A corpse, Feds, a cantankerous foul-mouthed clown, a game dev, a strange town with strange people and a case to solve. It sounds like Twin Peaks, but it’s even more bizarre, it’s Thimbleweed Park.
Genre(s): Adventure | Point & Click
Developer: Terrible Toybox
Publisher: Terrible Toybox
Release Date: Mar 2017
Played Main Story
Purchase At: Steam
I never finished Maniac Mansion. At the time, I didn’t really understand point & click adventure games (I was 7) and controlling a cursor using an NES gamepad was beyond me. I did play the Monkey Island series of course and the second instalment is one of my favourite LucasArts games. I know who Ron Gilbert is and I know his brand of puzzle design.
When I launched Thimbleweed Park, I chose the hard mode, which had all the puzzles, bringing the game to its true difficulty setting. I thought I was ready, that I knew how Gilbert and his cohorts thought and how they designed their puzzles, but I was so wrong and in a very good way. I’ve complained for years of how easy puzzles have become in adventure games and Thimbleweed Park nearly broke me. In playing for this review I spent days locked in a single chapter because I couldn’t figure out what to do.
Sometimes it was because the solution was mildly obtuse, such as using an open flame for a task my logic said I could carry out with about a dozen different ways, other times it was because of the annoyingly large number of red herrings this game has, such as the hoard of items you can pick up but have no purpose, just filling up your inventory and as they did with me, add in the confusion to a puzzle’s solution.
But mostly it was because the puzzles are difficult, the clues there but given ever so subtly, such as an off-hand comment by a character.
The other reason is that much like Maniac Mansion, this is a single-player cooperative game, meaning that characters must cooperate to solve puzzles and advance through the game’s chapters. This includes sharing items and using their own special circumstances to open paths closed to others. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t get frustrating at times.
What sometimes made things difficult for me, and it’s something I’m not sure is good or bad, is that you never know if you’ll be able to advance a character’s plot in each chapter, so you might spend hours trying to solve the puzzles that will progress Ransome’s story in a chapter where it’s impossible to do so, when you should focus on two of the other characters first.
As Thimbleweed Park’s areas open, more puzzles become available, though you don’t ever know if they’re solvable in the given chapter, or if the conditions for their solution only become available in another. As I said, don’t know if it’s good or bad. I was certainly the source for a lot of frustration, particularly because many of these puzzles belong in the book of Ron Gilbert’s greatest hits, such as a forest maze where you must find a way to track people to the right spot.
Perhaps in the easier mode these things have clearer signposts, but in the hard mode, you’re on your own. It lives up to its name, it’s truly hardcore.
Thimbleweed Park begins with a murder, a body left in a puddle down by the bridge out of town, the body so long gone it’s starting to pixelate—their words not mine. You first meet the sheriff and the coroner, identical men with annoying verbal tics. You’re sure they’re the same person but everyone in town thinks differently, so maybe you’re wrong? I leave that up to you.
Soon your investigation leads you to Ransome, a flashback to his story and a new character to control. Then it’s time for Delores, the niece of local genius inventor and saviour, the late Chuck Edmund, owner of Pillowtronics and creator of all machines in town and their wondrous Vacuum Tube technology.
Lastly, your investigation leads you to the Hotel, where you witness Chuck’s brother’s flashback…and his demise. And so, his ghost joins you in your adventure, with a new set of skills and proving that Thimbleweed Park has no issues in mixing as many genres as possible.
One thing I didn’t like about the multiple characters is that aside from a small flashing icon on the top right of the screen, which is pretty easy to miss, nothing in the game tells you or even suggests that you now have a new party member. Nor is there any real connection between them. They don’t talk with one another, exchange items just because you demand it but it’s not until the end of the game that they acknowledge each other’s presence.
In any other game I would call that out as being a flaw in narrative and characterization or I would complain about the two-dimensional portrayal of most characters, but when you realise where the Thimbleweed Park plot is going, the themes it’s exploring and where all the twists lead, you’ll let these things slide, as they make a lot of sense. Thimbleweed Park’s story plays with conventions of the murder mystery genre but also with those of adventure games and it’s really fun.
Speaking of twists, one thing about Thimbleweed Park that kept me hooked were those moments when the screen goes black, then a badly tuned TV shows up, either showing you what just happened or something happening in a different place to another character. It makes you want to hunt for the answers, and I kept my eyes peeled for more clues, but much like the items in the puzzles, I never knew if what I saw was real and meaningful or just another red herring.
Music in Thimbleweed Park is great, the environmental pieces helping set the mood of every location, such as the slightly sinister tones when walking around town, telling there’s something amiss. The hotel’s music takes a sudden turn to the sombre at times, setting the right vibe for this incredibly haunted place. The abandoned circus is a creepy desolate place and its music matches that exactly.
Voice acting is equally good and the actors sell their characters’ main personality attributes wonderfully. Ray is cynical and deadpan and looking out for number one only. Reyes tries to hide his plans, but he’s too earnest to be a good liar. Ransome laments the things he’s lost but he has trouble expressing his real feelings, burying them in layers of abuse and insults. Delores wants to follow her dreams but a part of her regrets what it cost her, though that doesn’t stop her. And Franklin is a ball of regrets and anguish.
I’m not even spoiling anything, these are the first impressions I had of the characters from the voice acting. Thimbleweed Park’s writing only reinforced and filled in the details that explained those attitudes. But voice acting is truly special when it can tell you about a character without the text having to do so.
Visually it’s very similar to Ron Gilbert’s past games, and it’s to be expected when you read in the credits that Gilbert did for this game what he did back in LucasArts, program the engine and tools. He is, after all, the man behind SCUMM—Scripting Utility for Maniac Mansion—so this is his personal visual style, which I find refreshing after playing countless games going retro for nostalgia fodder. With Thimbleweed Park, it’s just the case of a developer doing what he knows best.
Environments and characters have vivid details and the visual settings even let you set how the toilet paper looks, be it over or under. It doesn’t get better than that, I tell you!
I prepared myself for judging Thimbleweed Park harshly, fearing it would be nothing but nostalgia fodder, yet another game sold on the fame of its predecessors. But what I found was not only a game worthy of the legacy of its creator, but a strong and challenging adventure game that gripped me in equal parts with its mechanics as it did with its zany storytelling.
5/5 – HELL YES!