Although Thimbleweed Park lets you explore the game how you like, when it comes to puzzle solving, only one solution will suffice. Thimbleweed Park offers a casual or hard mode depending on how much of a purist you are about adventure games. I went with hard mode because I am a Dedicated Games Journalist, and it certainly lives up to its name. Early on, the puzzles mostly make sense. The times when I got stuck were because I’d overlooked something in plain sight, rather than running at odds with the developer’s logic. However, as both the number of characters and areas expand, that logic frays considerably. There was one moment when a character refused to assist on a particularly lengthy puzzle unless I changed the radio station to play theremin music, at which point I wanted to grab him and theremin a bin.
Unless you’re certain you want the full puzzling experience, I’d recommend going with casual mode, because the yarn Thimbleweed Park spins is worth experiencing. The mystery quickly gets its hooks into you with lots of smaller barbs, like why the town sheriff is such a weird-a-reno, and who the hell is watching you through hidden CCTV cameras? Thimbleweed Park also has a powerful sense of place, thanks partly to the beautiful pixel art (and I say this as someone who generally hates pixel art), and partly to how Gilbert and Winnick have managed to nail the kooky small-town vibe. There’s more than a hint of Twin Peaks about Thimbleweed Park, and the game comes off favourably in that comparison.
Where Thimbleweed Park falls down, unexpectedly, is in its humour. I was surprised by how little the script actually made me laugh. There are a few good jokes and plenty of silly references to everything from YouTube to LucasArts itself. But in broad terms, the humour is heavy on sarcasm and light on actual wit. Ransome the Clown embodies this approach, as he squeaks around town crudely insulting everyone and everything in sight. This is amusing in parts, but not as funny as, y’know, actual jokes. Ransome isn’t alone, either, Agent Ray has a similarly venomous tongue, albeit a drier and drawlier one.
This leads me to the broader problem with Thimbleweed Park, which is that the central characters aren’t engaging. Agent Ray has one flat note to her speech, while Agent Reyes is a complete nonentity. Ransome is the most ebullient character (and the best acted). But he’s just too coarse to be empathetic. Franklin has the opposite problem, too wet and watery to stick in the mind. The best character is probably Dolores, and she’s basically, well, normal (for a game developer, anyway).
The problem isn’t merely the characters themselves but the lack of camaraderie between them. Although technically they’re all working towards the same ultimate goal (if for different reasons) there’s very little interaction between the central cast. A bizarre omission is that you can’t talk to the other playable characters once they become playable, so there’s little opportunity for back-and-forth between them. There’s no snappy dialogue exchanges or character embellishing discussions. Instead you’ve got a bunch of cynical, self-centred individuals who happen to be pursuing the same objective.
And this is where Thimbleweed Park feels most departed from the LucasArts stable. Despite my admiration for the plotting, the brain-wringing puzzles, and the beautiful art, Thimbleweed Park left me with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. There’s an unpleasant undercurrent running beneath Thimbleweed Park, a vaguely caustic tone which I found troubling. I don’t know if that’s intentional or not, but it’s definitely there, lurking behind the scattered jokes and pretty, pixelated vistas.
This tainted my experience of the game, but it isn’t a deal breaker. Thimbleweed Park is a thoroughly well made adventure game, one that kept me engaged even as I was ready to gnash a chunk out of my keyboard in puzzle-induced fury. Thirty years on since Maniac Mansion, Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick have still got it, even if what they’ve got has gone black around the edges.