Developer: Terrible Toybox
Publisher: Terrible Toybox
Available on: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, Linux, Mac via Steam & Mac App Store, Android (coming Oct. 7th), iOS
Price: $19.99 USD
Those of you who grew up gaming during the point-and-click adventure boom in the 80s and 90s likely have fond memories of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s Maniac Mansion, Indiana Jones, and Monkey Island titles. If you spent many a night pixel hunting as a pirate or shamefully microwaving hamsters, maybe even watching The X-Files or Twin Peaks in the process, then you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on Terrible Toybox’s new small-town adventure, Thimbleweed Park.
With an ensemble cast, a pixel aesthetic, and plenty of verb-using gameplay, the duo of Gilbert and Winnick aimed to make Thimbleweed Park feel like “opening a dusty old desk drawer and finding an undiscovered LucasArts adventure game you’ve never played before,” when they took to Kickstarter in 2014. After spending about a dozen hours with the PlayStation 4 version I can confidently say they’ve succeeded in their vision, but does a game that banks this much on nostalgia appeal to a brand new audience?
The game begins with the discovery of a dead body in the small “population 80” town of Thimbleweed Park. As with any podunk town, everybody knows everyone and everyone is in everyone else’s business by proximity. When two out-of-town federal agents show up to take over the investigation, being Ray and Reyes, the bizarre cast of locals expectedly take notice.
For starters, the coroner, sheriff, and hotel manager all appear to be the same person, aside from their personal dialogue quirks (the sheriff adds “a-reno” to the end of every other word, the coroner “a-hoo,” and so on). Then there’s Pidgeon Brothers Plumbing, who are actually two sisters dressed as pigeons whose father was just too cheap to re-paint the company’s van. Ricki’s Cakes sells vacuum tubes instead of sweet treats, S&D Diner has somehow avoided closure after cases of botulism and toenail clippings found in their cuisine, and a fire at the old pillow factory has “cover-up” written all over it. Needless to say, a murder isn’t the only mystery you’ll be solving.
Although Thimbleweed Park is an adventure game, narrative exposition isn’t the lion’s share of the experience. Each of the game’s explorable areas contains their own secrets to uncover, like a hotel infested with ghosts, but don’t expect to form emotional bonds like you would in more modern adventure games like Life is Strange and The Walking Dead. Thimbleweed Park is less about living with the consequences of your actions in favor of a puzzle-heavy, offbeat adventure that hearkens back to the golden age of LucasArts. It’s more Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle than it is Wolf Among Us, basically, with the closest modern comparison being Wadjet Eye Games’ Blackwell series.
If none of these name-drops mean anything to you, then Thimbleweed Park is going to be a hard sell — but stick with me, here!
As you can (hopefully) see in the screenshot above, the entirety of the gameplay is traditional point-and-click; playable characters march to wherever you “click” the cursor instead of controlling them manually, and interaction is done through a series of nine verbs, like “open,” “push,” and “talk to.” So if you wanted to use Agent Reyes’s camera to take a picture of the corpse (again, shown in the above screenshot), you’ll have to click “use,” then select the camera in his inventory, and finally select the corpse pleasantly snoozing forever beneath his feet.
Clicking around the screen to perform simple actions, like opening doors, definitely felt dated by 2017 standards, but I still found it somewhat charming as someone familiar with the designer’s portfolio. For those of you interested in playing this on a home console instead of on PC or your mobile device, Terrible Toybox has devised a few handy controller shortcuts to get your cursor around their various menus as quickly as possible.
Two other primary ingredients in the old-school point-and-click adventure are item collection and unclear puzzle solutions, for which Thimbleweed Park is no different. When the game opens as a Twin Peaks-inspired detective story in a mysterious, small town, there are only two playable characters, but the roster eventually expands to five that can be switched between at-will. Agents Ray and Reyes serve as detectives with ulterior motives, with Ransome (a foul-mouthed circus clown), Delores (a young, fledgling game developer), and Franklin (a ghost seemingly prevented from crossing over) joining the party over time. Each character has their own independent inventory slots, which quickly fill with goodies as you wander room by room interacting with just about everything and everyone. Sometimes only a certain character can perform a specific action to solve a puzzle, and I often had to trade items between them for similar reasons.
Puzzle solutions are rarely presented in a clear manner, which is just par for the course. If you need to acquire fingerprints to further your investigation, be prepared to flash your badge at the post office for tape, acquire fireplace soot on another character, stumble upon a dirty glass in a far away office building, and play around with the game’s verb menu to trade and combine items for the desired effect. In addition, many of the game’s phone numbers and secret codes required to solve its brain twisters are randomized, so you may not always find solace in a walkthrough! Hell, one puzzle, in particular, requires you to unearth its solution within Thimbleweed Park’s original Kickstarter video, so you’ll be doing a little online detective work yourself. It may sound silly, but some find this preposterous formula endearing — myself included.
The unorthodox nature of point-and-click adventure games is likely to prevent newcomers from experiencing one of my personal favorite genres. Terrible Toybox seems determined to make Thimbleweed Park as accessible as possible, though. At the jump, players are asked to choose between “casual” and “hardcore” modes, where casual removes nearly half of the game’s puzzles in hopes of breadcrumbing you along at a faster pace. It took me nearly 14 hours to complete the game on “hardcore” mode, and while there were certainly some head-scratching moments that left me dumbfounded, it felt cleanly suited for genre veterans. Getting stuck isn’t the end of the world either since each character comes equipped with a “to do” list that breaks their required objectives down into manageable bullet points. There’s also an in-game hint line that players can call for helpful advice, which I thought was pretty damn clever.
Thimbleweed Park’s aesthetic and musical composition are both admirable, with loads of creativity going into environmental design and its accompanied familiar tunes. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring nooks and crannies, particularly since backtracking is made simpler by way of fast travel maps given away for free at the local convenience store. From the giant pair of feet poking through the foreground in the coroner’s office to the cramped trailer park near the circus midway, I could tell a lot of love was poured into every inch of the town.
Being a light-hearted adventure where the cast rarely interacts with one another and the overarching investigation gave center stage to unusual puzzles and exploration, Thimbleweed Park certainly feels like a passion project made by industry veterans who happen to be fans of the genre themselves. Clearly, Gilbert and Winnick are, given their pedigree, but that passion isn’t always felt by the player. It was by me, though.
The developers did an admirable job welcoming newcomers with accessible options and modernized quality-of-life mechanics, while simultaneously catering to fans who grew up with LucasArts’ laundry list of memorable adventure games. Thimbleweed Park is clever, weird, and forced me to take pages of notes along my 14-hour journey, and although there were times where I was frustrated beyond all belief at my inability to progress, it’s everything I would have hoped for had I discovered that long lost LucasArts game tucked away in Ron Gilbert’s desk drawer.
So, where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money. I trust in your ability to make the right decision!
Full disclosure: This review was done using a digital PS4 copy provided by the game’s developer, Terrible Toybox. While I’m sometimes given games to critique, I pride myself on providing an unbiased review to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for a game is irrelevant.