STAFF REVIEW of Thimbleweed Park (Xbox One)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

Thimbleweed Park Box art I grew up in the 80’s, and I’m glad I did, as I got to play point and click adventure games in their prime as a young kid. Back then, LucasArts and Sierra were common household names if you were a gamer, as they were responsible for a vast majority of the great classics that I came to love early on.

One of my favorite games, not just on the NES, but of all time, is Maniac Mansion. There was nothing else really like it at the time, and I could have bought it multiple times given the amount money I spent repeatedly renting it from the video store. I remember not being able to beat it for a long time, as back then there was no internet to quickly look up anything you wanted when you were stuck, so you either had to wait for one of the gaming magazines to come out with a 'hints & tips' section or somehow convince your parents to let you to call the expensive 1-900 hint line numbers. And yes, I’m guilty of calling those once or twice, possibly without my parent’s permission.

Maniac Mansion’s 30 year anniversary is coming up in a few months, and it’s crazy to think that I still have a ton of fond memories about this one game that was solely responsible for hooking me onto the genre. Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick are the ones essentially responsible for creating Maniac Mansion all those decades ago and starting the genre in many people’s eyes. In 2014 they started a Kickstarter to bring back the genre in a big way with a new game as it’s been dead for many years aside from a handful of releases.

Fastforward to the present and here we are with their recently released game Thimbleweed Park, a new point and click adventure title that feels like it’s been ripped straight out of the 80’s, yet modernized and updated to today’s standards, pixel aesthetics in tow. So, I hope you know Maniac Mansion, or at least something of it, as Thimbleweed Park makes constant references to it, and while you won’t be missing out on anything if you’re not aware of their previous game, there’s a ton of special content that fans of the classic will be elated to experience, as I was.

Thimbleweed Park takes place in 1987, ironically the same year Maniac Mansion originally released. You play as federal agents Ray and Reyas, who just happen to resemble a certain duo from the popular X-files show. Along the way you’ll meet a cast of other playable characters, each of who are incredibly unique and very memorable.

In the small town of Thimbleweed Park a man has been mysteriously murdered and it’s up to the agents to figure out who did it, why, and how a pillow factory, rude clown, and other strange events all fit in. Oddly enough, it seems that a majority of the town’s citizens, population 80, don’t seem very phased by this odd turn of events. The bigger question though is why a town of 80 has a phonebook with hundreds of names and phone numbers in it, or why the Sheriff is also the town Coroner and Hotel Manager, yet he vehemently denies it every time he is questioned.

I don’t want to give much more about the narrative away, as it’s actually quite entertaining, and uncovering each plot point is fulfilling and rewarding in itself. Each new character you meet is hilarious in their own way, the writing is phenomenal, and humor is a constant, even more so when you collect specks of dust or have a literal bag of red herring, another reference only the old school gamers will understand.

If you’ve ever played a classic point and click adventure from LucasArts or Sierra, you know exactly what to expect from Thimbleweed Park in terms of its mechanics. For those who haven't, you move around the screen by clicking the cursor where you want to go, but it’s the use of verbs listed on the bottom left that dictate how you’ll interact with objects and people. But bringing back a genre that’s almost died out completely wasn’t enough, as many improvements have been made, many that would have saved me a grounding or two because of having to rely on calling 1-900 tip lines as a kid.

First and foremost, there’s no more haphazard deaths or dead ends. These were mechanics to arbitrarily lengthen the gameplay back in the day, but it wasn’t fun if it actually happened to you, so this problem has been remedied. Near the end I thought I messed up and was in an unsolvable loop, but I eventually figured my way out of it, so there’s ‘proof in the pudding’ as they say.

Even minor characters stand out, such as a duo of plumbers that just happen to dress as pigeons, or a girl who works at a diner and will only serve you 'soon-to-be-rotten' hotdogs (which will excite you if you know your Maniac Mansion characters). All the characters have great lines in their dialogue and are generally voiced very well. That’s right, full voice acting for a point and click adventure, something I wished I could have had 30 years ago.

For a game that centers around a murder mystery there’s a heavy reliance on comedy and humor, as it should be in this genre. No matter how creepy or dark the source material becomes, it’s hilarious every step of the way. Thimbleweed Park constantly makes you wonder who the main suspect could be, as every new character you meet seems to have some sort of reason why they might have killed someone.

It’s hard to not peg Ransome the clown as your first suspect, as he constantly swears and has a Krusty the Clown/Sideshow Bob vibe to him, yet much more vulgar. Ransome actually turned out to be my favorite character in the whole adventure, as his quips and one liners are incredibly funny in a juvenile way. Plus, having swear words literally “*beep*”ed out is funnier than actually hearing and reading the curses, and there’s absolutely no shortage with Ransome.

While the overall plot has you solving the murder mystery, many other problems will present themselves that require your skills. While you’re constantly trying to solve one issue after another the game does a wonderful job at throwing in just enough story in between to keep you interested and on track. Every scene has places to explore, items to interact with and people to talk to.

The majority of the puzzles are logical in their own silly adventure game kind of way. There are none that require a lot of guesswork, just a keen eye and a want to explore and interact with everything. That’s not to say the game is a cake walk, as I did become stuck a handful of times, only to simply oversee a small object or neglect to exhaust all of my dialogue options.

