Thimbleweed Park is a painstakingly crafted love letter to old LucasArts adventures. I have no problem saying that. I have a bigger problem figuring out what the hell it means to be an “old LucasArts adventure”. Clever puzzles with a twisted but consistent internal logic? Larger-than-life characters? Well-written dialogue? Odd locales, and a very unique sense of place? Hell if I know, but regardless of how it does it, Thimbleweed Park certainly succeeds in feeling like a lost LucasArts adventure from somewhere between 1987 and 1990. But with a better interface.
This, of course, comes with its own problems. By evoking the greats, Thimbleweed Park immediately invites comparison to those greats. More dangerously, its retro stylings and yearning to revisit that era mean that it invites comparison to those greats at their peak rather than 27 years on, where (while still great) those legends suffer a little bit more due to a wide variety of advances that’ve been made since first release.
Oh God. The Secret of Monkey Island came out 27 years ago. Truly, I am withered and haggard. I creak when I walk. My mouse finger makes cracking sounds when I click the left-mouse button. Etc.
Anyway, I think I’ve made a pretty good case that Thimbleweed Park not only invites comparison to those older legends, but that it opens up its door and ushers them in with a wave and a cheery smile – and that’s without mentioning that this particular game is headlined by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, who had rather large parts in those early gems. Basically, it has a lot to live up to, especially after The Cave turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.
This is pretty noticeable from the off. Thimbleweed Park has you play the parts of two pixellated, bobble-headed FBI agents investigating a murder in the titular town, while also following their own mysterious agendas and trying to figure out exactly what’s up with this extraordinarily unusual place overshadowed by the burned-out husk of a pillow factory and a variety of tube-operated machines. Before long, they’re joined by a profanity-spewing clown under a curse, an adventure game developer, and a ghost. And then later on, things get weird.
So, right away, hints of the early LucasArts games. Maniac Mansion had multiple character selection, although it didn’t matter a great deal. Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders went a step further, with characters beginning in (very) different areas. Day of the Tentacle probably remains the best for this, though, with everyone having interlinking quests in totally different time periods.
The multiple characters are one of Thimbleweed Park‘s biggest strengths – and, arguably, one of its potential weaknesses. Each has a To Do list indicating their own personal objectives, so you’ve always got an idea of what you should be trying to do with each. Things get a bit more problematic when their paths intertwine and you suddenly have the entire map, especially because some of the major objectives can only be accomplished after certain points in the game, and because passing objects back and forth can be kind of a pain. But hey, minor gripe.
While there’s a good amount of non-linearity (and at least a few puzzles that can be solved in multiple ways), this isn’t quite Monkey Island 2‘s second act, where completion of your goals could be done in almost whatever order you liked. As a minor example, a long-standing goal of multiple characters is to get into the ruined factory. This is categorically impossible to do until you reach the chapter aptly titled “The Factory.” This can lead to a bit of confusion if you’re not paying full attention: while you have your goals laid out in the To Do lists, a few of them are simply not manageable until the appropriate time. Thankfully, as I implied, the chapter titles do a good job of telling you which tasks you should be focusing on.
Ironically, this is a complaint I’d tend to level at earlier Sierra games rather than LucasArts games, which had a habit of making items appear in previously explored rooms for no good reason once certain milestones had been passed. While Thimbleweed Park is never this egregious – and usually has a good explanation for why certain areas were locked off and now aren’t – it’s slightly galling to re-check areas to see if they’re suddenly open in each new chapter.
The plot progression is also not entirely amazing, with the plot only really coming into focus in the game’s final few acts… but again, I can sorta forgive this if only because that’s also true of a lot of the older adventures. You have a task, and need to do a dizzying array of things to complete that task, and then you get another task. In Monkey Island, you were trying to get a boat; in Day of the Tentacle, you have to fix the Chron-o-Johns. So, y’know, fine. Just a bit different to what you might be used to if you’ve been playing more recent adventures which have tended towards story and plot progression over puzzles. Unless I missed something, the characters also lack much of a reason to work together, too: I’m not sure why, after winning tickets to the local convention, Delores the programmer happily forks over her spare tickets to two FBI agents and a clown.
The rest of it, though? The rest of it is, with a few minor exceptions, fantastic.
