You might not realise it, but when you start up Thimbleweed Park you’re actually staring through a portal into the heyday of point and click adventuring as it existed in the early 1990s. At a time where Lucasarts was releasing hit after hit such as Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle, Thimbleweed Park would have fit right in, so strongly does it channel everything that made those games so very memorable and most of all, so entertaining to boot.
They don’t make them like this anymore
Developed by games industry luminaries Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, a couple of the key individuals behind Lucasarts when that company was at its best, Thimbleweed Park is in many ways a spiritual successor to those landmark games, and one which very much reinforces the point that they just don’t make them like they used to anymore.
Immediately, the echoes of the golden age of Lucasarts can be seen, as Thimbleweed Park’s visual aesthetic directly apes the VGA monitor, 256 colour, low resolution characters and backdrops which were so synonymous with the point and click efforts of that era. It’s a timeless look quite honestly, and one which has translated extremely well to the high-definition displays of 2017; the PS4’s 1080p rendering display lending a pin-point, blocky crispness to the visuals that enhances them rather than working to their detriment.
The narrative, a criss-crossing of Twin Peaks and The Secret of Monkey Island with a dash of Manic Mansion thrown in for kicks, initially casts the player as FBI agents Ray and Reyes who are tasked with investigating the mysterious death of a man at the titular town of Thimbleweed Park. Soon enough, the ramifications of the death spread rapidly outward with a wide variety of characters being drawn into the fold as a result.
From Chuck, the megalomaniac genius who has developed an AI to control the town, to his niece Delores who is poised to take over his business but wants to become a games developer instead, Thimbleweed Park is certainly not lacking in interesting personalities and it’s really them who are the beating heart of the twists and turns of its wonderfully written, multi-layered plot.
A particular highlight is Ransome the Clown; an infinitely twisted version of Krusty the Clown from the Simpsons, Ransome makes his living insulting his audience (and their moms) but alas, finds himself unable to remove the makeup from his face when he unmercifully ribs the local voodoo witch in front of a live audience who hexes him in return. Quite honestly, there’s a real joy in playing as Ransome and striking up conversations with random folks and insulting them to the point that they almost go blind from the rage. Yes, I’m a terrible person, but one who admires the splendid writing which allows me to be that terrible in the first place.
Some of the best writing and characters you will see
Though Thimbleweed Park is undeniably a love letter to those who are familiar with Lucasarts output during their golden era (which now has a contemporary audience thanks to Grim Fandango Remastered and Full Throttle Remastered), it does do a number of things to separate itself from its classic origins. Perhaps the most significant of these is how it allows the player to switch between characters, sometimes as many four or five at a time.
Taking advantage of this unorthodox feature is the structure of the game itself, since many of the puzzles in Thimbleweed Park often require special items and interactions which are limited to particular characters, meaning that players can only really be successful if they switch between to the right character depending on the situation.
While having a cast of characters to switch between is both enjoyable from a narrative and puzzle solving standpoint, the developer has sadly missed a trick with how dialogue is handled between the playable members of its cast. Essentially, there is a boatload of repeated dialogue that is shared between all the characters whenever they inspect certain areas or talk to certain folks, and while it’s not a big deal per se, it does detract a little from the uniqueness of their personalities.
When it come to the quality of the writing, Thimbleweed Park excels in a way that very few other point and click adventure games manage to. With mountains upon mountains of witty dialogue and cool pop culture references which make the most of its late 1980s setting, it’s fair to say that the writers have certainly outdone themselves here.
Bolstering the calibre of the writing yet further, are the oceans of biting video game industry satire (industry folks will recognise the jabs directed towards the ‘crunch lifestyle’ in particular) and the fact that Thimbleweed park doesn’t just break the fourth wall, it utterly vaporizes it. As such, almost every line and description in Thimbleweed Park brings some sort of entertainment and along with it, an unquenchable curiosity to see what comes next.
Thimbleweed Park also manages to deftly cater for two classes of wannabe point and click adventurers, too. Newbies, who have never touched an effort of this ilk before, will be relieved to learn that Thimbleweed Park’s conundrums never venture close to the abstract and all of them rely on knowledge of people and places that you’ve been to, rather than the pursuit of some outlandish solution that you’d never guess. Additionally, a handy notebook allows you to keep track of your progress and objectives, neatly helping Thimbleweed Park to sidestep the usual aimless malaise that can affect games of a similar ilk when you return to play.
Further enhancing the appeal of the game to newcomers is the fact that not only are there two difficulty modes; easy and hard (the former having less puzzles to complete than the latter), but also hints can be obtained by calling a special ‘hint line’ which provides pinpoint solutions on whatever puzzle you happen to be stuck on.
Of course, hardened point and click aficionados shall have little use for such hint systems and will find much to love in Thimbleweed Park’s hard mode where the extra puzzles bring an additional dollop of challenge to the proceedings (an extra trophy is awarded for this, too). What they might take offence to however, is the manner in which the UI functions.
Thimbleweed Park employs a cursor based interface where the player must drag a cursor around the screen, first to a list of commands, such as ‘Look at’, ‘Use’ and so on, and then once selected, drag the cursor back to whatever it is they want to interact with. Now, while this method isn’t exactly new, after all the likes of Grim Fandango and other Lucasarts titles employ a similar system, in Thimbleweed Park it just seems slightly more difficult to get it to do exactly what you need it to. Even though this isn’t a game breaker by any means, it stands out that much more because every other aspect of Thimbleweed Park has been otherwise crafted and polished to such an exceptionally high standard.
It’s almost rude the sheer amount of things that Thimbleweed Park gets right. The great writing, the superb cast of characters, the characteristically twee presentation; all of it stands as undeniable evidence that the spirit of early 90s Lucasarts is well and truly alive and well in Thimbleweed Park.
Even though the cursor based UI doesn’t transfer to console as smoothly as we’d like and the dialogue can be lazily recycled at times, such shortcomings stand only as minor blemishes on what should otherwise be considered as one of the most entertaining, blissfully fun adventure games of the year.