The year is 1987. Someone has been murdered in the town of Thimbleweed Park. You play as FBI agents Ray and Reyes who have been assigned to the case. You must interview the strange inhabitants of the town, explore dark alleys, quite possibly get food poisoning, and find out what’s going on.
Thimbleweed Park is a Kickstarter success created by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. It can be described as a “new classic” point and click adventure game. It’s the spiritual successor to the pair’s LucasArts games from more than 25 years ago, like Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. You’ll recognize the use of action verbs and the quirky sense of humor. As the story progresses, you play as five different characters: Agent Ray, Agent Reyes, Ransome the Clown, Delores, and her father, Franklin. The game launched on PC/Mac/Linux in March 2017 but it’s making its Switch debut this week.
As we are finding with more and more games, the Switch port is fantastic. There really isn’t a better way to play Thimbleweed Park than with the port’s full touch screen capabilities. You tap the screen and hold. The game will show all available hotspots, which is a huge help when trying to figure out which objects are interactive. You can swipe with two fingers to skip dialog or Swipe with three and you can skip a cutscene. It’s fast and easy to select items and dialogue options using the touchscreen, and I stopped using the Switch controls early on.
Thimbleweed Park includes an easy and a hard mode. Because there’s no danger of death, clearly stated by a character breaking the fourth wall at the beginning of the game, these difficulty levels are based only on game duration and puzzle complexity. For example, the town’s arcade and the features within are only available in hard mode. This mode also adds additional requirements for many objectives. Some hard puzzles require the use of money or the memorization of a number that a character might already have access to in the easier difficulty setting. Easy mode can take about 7-10 hours to complete and playing at the tougher difficulty adds enough new content to double the play time. If you really want to experience the full game that you spent your hard earned money on, there’s no reason to play easy.
If you are too intimidated by tough puzzles to play at the harder setting, never fear. A recent update includes an in-game hint system. Early on in the game, you’ll find fliers posted around town advertising this service. Use any working phone in Thimbleweed Park, and you can get a helpful nudge in the right direction. The addition of this system feels seamless, as the same phones are required to solve other puzzles in the game. You’ll find yourself using your phone and phone book to track down important NPCs, so it makes sense that you can use the same system for a little extra assistance.
Thimbleweed Park is a throwback to the adventure games we grew up playing, and its meta writing doesn’t let us forget. At one point, I tried to pick up a pile of junk and Agent Reyes said, “I don’t have a warrant for adventure game red herrings.” Classic point-and-click games are often criticized for including pixel hunting elements. Players complain that a false sense of difficulty is created when the solution to a puzzle is a tiny object only a few pixels wide, hidden somewhere in the background. Thimbleweed Park’s response? A game objective that consists of collecting dozens of pixel-sized specs of dust. Literal pixel hunting. Sometimes, these meta elements felt overdone, but I generally enjoyed them.
Despite its frequent comparison to Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Thimbleweed Park never got dark enough for me. I wish they would have taken the noir-esque theme and run with it. The main storyline has the potential to get weird – there’s murder, madness, and corruption. But it never gets there. Secondary characters keep talking about how strange the town has gotten recently, but we don’t get the opportunity to experience much of the strangeness to which they refer. There are bits of paranormal activity, but they aren’t spooky. The madness doesn’t feels menacing enough. The theme never quite gets to where it has the potential of going.
Part of me wonders if the development team simply ran out of time to flesh out the game as much as they wanted. This can be a significant problem with KickStarter projects, as turnaround time is important when the money of dedicated fans is on the line. One of the latest updates allows you to have conversations between playable characters, something that should have been there since the beginning. It helps to make the cooperation between characters feel more cohesive. Gilbert made comments in a recent blog post about trying this during initial production, but they dropped the idea.
I also think it would be beneficial to include additional dialogue lines when using incorrect action verbs. One example of how this detracts from gameplay is listening to Delores say, “I can’t open that. I can’t open that. I can’t open that,” as you are trying to figure out if you can get into any of the kitchen cabinets. Even switching between, “I can’t open that,” and “Hmm… this doesn’t work,” would sound more natural and reactive. The repetitiveness instantly ages the game in a negative way. Maybe additional dialogue options and more in-depth writing will be added as updates are released, but we haven’t seen any hints of that coming.
Nevertheless, Thimbleweed Park is an enjoyable ride down memory lane for fans of old school adventure games. The meta humor is enjoyable and the full touch screen controls make gameplay easier than ever. Playing on PC might give the player the fully evocative experience, but I recommend this Switch port with touchscreen controls. The game is best enjoyed on hard mode, as easy mode cuts out a significant amount of content. Also, make sure to keep the game updated.
A Switch review copy of Thimbleweed Park was provided by Terrible Toybox for the purpose of this review