Ever since Monkey Island 3, every new adventure game has been labelled a death knell for the genre, a swansong, and (somewhat unfairly), most have been judged as such. The truth is, the genre is alive and kicking, it just doesn't move as swiftly as its counterparts in the first person shoot 'em up field. It's alive and well, have no fear. With Stupid Invaders just about to be released in this country, and now Escape From Monkey Island, it's a surprisingly busy Christmas period in fact, and a welcome change. Escape From Monkey Island, like its predecessors, is a very funny game. But unlike those previous adventures, it takes on a wholly 3D perspective, using an updated version of the Grim Fandango engine, abandoning the once-great SCUMM system for which Lucasarts became known. The conversion to 3D is faultless, and familiar characters like Otis and Elaine look splendid in their multi-dimensional threads. Guybrush himself is slighty stouter than I remember him, especially after spending time with the elongated characters of MK3, but when coupled with his new setting looks perfect. Elaine is beautiful, and new characters like Mr. Cheese and the villainous Charles Le Charles have been painstakingly modelled. The style is remniscent of Grim Fandango, but different. The cartoony, piratey world of previous adventures is retained, dousing red hot fears that Lucasarts might opt for a more 'realistic' approach with soothing rush of insult firefighting no doubt. The other benefit of using the Grim engine is that control is entirely keyboard based. There's no 'look for an object you can click on and select it' here, you control Guybrush with the cursor keys and wander around the Tri-Island area. The various locations are modelled in true 3D but with superbly-rendered textures. The placement of the camera is perfect in more or less every situation, with none of the obscuring angles that were occasionally criticized in Grim.
Actually, the camera angles make EMI incredibly easy to control. You move Guybrush to and fro, and whenever he nears something that he can interact with, a textual description of it appears at the bottom of the screen. If more than one item is available, it joins the list, and when you have scrolled down to the description you want using the Page up and down keys, you either Use, Examine or Pick them up, Your inventory is now cyclic, rather like Tomb Raider's, so that when you are examining the contents you move them round and round in an invisible circle until you've selected what you want. This system is simple and effective in every situation. For instance, you find yourself stuck in a bank vault with an open safety deposit box, a broken sword and some sea sponge. You examine everything and decide the best thing to do is try and break the door off its hinges to escape. You break one hinge with the sword but the other one seems a bridge too far, so you cycle through the inventory and find the bits of sponge, selecting them and thinking 'I'll wedge those in the gap'. You select a small piece, select 'Use small sponge with lower hinge' with the Page up and down keys, hit enter and Guybrush shoves it in. I won't spoil the rest of the puzzle, but like every puzzle and conversation in the game, the intuitive control system never intrudes upon the player's actions. In previous games I'd thought 'sod it, this is too fiddly'... not here. As usual the superb graphics and effective controls are accompanied by some lovely music. Some piratey tunes from the previous games are rehashed, and there are also original tunes, with hip and happy rhythms. The voice-acting is also very good, with some sterling performances from Guybrush and Elaine in particular. In fact, I didn't encounter even one character whose voice I disliked. The deliverance of the lines is crucial to make the gags count, and at times it's utterly superb. The first time you talk to the barman in the SCUMM Bar, for instance, you get bored of begging him for free booze and express a need to 'go'. "Aye, well, grog'll do that."
Of course, a game like Escape From Monkey Island doesn't sell on programming excellence alone, it needs to be well written and funny. Although some of the jokes are a bit too self-referential (this really is a game for fans of the series by the way), on the whole it's good, solid humour. There aren't as many belly-laughs, but everything is amusing, and at times laugh-out-loud so. The plot is as imaginative as Monkey Island ever was. An Australian land developer is buying up properties in the Tri-Island area and redeveloping them. Where he can't buy, he is forcing the deeds out of unwilling sellers by humiliation. Each owner tends to be an expert in a certain field, such as Insult Arm-Wrestling, and when the Australian defeats them, they hand over the deed in shame. Insults, it seems, have become a way of life for the Islanders, with most activities now revolving around them. Insult Sword-Fighting remains, but there is also the aformentioned Insult Arm-Wrestling amongst other things. The immediate problem for Guybrush though, is that he has returned from his honeymoon with Elaine to discover that her position is at stake. The islands have assumed that she is dead, and moved to elect her replacement. Your job at first is to try and get a restraining order to stop her mansion being pulled down and then to try and get her back into office! The game develops from there, and eventually you end up back on Monkey Island, and as the name of the game implies, it's a helluva job to get off it again.
Being an adventure game, there's no risk. You can't die, you can only make the mistake of not completing tasks in the right order. Until you do, progress will be haulted. The game is at times very difficult too, so you are given plenty of opportunity to try and figure out just what the heck to do and take everything in, like the Termite Circus on Lucre Island. The puzzles are as I said damnedly difficult, but they do have a sort of bizarre logic behind them all. You may be stumped, but the feeling of elation when you finally work it out easily counter-balances the frustration you may feel in the process of extracting a solution. Unorthodox solutions like the 'Use monkey with wrench' puzzle from MI2 are also fairly rare - unless you're inexperienced with this type of game, there won't be more than a handful of occasions where you really have no idea what to do. And even if you aren't sure, it's worth persevering, because Escape From Monkey Island's system of rewarding the player is second to none. Places like the tourist shop for Guybrush memorabilia shop offer an incredible opportunity for self-indulgence and in-jokes that only veteran players will 'get'. If you have played any of the other three games, EMI will encapsulate you. Even if you haven't, I would be surprised if you find it easy to put down. Not only is EMI funny, beautiful, easy on the ears and challenging enough to keep you occupied for hours on end, it's built on a strong story with a beginning, a middle and an end. EMI really is an adventure gaming novel, so to speak, and one well worth reading.
I've been playing Escape From Monkey Island for nearly three weeks now, and although I have finished it, I'm still going back over bits here and there to relive a few moments. As with most adventure games, it's startlingly linear, but don't you dare let that rob you of the experience; this is a game that should be bought, played and cherished. I imagine that as with the previous titles, in a few months time I will dig it out of the draw and play through it again. It's just one of those games.