Ron Gilbert will always have a place in the gaming history books, mainly as a result of his services to the adventure game genre. Having played a key part in classics such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion – to name but a few – the man himself hasn’t taken the lead in producing a straight up point-and-click adventure game in a very long time, which is why the arrival of Thimbleweed Park on PlayStation 4 should be a cause of excitement for anyone with even a small amount of reverence for the SCUMM-based Lucasarts adventures of yesteryear.
Set in the titular town, Thimbleweed Park opens with a murder, which is swiftly followed by the arrival of two FBI agents to investigate. The early chapters of the game focus mainly on the hunt for the killer, but since it follows the Lucasarts adventure template to an almost slavish degree this isn’t an overly dark tale, instead offering up plenty of light hearted characters and quirky puzzles.
An interesting twist sees you taking control of not just the two FBI agents, but also three additional characters – all of whom have a different stake in finding out what’s been going on in Thimbleweed Park. This adds an unexpected dimension to the point-and-click gameplay as not only will some locations be blocked off to certain characters, but there’ll be times when you need to chain the actions of characters across different locations to solve a particular puzzle by swiftly swapping between them.
There are a large number of puzzles spread across nine story chapters that provide a satisfying challenge, with most having solutions you can easily reach by taking the right logical steps. That’s not to say you won’t lose your way occasionally, but this tends to only happen when you miss a key item or try to progress a puzzle chain without having all of the tools you need – in some cases these annoyingly won’t show up until later chapters of the story.
Even if you get stuck a few times, it’s a fun 10-12 hour story that while never really laugh-out-loud funny does at least manage to be frequently amusing. With plenty of endearing characters – such as Delores, a fledging adventure game developer – it does plenty to keep you interested in solving the mystery by drip-feeding revelations right through to the end.
One oddity about the story, though, is just how referential it is – through the dialogue and characters – to game development, and more specifically adventure games themselves, with Ron Gilbert himself even appearing at one point. This at first feels at odds with the murder mystery at its centre, and while it does ultimately pay off further down the line, you get the feeling the development of this title served as a some sort of cathartic retrospective for Mr Gilbert to look back on those titles he’s best known for.
In fact, there’s so much about Thimbleweed Park that riffs on past works that it’s obviously a title aimed at anyone who wants to look back fondly on the heyday of the adventure game. Not only do certain puzzles have shades of Day of the Tentacle and The Secret of Monkey Island to them, but the pixel art style – especially in terms of character design – looks like how you’d imagine Maniac Mansion would have looked if it had been released in the early nineties.
The throwbacks don’t end there either. Rather than using the sort of minimalistic user interfaces seen in modern adventure games, Thimbleweed Park resurrects the familiar Lucasarts SCUMM engine. So, whether you’re picking up some cheese or using radioactive waste on a puddle, you’ll need to select a verb from the bottom of the screen before clicking on the appropriate onscreen hotspot.
As with the rest of the game the controls feel enjoyably retro, but as you’d expect, a lot of the issues associated with this style of interface inevitably rear their head. Not only can important hotspots be missed leaving you to flounder solving certain puzzles, but moving the cursor around with the controller doesn’t always feel great.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some concessions for a modern audience, with the ability to cycle through hotspots close to your cursor using the R1 or L1 buttons, as well as a helpful hint line – accessible by calling a number using an in-game phone – helping take the edge off some all too familiar annoyances.
Given the origins of Thimbleweed Park as a Kickstarter project, it’s not at all surprising to find that it’s firmly aimed at a very specific audience. To that end it does deliver, with interesting characters, an enticing core mystery, and loads of puzzles, all wrapped up in a package that closely follows the tenets of the those classic Lucasarts titles.