Review: Thimbleweed Park

5 stars
A love letter to point and click adventure games, and a gorgeous game, too

Thimbleweed Park is a newly released cross-platform adventure game that was funded in large part through a 2014 Kickstarter campaign. Its creators – Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick, David Fox, and others – are the directors and designers of some of the most celebrated point-and-click adventure games of all time, including Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, and The Secret of Monkey Island.

Their mission was to create a game that should feel like an archaeological discovery from the late 1980s, rather than a brand new game. Emphasis on “feel”, because Thimbleweed Park is meant to evoke memories rather than replicating them. For example, while it uses beautiful low resolution pixel art, it also employs more modern visual and sound effects to enrich the game environment. All the text is spoken by voice actors.

Setting and Game Mechanics

The game starts as a “whodunit”. Detectives Angela Ray and Antonio Reyes are trying to find a killer in the tiny town of Thimbleweed Park. Over time, we discover their own concealed motives, as well as a much larger mystery. The player can switch between an increasing number of characters as the story develops.

The game mechanics combine the familiar verb-object logic of most LucasArts adventure games (“Use Sushi in glass with lamp”) with some new elements such as character-specific to-do lists that help keep you on track.

Each of the game’s playable characters has their own voice, their own behavioral quirks, their own dialog, and so on. This is Ransome the Clown, for example, a disgraced insult comic. He carries itch cream with him that appears to serve no purpose but to produce an animation when applied.

Ransome the Clown animation

The game is chock full of little jokes and distractions like this one. The actual puzzles the player has to solve are similar to the ones you may be familiar with from the genre: pick up items, combine items with other items, push/pull objects visible on the screen, use differences between the characters to your advantage.

While you should keep pen and paper handy, none of the puzzles are unfair, none rely on excessive pixel-hunting, and it’s near-impossible to die. Nor can you end up in a dead-end situation – there’s always a way to progress in the story.

That said, the game can’t cure some genre-typical ills. You might sometimes get stuck trying to solve a puzzle before the plot has advanced sufficiently to let you do so, for example. Item combinations that should work produce no meaningful effect. And some puzzles are a bit silly (at one point, we have to search the whole town for a dime to use in a payphone).

Dialog and Plot

You can “talk to” characters all over Thimbleweed Park, and doing so may yield helpful hints or move the plot forward. As is typical, dialog consists of selecting one of multiple dialog lines in response to what another character says; often, you’ll find yourself clicking through all possible options.

Don’t expect laugh-out-loud humor in every interaction – there are plenty of little jokes, but much of the dialog simply expands on the backstory of a character or the town. It does so well, though the town’s small stories quickly have to make way for the larger plot.

The playable characters generally can’t talk to each other; the dialog between them is largely left to the player’s imagination.

Depth

All the action takes place within the town of Thimbleweed Park itself, but the game world is big enough to keep you engaged. Some scenes are visually rich but don’t let you do very much, though I suspect I missed a few Easter eggs along the way.

The level of detail in the game is astonishing, and much of it is in service to the fans and backers of the game. For example, the in-game phone book contains the names of all backers above a certain level, and each of them had the option to record a (spoken!) voicemail message for the game, which plays if you dial the number on an in-game phone.

Similarly, the in-game library contains hundreds of unique “books” – we only see two pages per book – written by fans of the game. They’re even loosely categorized and range from little poems to short stories and amusing pseudo-excerpts.

That said, beyond details and Easter eggs, the replay value of the game is limited. This is true for most point and click games: the game is more or less “on rails” and the level of real choice is limited. Think of it more like a movie you might watch again years later than a game you’ll keep playing.

The Verdict

If you enjoyed the point-and-click games of the late 1980s and early 1990s, then buying this game is a no-brainer. It stands on its own and delivers an interesting story and a lot of classic adventure puzzle fun.

It’s not perfect, but the imperfections are minor. The game might have been better with 1-2 fewer playable characters and a more coherent story to connect them to each other – Day of the Tentacle got that balance exactly right, while Thimbleweed Park falls a little short in that regard.

The game has many in-game references to video games and programming, and to the specific games Gilbert/Winnick/Fox made. This isn’t obsessive self-referencing – it’s pure affection. Much of the game is a love letter to the genre and to the fans who grew up playing these games, giving it an intimate feel that may be a little of-putting to folks who’ve never played any of them.

If Thimbleweed Park does look interesting to you but you’re new to this world of games, I’d recommend playing a few of the classics first. You can play the originals through ScummVM and in some cases buy modern remastered versions. My personal recommendation would be to play in this order:

  1. The Secret of Monkey Island (I’m not a fan of the remastered graphics, but the GOG version includes the original graphics as well)
  2. Zak McKracken (you can get a 256 color version on GOG that was originally made for an obscure Japanese console)
  3. Day of the Tentacle and the predecessor Maniac Mansion (both included in the GOG version; warning: Maniac Mansion has a high frustration level)
  4. Thimbleweed Park (GOG version)

As this list shows, I consider Thimbleweed Park to be a proper addition to this ensemble of games. The $20 price may seem a bit steep by the standards of casual gamers, but this is a big game, and if it does well, it will help keep the genre alive.

As someone who’s played many point-and-click games, I would give Thimbleweed Park 4.5 stars, rounded up because of the love that went into it; if you’ve never played a point-and-click before, I think you’ll still get a 4 star game out of it.