I really, really wanted to like this one.
I must be honest and say that I hesitated to write this review. I hesitated because many people have fond memories of point ‘n click adventures games made by Ron Gilbert. In fact, many people say that his past games Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island are among their favorite games. I must say that I did not play those games and therefore I have no nostalgia for those two titles. I did, however, play Thimbleweed Park, Ron Gilbert’s latest project, and I was not impressed. I just hope people don’t take my review personally and we can all continue to be friends.
Thimbleweed Park takes place in the eponymous small town of Thimbleweed Park in 1987. There has been a murder and two Feds (or Fed-a-Renos, according to the Sheriff) have arrived to investigate. The story quickly evolves beyond this simple premise and soon involves the entire town and its history. The story ranges from sad to nonsensical and its is an enjoyable ride. Whatever enjoyment I got out of the story, however, did not make up for the disappointment and frustration I felt when actually playing the game.
Before we get to what I didn’t like about game, however, let’s start with what I did like. The characters you meet on your adventure are very funny and interesting. You yourself play as five different characters: Agent Angela Ray, Agent Antonio Reyes (from the home office in Albuquerque), Delores Edmund, the ghost Franklin Edmund, and Ransome the *Beeping* Clown. Agent Ray and Ransome are my two favorite playable characters by far. Ray for her sarcastic and dry tone and Ransome for the fact he just doesn’t care and how the whole town hates him. As for the NPC characters, I would have to say that the Pigeon Bros. sisters and the Sheriff, Coroner, and Hotel Manager (who are definitely not the same person) are my favorites. Each and every one of them has an interesting backstory and a unique way of talking (especially the sheriff, coroner, and hotel manager). They all helped lighten the mood and made it a treat rather than a chore to talk to NPCs in the world.
In addition to the characters, the visual design and the voice acting were all really done well. The artistic and visual design is the simple pixelated look reminiscent of older games particularly of the point ‘n click variety. I, for one, was surprised at how good the voice acting was. When you see a game that looks like Thimbleweed Park, you don’t expect it to have any voice acting in it at all. Therefore, I was surprised and delighted that the game not only had voice acting but also that it provided the characters with life and originality.
Everything in Thimbleweed Park, from the story to the dialogue to some of the quest designs, is dripping with the humor that Ron Gilbert and his team are known for. If, for instance, you use the wrong verb with an object, you will usually get a witty or snarky comment from whichever character you are controlling. Also, characters will frequently break the fourth wall to comment about the game in which they exist. Humor also influences the quest design, particularly when you have to talk to an NPC. One of my favorite moments was when I had to (while playing as a man in his late 40s, early 50s) talk to a teenager with words a “cool kid” of the 1980s would use. Little moments like these all add to the overall humor of the piece and I highly enjoyed it which is why I was all the more disappointed when I wasn’t thrilled with the actual gameplay.
Let’s start with the puzzles. They involve completing the tasks on each character’s to-do list. It usually means finding some object in the world and figuring how to use it and what to use it with. With some objects, you know where they are but not how to get them. This can lead to several hours of tearing your hair out trying to figure out how to accomplish a certain task. It is made even worse by the fact that you have five characters to control and the game is divided into several different chapters. This is all the more frustrating because each character’s to-do list includes things that may not be doable until a later chapter. I frequently found myself crisscrossing the map with each character trying to find things I missed or maybe had to do to move the story forward (and God help you if you miss an item in a random room somewhere as it will take you a while to find it).
It all boils down to the fact that there too many playable characters. You, as the player, never know which character to focus on and which goals to strive towards at any given moment (except for the last few chapters). I played on the casual mode (because I’m an adult and have stuff to do) because I had never played a game like this before and had heard that games like this one were sometimes difficult and frustrating. Even being on casual mode, I was still frustrated by my pace of progress with the puzzles. I spent about an hour in the middle of the game just walking around town with Ransome, talking with everyone, just because what he said made me laugh and I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I feel vindicated by the fact there’s an actual Tip Hotline you can call in-game to get clues. I think many of these problems could have been reduced by eliminating a few characters or by limiting the portion of the map that you can explore during each chapter. I say that cutting characters would help because two of the characters in casual mode, Ransome and Franklin, really have no effect whatsoever on the overall story (that may be different in Hard Mode).
And finally, we come to the controls and mechanics. I highly recommend that you play Thimbleweed Park on a PC or on the Nintendo Switch in undocked mode. Why, you ask? It’s because playing with a controller is a nuisance, to put it politely. For every action, you must click on the verb you want to use and then the object you want to use it on. As an example, when you walk up to a door in the game, you don’t move through it automatically. You have to select “open” and then click the door. This gets very frustrating while using a controller as the cursor moves slowly and it takes forever to get things done. I played on the Switch and I have never been more thankful for the touch screen in my life. It seems this control scheme is a holdover from the point ‘n click games of old and I wouldn’t have minded if it stayed in the past.
As stated above, I really, really wanted to like this game. The humor and characters all appealed to me but I don’t think it was actually worth playing the game to get to all the funny moments. The terrible controls, outdated mechanics, and obtuse puzzles all got in the way of what had the potential to be a good time. Don’t get me wrong, the feeling you get when solving a particular problem or figuring something out is one of the best things in Thimbleweed Park. My elation had no duration, however, as I was usually immediately stumped right after I had solved a puzzle. Maybe I was playing the game wrong or I’m just bad at these types of games. Regardless, I don’t think I can honestly recommend this game to anyone (unless you enjoyed Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island). Maybe I’ll try playing on the Hard Mode in the future and love it. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, however.
Final Score: 5/10
Thanks for reading and to lighten the mood I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the game.
“He’s six feet under and can’t hear you
so don’t kiss his ass for my benefit.”