of an inexplicable compulsion. That's what the "Monkey Island" series (well, at least a decent chunk of it) is to me.

And the whole reason I'm rambling on about this is that playing through "Return to Monkey Island" reminded me of how much the series has meant to me over the years — even if I never realized it until now. This game is a love letter to the series, fans, characters, locales, and its own creators on a cellular level (metaphorically speaking, obviously, because I have a digital copy).

All impressions herein are based on the Nintendo Switch version of "Return to Monkey Island." This review will contain mild spoilers for the basic plot, as well as good jokes, bad jokes, and in-jokes, but nothing beyond what has already been revealed by Devolver Digital's pre- and post-release marketing.

Back in the saddle again

Guybrush Threepwood (Mighty Pirate) is, of course, back and on the hunt for, what else, the Secret of Monkey Island. Except things are different this time. Everything is different this time. But it's also the same as it ever was.

As always, Guybrush will have to contend with his long-time nemesis — the dreaded zombie pirate LeChuck — in a race to finally, at long last, after all this time, find the Secret of Monkey Island. It's something that will take him to places both familiar and new, with some recognizable faces alongside several new ones. It's a proper "Monkey Island" adventure through and through is what I'm saying.

And much like previous "Monkey Island" games, familiarity with older entries is both not necessary and essential. What I mean is, if this is your first time hanging out with the Caribbean's most dashing pirate named "Guybrush," there's plenty of entertainment to be had here. Despite being saturated with nods, winks, and neon signage to pretty much all of the earlier games, "Return to Monkey Island" doesn't rely on that familiarity. A lot of the jokes have nothing to do with the classic stuff, but even those that reference classic material still land — even if you don't realize there's a connection.

All that said, having prior experience with at least the first few games is extremely rewarding. Especially when it comes to the vast amount of visual easter eggs peppered all over the entire game.

Okay but the actual adventuring though

"Return to Monkey Island" isn't your typical point-and-click adventure game, because there really isn't much in the way of either. I mean sure, if you're using a mouse that's precisely what you have to do to interact with the game, but what I mean is the interface has been streamlined beyond the need for a multitude of action icons. Instead, you can control Guybrush's movement directly, and even make him run — or walk faster, depending on the location — whenever you want. No more need to click on the ground to get his feet going.

Similarly, all the other classic adventure game interaction commands are gone, which might seem blasphemous to some (and I'll admit I was a little unsure how I felt about it at first), but it's a change I didn't realize I wanted. I don't have to waste time trying to talk, look at, touch, or lick everything. Instead, there's one primary command to interact (look, talk, etc), and sometimes a secondary button for additional actions (take, talk but differently, and so on). After a couple of hours, I really started to appreciate just how well it streamlined the experience.

Though the new interface does have its drawbacks. It was never an issue with the few timing-based puzzles there are thanks to very generous windows of opportunity, but it does sometimes make selecting a specific thing more difficult than it should be — particularly when several interactable points are placed near each other.

Look at it, no really, look at it!

Okay, look, I have to come clean: I wasn't entirely sold on the new art style for "Return to Monkey Island" when I saw the initial trailers. I didn't hate it or anything like that, but it just didn't wow me. Something about the more pronounced, blocky, almost geometric shapes used for everything looked off in my eyes, especially when paired with some of the animations. None of that was going to stop me because — come on — this is a new "Monkey Island" game we're talking about. A series that hadn't had a release since 2009, and it's the first in the series that's had creators Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman involved (aside from a cameo, anyway) since 1991. Of course I was still going to play it.

Thing is, the more time I spent looking at the game, the less I noticed the art style. Okay, that's not exactly true either. It's more like it pushed the "Ehh, I don't know how I feel about this" sentiment out of my brain. And eventually, around Part III or so, I suddenly realized I absolutely loved the new art style. I was just being silly, basically. Because once I got past my bizarre mental block I noticed how utterly gorgeous the entire game is. It's different from what I was used to for the series, sure, but it's every bit as colorful, cartoonish, and sometimes breathtaking as it ever was. Shout out to the crow's nest.

The only real criticism I have of the graphics is that some visual details can be quite tough to notice when playing in handheld mode, though it's nothing that ever impacted my puzzle solving or navigation.

