Thimbleweed Park review: Nostalgic to a fault

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Enlarge / Some of the game’s best moments are when it plays tricks with its mechanics.

The only classic LucasArts adventure game I ever played when it was new was Monkey Island 4, so I suspect Thimbleweed Park wasn’t made with me in mind. With legendary LucasArts designers Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick behind it, as well as a Kickstarter campaign that promised a spiritual successor to Maniac Mansion, this new adventure is decidedly rooted in nostalgia for a different age of adventure games.

Even if I didn’t grow up in the era of The Secret of Monkey Island and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, I know enough to recognize its DNA in Thimbleweed Park. Like the LucasArts games of old, Thimbleweed overflows with pixel art so sharp you might cut yourself. There’s the familiar verb-driven interface that asks you to select actions to “talk to,” “use,” and “look at” various objects in the environment to complete the next series of goals.

Finally, Thimbleweed Park is so full of fourth-wall breaking in-jokes about adventure games and ’80s pop culture that I got the sense the developers were intentionally speaking in code to keep youngsters like me out of the loop. There is, in fact, an entire puzzle based on telling era-appropriate slang apart from ’70s and ’90s jargon to prove how cool you are (the game is set in 1987, for the record).

Even being a child of the ’90s, I found the temporal references to be some of the best gags in this irreverent murder mystery. When it’s at its best, Thimbleweed Park takes its chewy, nostalgic center and twists it into logic puzzles where the references feel interesting as well as simply “familiar.” Sadly, compared to those high points, a lot of this point-and-clicker feels like busywork and pointlessly picking up things to use on other things.

For the hardcore crowd—or not

Strangely (and perhaps thankfully) the game lets you choose how much busywork you want. From the get-go, players can choose between “casual” and “hard” modes (there’s no option for those who want a mid-point “normal” experience, apparently). The former cuts many of the game’s obtuse puzzles and adds a very basic bit of tutorial for people who haven’t played a point-and-click adventure game before, while the latter gives you the “full” Thimbleweed Park experience.

After working through all of the hard mode’s extra puzzles, though, I don’t think I can recommend it. Just as the game is lacquered with late ’80s and early ’90s adventure references, the puzzle design feels like it’s trapped in a past decade. While the game constantly makes meta-jokes about this dated design, that doesn’t actually make it any more fun. A lot of the problems in Thimbleweed Park can only be solved by randomly trawling through pixels on the screen in search of items to use on other items, with no sign of any hints or common sense telling you why (which, as veteran LucasArts players will know, is a pretty authentic recreation of how adventure game puzzles used to play out). Plenty of these brainteasers don’t come with accompanying jokes or characterization, either, and they’re just as frustrating now as they were back in the day.

Over hill and dale

Thimbleweed Park makes a fairly solid first impression by introducing you to federal agents Ray and Reyes, there in the town to investigate a dead body that washed up from a nearby river. Through them I met eccentric townsfolk, like the conspiracy theorist sister plumbers who dress like pigeons and a sheriff clearly pretending to be multiple people.

I even got to be some of these local goofballs. Thimbleweed Park quickly introduces a total cast of five characters, forcing you to switch between them on the fly in order to proceed. The Maniac Mansion-esque manipulation needed to maneuver the different characters with different inventories and personalities into just the right positions started off very promising, but then I actually started doing it and the tedium quickly set in.

Thimbleweed Park isn’t a big place (it’s only 80 people deep, after all), but after I had to move different characters through its winding paths into the same spot and back again two, three, or four times in a row I was already tired of it. Then Thimbleweed Park made me repeat that process for hours.

In one especially egregious example, I had to get a Star Trek-loving NPC to cooperate with me by requiring that I give him a cheeseburger. There’s a diner in Thimbleweed Park, so of course I went there to buy one. The owner wouldn’t sell me the burger until I bought all of their disgusting hot dogs. Since the hot dogs were, in fact, disgusting, no character would eat more than one. So I had to drag four of my five playable cast members to the diner, have them eat a hot dog, watch a cutscene of them barfing in an alley with identical dialogue, then get the burger and bring it back to the nerd. Then I had to walk all of the hot dog eaters back to their respective posts for other puzzles.

Thimbleweed Park does have a kind of fast travel system, but it can only be accessed from a specific location in each major area of the game’s world. That means if you’re on the opposite end of the town’s main thoroughfare, you need to march your character across multiple screens just to reach the place where you can do the “fast” traveling. Multiply that by four characters (the fifth doesn’t do much traveling) and it’s bound to get tedious. Especially when the payoff—eating some rancid hot dogs, for instance—doesn’t really come with any jokes or interesting characterization or story development, which is especially true in the game’s sagging middle third. It all just feels like busywork.

Loss of interactivity

What’s especially frustrating is that I can see the seams where Thimbleweed Park could have filled in more interesting interactions. With a couple of exceptions, the game’s playable party doesn’t really interact in any narratively meaningful ways. Despite the fact that the federal agents, the cursed clown, the spineless ghost, and the heiress computer programmer all have to work together to solve puzzles, they largely act like they aren’t aware of each other’s existence.

There’s no fateful meet-up early in the game to explain why they’re cooperating. They can’t talk to each other, even if you try to force them to with a manual command. Instead, all the main characters just sort of inertly move through each other’s space, silently doing things together.

Having the characters converse and interact would not only be a great place to do some character-building and joke-telling, but it would also be a good place to include some optional hints for the more obtuse puzzles. When my character needed a check stub but simply refused to pick up the very obvious checkbook in front of them, maybe another character could have suggested that I need to open the checkbook first. Instead, those other characters just sort of float around, ghost-like (and I don’t just mean the actual ghost), until the final moment, when they start chatting amiably as if they’d been doing so all along.

That final act regains some of Thimbleweed Park’s early, goofy momentum. It even makes good on the fourth-wall humor in a way that, even though I saw it coming, still managed to make me feel good about constant dated references that didn’t personally connect with me.

But I had to endure a lot of obtuse puzzle-cruft to get to that point. Maybe if I grew up developing a tolerance for putting two items together to make a third, then using that item on another item, I’d be better able to endure that repetitive process today. As it is, I recommend using Casual mode to cut out some of the most tedious parts of the game–though that mode doesn’t completely eliminate the busywork puzzles, the austere silence of the protagonists, or the constant meaningless walking from A to B.

While I know I’m not the kind of die-hard adventure game fan that Thimbleweed Park was likely made for, it’s hard for me to believe even fans of the genre will enjoy the non-intuitive puzzle design and stagger-step character work on display here.

The good

  • Fun, goofy characters
  • Some interesting use of referential humor in puzzle design
  • A strong introduction and conclusion

The bad

  • A repetitive middle chapter
  • Obtuse puzzle design without any diegetic hints
  • Your characters never really feel connected
  • Slowly, tediously moving multiple characters into specific puzzle-solving positions

The ugly

  • Choosing between “Casual” and “Hard” modes leaves you feeling like there’s no good middle ground

Verdict: Try before you buy. Thimbleweed Park is an unabashed adventure game throwback with all the good and bad that brings. When it parlays that love of a bygone era into interesting challenges, it borders on great. When it simply emulates the past, it’s a real slog.

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