First, I genuinely love the art style, and Terrible Toybox have done a tremendous job in replicating the old art style while managing to make it not look low-res and awful. I’d honestly have accepted the art in the early, proof-of-concept screenshots and videos (which really did look like something from the late 80s) but I’m really rather glad the team managed to find a way to imitate that style but make it look good.
Second, the puzzles. Good lord, the puzzles. Playing Thimbleweed Park has been an interesting experience, not least because this is the first time in awhile I’ve spent two full days pondering one puzzle. As full disclosure, I ended up using the walkthrough to help me through some of the tougher bits once I was about 50% through, solely because if I hadn’t I can guarantee it would’ve been another week before you saw this review. This is an adventure game that really focuses on the puzzles. It makes you think long and hard about them.
Thankfully, most of them are entirely fair. Some of them teeter dangerously close to annoying bullshit levels (who knew that finding a dime would be so difficult – and yet, when you know the solution, so easy?) but for the most part, the old adventure game skills of thinking laterally and keeping the slightly odd internal logic of the game in mind are sufficient to solve these conundrums. Also thankfully, I never stooped to the other old adventure game skill of “USE everything ON everything”, and pixel-hunting is mercifully rare. I’m not sure how I feel about the lack of a hotspot location key, but I can only think of a couple of occasions when it would’ve been of use, so for once I’m not going to grump too hard about that omission.
On that note, Thimbleweed Park has two difficulty levels. I played on Hard, and I’d strongly suggest you do the same. I didn’t play much of the game on Easy, but it cuts a lot out. As you’d expect, there are far fewer puzzles, and those that remain tend to have fewer steps. It feels like things have been ripped out of the game, leaving it with sections that feel noticeably truncated – and, really, that’s because that’s pretty much what happened.
I went over one of the puzzles on the podcast as a good example of the game’s internal logic, and I’ll do the same here. At one point, one character needs to climb a staircase that’s noted as out of order. There are no obvious apparent issues with the staircase, but if you try to climb it, she’ll point out the Out Of Order sign and note that she’s not going to climb it. The solution? Pick up the Out Of Order sign. With that gone, her reason not to climb the stairs (that it’s obviously out of order) is also gone. And naturally, this is gloriously lampshaded in the dialogue.
Speaking of the speaking – or, well, the writing – it’s very, very knowing. Within about ten minutes you’ll probably have had a discussion about adventure game design, and how dead ends and death are silly. Examining the corpse that kicks off the plot leads to an estimated time of death based on its pixellation. Thimbleweed Park does not respect the fourth wall, at all, and because its gameplay routinely nods at or plays with standard adventure conventions, this works in its favour. That sort of humour can be overbearing (and I know plenty of people who hate knowing, lampshading, fourth wall-breaching jokes) but to my mind it’s really rather fitting here.
The one complaint that can more easily be levelled at the writing is that most of it is identical for the characters. There are variations, with Ransome the Insult Clown often adding bleeped-out profanity to his observations, but it’s a little disappointing that the earnest agent, the snarky agent, and the chipper programmer all have the same dialogue for most of the things they examine and most of the characters that they talk to.
On the one hand, this is understandable – with multiple playable characters and a huge amount of stuff to push, talk to, look at, or use, the number of lines of voiced dialogue would have skyrocketed. On the other hand, one of the joys of these games is the sheer attention to detail in the interactions and examinations, and when the writing is skilfully penned, it’s a little sad that there isn’t more of it.
But I’d argue these are minor things. They might be major enough that they’ll completely turn a few people off the game, but for me, they were little “Oh, I wish…” moments rather than anything that bruised my sheer enjoyment of the game. When an adventure game makes me think; when I get puzzle revelations when I’m trying to sleep; when I can say that one or two of the puzzles are probably good enough to enter into some sort of list of really excellent adventure game puzzles; when the dialogue makes me laugh out loud; when the end of the game hits Monkey Island 2 levels of mind-screw but still manages to wrap things up nicely… well, if a game hits all of those notes, I can forgive a lot.
I know I’ve done a lot of damning with faint praise here, complaining about little problems, and I regret that a little because – while important – they don’t reflect my overwhelming feelings on the title. I really liked Thimbleweed Park. I loved its little references, I loved its knowing winks, and I loved the way it successfully feels like a game that’s timewarped out of the early 90s. Do you wistfully think back to those years and those games? Then you should definitely play this. It might not rank up there with the absolute best, but it captures the essence of the adventures of yesteryear and provides a sharp, witty, and genuinely puzzling experience.