Generally these games have a limited scope and are confined in the number of scenes you’ll actually interact with, but Thimbleweed Park feels quite large. There’s a ton of areas to explore, dozens of to-do items, and even more items to keep track of and experiment with. Eventually it becomes so large that you’ll have access to a map that allows you to quickly move from area to area without having to traverse the whole thing each time you go back and forth. For how big it is, the world is full of small details, many of which I didn’t notice or overlook until I became stuck, forcing me to scour and ‘pixel hunt’ nearly every inch of this crazy town.

Another mechanic that was brilliantly added is a to-do checklist for each of the playable characters. This is a general list of all the things you need to accomplish to progress further in the story, yet it leaves out any real hints of how to accomplish the solutions. It’s a clever way to point you in the right direction while not give anything away, as puzzle solving is what makes this genre so magical.

The majority of items you pick up can be shared across any of the characters, save for a few special items that are tied to certain characters. I initially thought that many of the puzzles were going to require a specific character to solve them, and while some do, you can complete a good portion of the gameplay with your character of choice, as I did when possible.

Keeping with its classic roots, everything is controlled by a cursor as you command where to walk, what commands to use, and how to interact with objects and people. It was a little clunky on consoles all those years ago, and it is still is today. There are times it feels that it’s been vastly improved in many ways. For example, you can use the D-pad and Bumpers to cycle through options and objects. Then you'll find times it’s still not perfect. Hover the cursor over an item and it will give you the most common verb use for that item, like “Open” for a door, but do so with elevator buttons and it will simply be looked at instead of used.

Generally the controls work decently, but some fine tuning could have made it even better. I wish I could have had my cursor over an item and then use the Bumpers to cycle between the verbs, rather than having to move my cursor to the verb and interact with the object separately. It’s not a big deal, as I’ve grown up with this control scheme for many years, but newcomers to the genre might find it a little tedious.

Something that surprised me is the inclusion of two difficulties, Casual and Hard. Casual is for those who simply want to focus on the story, which is what I did for my first playthrough. Hard mode adds many more steps to certain puzzles that will greatly lengthen your play time in this odd town. Having played through about half of the game a second time on Hard mode, I am impressed with how much more involved some of the puzzles are on the higher difficulty. There’s some minor differences otherwise, but Hard mode will certainly challenge you, as I found a few of the solutions to be much more obtuse with all of the extra required steps. Don’t be ashamed if you need to resort to walkthroughs on Hard. It’s a great way to add replayability as it includes seemingly ‘new’ content the second time through.

At a quick glance you would probably be fooled into thinking that Thimbleweed Park was taken right from the 80’s, but upon closer inspection, and by viewing old Maniac Mansion gameplay, the visuals have been improved, quite drastically. The pixel work has much more detail yet retains its nostalgic roots. There’s a color gamut used and each scene and character look distinct in its own way.

As a whole, the voice acting is superb, save for a select few who felt a bit flat. Unfortunately, one of those few is one of the main characters, Ray, as the performance simply didn’t do anything for me and sounded monotone throughout the whole adventure. This was why I actually opted to play as Reyas whenever I was able to. Other characters, such as Ransome and the Sherriff/Coroner/Hotel Manager, more than pick up the slack with their hilarious and perfectly timed deliveries of their lines, thanks to the fantastic writing of course.

Gamers my age will be sold on Thimbleweed Park with nostalgia alone, and if you enjoyed Maniac Mansion as much as I did growing up, you need to go and play this right now. There’s so many references and jokes that only fans of the original game will understand, and people like me are their exact audience that will enjoy it to its fullest. A few Easter eggs that stood out for me are that the mansion in this game is called Mansion Mansion, there’s a hamster in a microwave at some point, a poster talks about a meteor, and even the layout of some of the areas mimic ones from the classic. If none of this makes any sense to you, that’s fine, you won’t miss out on anything, but for fans of the original, there’s so much fan service here that it’s worth the purchase alone.

I’m not exactly sure why the genre died out over the years, but playing Thimbleweed Park made me realize how much I miss it. It has modern upgrades, not just visually, but mechanically, to make it stand out amongst the crowd, and the fact that it’s created by two legends in the industry who happen to be responsible for one of my favorite games of all time speaks volumes for its creativity and quality. It’s not going to resonate with everyone, as it’s still a niche genre, but as someone who’s been waiting decades to play an amazing classic point and click adventure, Thimbleweed Park does more than satisfy that craving, it renewed my passion for the genre and bring back a flood of great gaming memories.

The fourth wall consistently gets broken and the conclusion was very satisfying. It was much lengthier than I expected, as solving one puzzle usually requires a handful of other objectives to be met beforehand, and just when I thought I was done, it was simply the end of a chapter. My first casual playthrough was around 10 hours or so, but yours could easily take a handful more or less, depending on your puzzle solving prowess. Hard mode should take considerably longer with the extended puzzles and there’s many non-story things that can be done as well for those that want to explore and do everything.

Gilbert and Winnick have seemingly captured lighting in a bottle once again, as they’ve created something very special and memorable in Thimbleweed Park. I was smiling constantly while playing, and even afterwards while writing this review, I already know it’s going to leave me with some great gaming memories, just as their other title did 30 years ago. Thimbleweed Park is full of personality, not just from its characters, but its setting, writing, and everything else that encompasses the experience. It’s clear that this was a labor of love, and there was no two better people to be at the helm of bringing back this long lost genre. “Give” your money to developers Terrible Toybox and experience one of the best point and click adventure games in decades. And as an added bonus, this is the first game in history that I'm aware of that has a setting for 'proper' rolling of the toilet paper in game. That alone is worth a purchase and speaks about its level of detail.

Overall: 9.5 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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