Return to Monkey Island is an adventure game akin to Spider-Man: No Way Home. No, don’t leave! Hear me out: most people would agree that No Way Home is an excellent, entertaining film – even for a kid who hasn’t seen the Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield Spider-Man films. On the other hand, No Way Home taps into something more: nostalgia, even eliciting genuine emotion at various points if you’ve made those movie memories with the Peter Parkers of the past.
Return to Monkey Island is a similar ride, with series creator Ron Gilbert returning to the franchise’s director’s chair for the first time in 30 years. It’s a hilarious, beautiful, polished, and well-paced story full of puzzles that are both hilarious and challenging for anyone who enjoys a good adventure game.
And Return wisely includes “Guybrush’s Scrapbook” in the main menu as a fun, visual way to recap previous Monkey Island games that Guybrush narrates. But, for those who grew up with the original Monkey Island games, this reunion with want-to-be pirate Guybrush Threepwood feels like coming home. To that end, we appreciated the not-so-hidden Trivia Cards strewn about the place.
The art style is the most critical distinction between Return to Monkey Island and its predecessors. Gilbert could have gone the pixel-art route to reap even more low-hanging nostalgia fruit, but instead, he’s gone for a much bolder modern look.
It’s a sharp departure from the games I enjoy, but so was the Curse of Monkey Island, the first post-Gilbert Monkey Island game, which used a Disney cartoon-like style that I adored. Return’s art direction is more abstract, but I grew to like it for the 11 hours it took me to finish the story. It uses the color palette extensively, and its cartoony character design complements Monkey.
While Return to Monkey Island would never be confused with any other game in the series at first glance, the delightful music could easily fool you into thinking you were still in 1991. Michael Land, Peter McConnell, and Clint Bajakian return with another pleasantly Caribbean score that contributes significantly to this feeling of a proper return to Monkey Island.
The same can be said for the voice cast Dominic Armato leads as Guybrush Threepwood, who brings a restrained, straight-man sensibility to a game full of frequently absurd scenarios. However, he isn’t afraid to sling a bit of sarcasm when the situation calls for it. Everyone knows Guybrush is a good-hearted wuss, but they can’t help but root for him.
What about the plot? The Return occurs immediately after Monkey Island 2, but it’s structured unexpectedly. That introduced me to a new aspect of Monkey Island: its enormous heart, which is directly apparent in the playable Prelude, which I won’t spoil here, and is repeatedly referenced throughout. Its overarching plot revolves around Guybrush’s never-ending rivalry with the zombie-pirate villain LeChuck and their love triangle with Elaine Marley. Return obsesses over the fundamental mystery far more than any of its predecessors, and it’s exploited for repeated comedic effects.
The game reflects our decades of wondering if Gilbert will ever reveal the true Secret of Monkey Island, with even Guybrush’s wife Elaine wondering why our hero clings to it. In the process, it revisits familiar locations such as Melee Island and Monkey Island, as well as introduces new ones, bringing back familiar faces (such as Murray!) and introducing a slew of new characters. Shout-out to Locke Smith, who you’ll see several times and who is well aware that her name is a pun.
A great story and memorable characters are only one half of the classic puzzle game equation: the other half is a series of puzzles that are both challenging and satisfying to solve, which serve as the foundation of any great point-and-click adventure. The Return provides a generous helping of them here, with a thread of comedy running through the traditional question of which item to use on which person or location at every turn. Solving puzzles is still a dopamine hit, and the 2022 iteration of Monkey Island has learned to avoid the infamously obtuse “adventure game logic” that drove people away from the originals.
People learned quickly that they only needed to swallow pride partially before resorting to Guybrush’s always-available hint book. It’s a welcome evolution of a feature first introduced to the series in LucasArts’ 2009 remasters of Monkey Island 1 and 2. Using it feels guilt-free because it’s not a tome of spoilers like using a walkthrough.
Instead, it gives you hints layer by layer, nudging you in the right direction while retaining the sense of accomplishment that comes from eventually solving the puzzle yourself. Only once did the hint book reveal something I genuinely didn’t want to know at the time. The new To-Do List also allows you to keep track of everything you’re currently working on to solve without feeling like you’re being led around by the nose.
Over the past three decades, Monkey Island has been known almost entirely for its comedic prowess, but Return reminded why people first fell in love with Guybrush Threepwood in a way that will have thinking about it for a long time.