What a crew

Despite his intentions (and best efforts, in some instances), Guybrush is far from the only notable character with dialog you'll remember long after ducking back into the main menu's scrapbook to see what was added after you finish. Though Dominic Armato returning one more time to voice the legendary pirate-adjacent fellow is, as always, stellar. Unfortunately, Earl Boen (also known as Dr. Peter Silberman in the "Terminator" series) didn't reprise his role as LeChuck this time around, but Jess Harnell (freaking Wacko from "Animaniacs," what??) does well to make the shambling swashbuckler his own.

I really, really want to say more about the returning characters but I don't want to spoil any potential surprises. Suffice it to say that there are more than the two notable names mentioned above and a lot of them are being voiced by the same people who've been bringing them to life since 1997. Still, "Return to Monkey Island" isn't just about remembering the old days; it's also about having a new adventure! And that means new people.

All of the new faces bring something entertaining to the table. Whether it's the unexpectedly awesome new crew Guybrush is traveling with, who I seriously wish I could hang out with in real life (sorry, Apple Bob), or the grumpy people of BRRR Muda, everyone stands out more than Stan's jacket on literally any background that isn't neon plaid.

Extra stuff

It was also a surprise to see just how much there is to "Return to Monkey Island." There are two game modes to choose from: Casual and Hard (I played through Casual for my first run because I wanted this review to be timely). What's neat is you still get a very robust, and sometimes tricky, adventure game on Casual. It's just that on Hard some of the puzzles require extra steps, and some items you could just grab easily before will require more work. I'm honestly glad I played through on Casual first because it's made me appreciate how much Hard mode actually adds to everything.

There are also several settings options for the in-game text — mostly the size of the text in speech bubbles, whether sounds get text, that sort of thing. And you can turn on the Writer's Cut, which re-inserts dialog that had been cut to improve pacing. It doesn't change the plot or anything like that but gives Guybrush more options when it comes to talking to some characters.

My favorite extra has got to be the trivia book. It's pretty easy to find early on and simply carrying it around will occasionally spawn random trivia cards in slightly hidden places. Every card you find gets added to the book, and you can attempt to answer them whenever you want. The questions are sometimes about places you've been, places you will be, events from past games, or even questions about the original games' development. There are achievements in this game. They don't do anything (they rarely ever do), but they're fun to pursue and sometimes gave me little bonus "if I feel like it" objectives.

The things I can't talk about

So much of why I love "Return to Monkey Island" is wrapped up in details I can't talk about, but I'll do what I can to get my thoughts across without spoiling anything. And really, that's the most important part of it for me: The not knowing. I truly believe that any "Monkey Island" fan who plans to play this needs to go into it with as little information about the back half of the game as possible.

I won't give specifics or even hints, but I will say that this game is a collection of special, precious moments from front to back. It's almost impossible not to feel the air of nostalgia, passion, nostalgia for passion, and passion for nostalgia that hangs over every moment of the story. It's exhilarating and bittersweet all at once. I couldn't wait to get to the end, but I didn't want it to end — but I'm glad that it did end where and when it did. 

Supposedly there are multiple endings (or maybe they're epilogues?) but I haven't looked too far into it because, if there are, I want to experience them all for myself. If there are, then great! If there aren't, I can't say that it'd change my rating of the game overall. All I'll say about the ending I watched, after roughly 12 hours of Guybrush luck-bumbling his way through yet another adventure, is this: It wasn't what I wanted. It certainly wasn't what I expected. But it was also exactly what I think I needed. And it was perfect.

Return to Monkey Island verdict

First of all, if you stuck with me this far, thank you. I know that's a lot of unapologetic gushing you've had to wade through. It's just that the "Monkey Island" series has been a bigger part of me than I'd care to admit — or even that I was aware of. "Return to Monkey Island" didn't rekindle my love of the franchise, it made me remember why (and how much) I loved it in the first place.

And it isn't just my love. As I said at the top, the love everyone who made this game felt for it and the series is palpable from the very beginning. You can see it in every scene, hear it in every note and line of dialog, and feel it in every puzzle (on either difficulty setting). It's a very entertaining game in its own right, and full of so many clever jokes it legit made me jealous of the writers' talents, and definitely worth playing for adventure game fans, or anyone who thinks it looks neat. But it's definitely worth checking out if you've enjoyed any of the previous titles. Particularly the first three ("Curse of Monkey Island" is a good time, don't at me).

If this ends up being Guybrush Threepwood's final adventure (though I certainly hope not), it's one heck of a note to go out on.