Adventure games have been around since the dawn of the video game era, starting off with simple text based stories like Zork and the aptly named Adventure, before growing into basic point and click games that followed the same structure, but this time with graphics like in Mystery House. LucasArts joined in on the action in 1987 with Maniac Mansion, made using their SCUMM game engine, followed by The Secret of Monkey Island, both critically acclaimed titles. Thimbleweed Park is a spiritual successor to Maniac Mansion that retains its charm and comedic value, but upgrades the tried and tested formula in ways that make it clear that it's not your standard point and click adventure in 2017: it's so much more.
Thimbleweed Park places you in the shoes of two protagonists; Agents Ray and Reyes, two detectives investigating the murder of an unknown businessman in the small town of Thimbleweed Park. You swiftly discover that not everything is as it seems, however, with the sheriff seemingly out to prevent you from fulfilling your duties as detectives. Three more characters, suspects, become playable, reliving parts of their lives via flashbacks: Ransome the Clown, Delores, and Franklin. The story feels like it's Gilbert and Winnick's interpretation of a cheesy crime show where you must eliminate potential suspects by asking the citizens of the town probing questions which subtly become more so as the agents are cluing on to what the town is trying to hide.
It wouldn't be a Gilbert/Winnick game without an abundance of puzzles, and that's exactly what you get with Thimbleweed Park. There's plenty of ways to go about things; it's fairly non-linear in terms of the order puzzles need to be solved in, and none of them are particularly illogical. Sure, you need to essentially leave your brain outside of the box and try to think of some truly obscure solutions, but you're never left feeling cheated that a solution was too nonsensical. As per the older SCUMM games, everything you do revolves around the nine verbs like "Use", "Talk To" and "Pick Up". Combine items by using one with the other, put them in your inventory by picking them up. In terms of the mechanics, they're as simple as they come.
There were a few times we thought that we were truly stuck or had essentially 'snookered' ourselves by doing something wrong and having to reload an earlier save, but we soon learned that's one of the aspects that Thimbleweed Park truly excels at; you cannot get stuck, the solution will always be available to you if you keep searching and trying different combinations. Some items require an eagle eye to spot and there's no hint system like in the Monkey Island remasters, but taking a break then revisiting the game often provides the fresh mind you need to figure out the answer. There's also two separate modes which is new for Ron Gilbert's adventures; casual and hard. On casual, the characters drop much more blatant hints for what to do next, along with easier and fewer puzzles overall. If you ever forget where you are, each playable character carries a handy notebook or to-do list that can be referred to at any point, and is checked off as you complete different tasks.
As expected, the game is absolutely chock full of references to previous games, itself, real people and more. Quotes like "If this were a Sierra Online graphic adventure, I'd be dead by now," and "These bags look like an adventure game red herring," are just two lines randomly picked from a script full of humour and laughs. One example of a throwback reference is the name of the game company Delores wants to work for; MMucasFlem Games, or another less subtle one being the option to give your name as Guybrush Threepwood when somebody asks. There's also a lot of fourth wall breaking that goes on, such as early on when Agent Ray remarks that the corpse you're there to investigate is "starting to pixelate", or being able to ask multiple characters if they like adventure games.
What's so wonderful about Thimbleweed Park though is that despite all the in-jokes and references, obscure puzzles and hard to find items, it's still very accessible for a newcomer to the genre. Each resident of the town has a certain charm about them, even Ransome the Clown with all his insults. The sheriff/coroner/hotel manager mini-mystery is so intriguing and strange, that alone will have you coming back for more. Even the two agents who you think are as straightforward as they come seem to be hiding something and if you are a point and click newbie, just play on casual mode. The only thing you miss out on is a few puzzles and dialogue options, and likely some headaches too. The map you gain becomes a huge timesaver too, allowing you to quickly get to any destination you like rather than having to walk all the way back past the garage, down the main street and across the highway just to reach the sewers, for example.
Despite having changed art style dramatically from the initial Kickstarter video, the animations and layout are very reminiscent of the golden age of point and clicks and the traditional SCUMM games, just with considerably more detail. Environments can be lit up better, there can be more animations on screen: you get the gist. The voice acting is also impressive, which certainly helps modernise things when compared to older LucasArts titles that didn't have any voice acting whatsoever. Ambient and subtle background noise is provided depending on what's going on, like when you're in the town hall there's some violin backing music, and you have the option to actually ask the sheriff what the deal is with the creepy violin. It still feels just like a traditional LucasArts game, but upgraded to 2017.
Thimbleweed Park has Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick written all over it. It's one of the best point and clicks to come out this side of the millennium, and it's a must-buy for anyone who's familiar with previous games in the SCUMMVM engine. Whenever we got stuck for a while then found the solution, it was always our own fault for missing an item or not picking up on a hint in the dialogue. That said, it's not a completely flawless game; the ending felt slightly rushed and it leaves you longing for more. We completed it in around 12 hours, which isn't short by any means but knowing that it's unlikely there'll ever be a sequel or game from these developers like this again, unfortunately that's a little depressing. Take your time with the game, find every secret and dialogue option there is, then do yourselves a favour and go back and re-play Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. There's something there for everyone in the remote village of Thimbleweed Park.
P.S. When you start the game, turn the toilet paper option to 'over'. You neanderthal.