Point and Click Returns!
Modern-day adventure games don’t get more old-school than Thimbleweed Park. This point-and-click game was helmed by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, two of the biggest minds behind classic LucasArts games like Maniac Mansion and the Monkey Island series. The game brings players back into a world filled with ridiculous characters, hilarious dialogue trees, absurd logic puzzles, and lots of pixels. And for adventure game fans like me, this is a glorious revival of the genre.
Check out the Video Version for a closer look at the gameplay and spoiler-free clips!
The story opens in 1987 in the quaint town of Thimbleweed Park, where a murder has taken place, prompting two FBI agents to investigate. The premise, with its X-Files and Twin Peaks vibes, is intriguing, but it’s the strong writing that carries the entire game. The dialogue is filled to the brim with witty banter, self-referential humor, and outright parodies of the adventure genre.
Likewise, the characters exhibit a special charm. Your playable FBI agents, the seemingly foolish Reyes and sarcastic no-nonsense Ray, are fun characters that bounce well off of each other. And once the plot’s scope ambitiously extends to an overarching mystery behind the town, more zany playable characters share the limelight. These additional protagonists – which include an insult clown who swears so much that he talks in beeps, a timid ghost of a pillow salesman, and an aspiring adventure game developer (again, self-referential) – all have their own storylines that are ingeniously introduced via playable flashback sequences. I was so enamored by them – even the beephole clown – that I missed them and their cheeky dialogue after the credits rolled.
If you’ve played any LucasArts adventure game, you should instantly recognize the old-school interface. The bottom area of the screen contains a menu of verbs and an inventory. To interact with the environment, you must first click on one of the nine verbs, for instance “Pick up,” “Look at,” or “Use,” and then point to whatever or whomever you want to interact with. Though hardcore adventure game enthusiasts will embrace this point-and-click tribute, the system is admittedly archaic and unintuitive to navigate at first. As a small compensation, the game allows you to perform the default command (opening doors, for instance) with the press of a button. As much as I love the classic verbs, I would have appreciated an option to use a modernized interface, similarly to the one in Day of the Tentacle Remastered, which let you click on an object and then ask you how you wanted to interact with it.
Most of your pointing and clicking is used to solve puzzles. Again, you have to look at these puzzles from a retro adventure game perspective to appreciate them. Otherwise, you’ll likely get frustrated trying to understand this game’s obtuse logic. In this fictional game world, simple actions like starting a fire and obtaining a nickel can only be achieved in specific ways, and you have to pay close attention to discover exactly how the game wants you to proceed. As a fan of the genre, I ate it all up. The puzzles are fun to wrap your mind around, and it’s gratifying to put two and two together and emerge with the solution.
Still, it’s hard to blame you if you can’t keep up with nonsensical video game logic. To the game’s credit, there are some options in place to prevent anyone from truly getting stuck. The least intrusive feature is a handy to-do list to keep you on track. For those who need a bit more assistance, there is an in-game hint line you can call at any time for puzzle clues. The best part is that these hints are offered incrementally: your first clue for any given puzzle vaguely nudges you in the right direction, but ask for more hints and the system will pony up more information before finally giving you a step-by-step solution. I applaud this ideal way of handling the issue of in-game logic and wish it had been more common in the early days of point-and-clicks. You could also play through Casual mode, which removes the bulk of confusing puzzles. It’s a great idea in theory to make the game more accessible, but it feels like a watered-down version of the standard Hard mode, and it’s simply not as satisfying.
I especially enjoyed the point when the game opened up, allowing you to explore the entire county with five different characters. Each playable protagonist has their own unique strengths, such as game developer Delores’ programming smarts and Franklin the ghost’s mystical powers to zap and freeze objects. Many puzzles link together, and some even require you to control multiple characters at once, giving a unifying sense of teamwork that I rarely see in adventure titles. The only gripe I had with the multi-character system was the item management. The inventory builds up fast, and one character must travel to another’s location in order to exchange items. Fast traveling eased the task, but over time, having to manually mix and match inventories grew tedious.
My biggest issue was with the ending, which is a big deal for a story-driven game. Without spoilers, the game’s ultimate direction left something to be desired. The journey was still worth it, but the end makes it hard for me to replay. Luckily, the game is long enough, offering at least 12 hours of playtime, which is much longer than I usually spend on other point-and-clicks. It can, of course, last longer depending on how long it takes to solve puzzles. And that’s not even including the wealth of time you could spend exploring every nook, cranny, and pixel.
Speaking of pixels, Thimbleweed Park looks wonderfully retro, adopting a pseudo 8-bit style that is more beautiful than anything that could have been produced in the heyday of adventure games. The diverse backgrounds are eye-catching, including colorful circus grounds and a certain mansion that may feel familiar to LucasArts fans. The music fits well, resembling what you might hear in a gritty crime drama. Most importantly, the voice acting is well-done. The actors’ deliveries are spot-on, whether telling jokes or breaking the fourth wall. And to my joy, every single line is voiced. The town of Thimbleweed truly feels alive.
Thimbleweed Park succeeds as a modern point-and-click game by adopting old-school mechanics. Although I didn’t like the ending, I couldn’t help but feel enchanted by every humorous conversation and puzzle along the way. Not everyone will appreciate the game, and those without a penchant for adventure games will likely be lost in the absurd in-game logic and archaic interface. A fully functional hint line and Casual mode help make the game more approachable for newcomers to the genre. But make no mistake, this is a game for adventure game fans, Kickstarted by the very people who wanted to see this classic style revived. And for those fans, Thimbleweed Park is a resounding success.
A review copy of the PS4 version was provided by the publisher for this article. This game is also available on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Mac, Windows, and Linux.