Have you ever noticed how pirate gold seems to curse everyone involved, from the backstabbing buccaneers themselves to those who devote their lives to searching for it? That's definitely true of Willy Morgan and the Curse of Bone Town, by Italian developers imaginarylab, though here the curse is more of the Monkey Island sort. Indeed, references to the LucasArts classics abound, and the game wears its traditional roots like a badge of pride. There are quirky puzzles and eccentric characters in abundance, presented with an appealing gusto and breezy humour. Overall, it's an interesting blend of vintage and modern, with highly polished graphics and music layered on top of what is, at its heart, a surprisingly conventional adventure experience that is over all too soon.
Even though the teenaged Willy is the son of two famous archaeologists, both prone to dashing off around the world in search of mysterious artifacts at the drop of a hat, Willy himself has always been more the shy retiring type, preferring school books to exploring. Today, however, on the tenth anniversary of his father's disappearance, all that's about to change. Mr. Morgan, you see, was hot on the trail of the infamous pirate Captain Kidd's long-lost bounty when he vanished in nearby Bone Town, and a letter has just arrived for Willy telling him to come to the ominously named Dead Man Inn, where all will be revealed. Even as a committed bookworm, how can he turn down the chance to find out what happened, and maybe nab some sweet pirate loot while he's at it? First, though, he'll have to reassemble his bike, which has lain unused so long that the parts have found all manner of household uses. Graduation can wait; it's time to set off on an adventure!
The visual presentation is a delight, taking a detailed and largely realistic pre-rendered 3D world and giving it a cartoonish twist, with bulging buildings, bowing bookcases and odd angles everywhere. The opening cutscene in particular could be the prelude to a Pixar movie, with its swooping views over the endearingly wonky modern city where Willy lives. A lot of love and attention has clearly gone into creating a world that's at once recognisable and yet delightfully off-kilter, which is reflected in the skewed perspectives and weird proportions.
Where Willy's home is almost normal, Bone Town is a curious place, seemingly having become trapped in the past while the modern world crept up around it. The moment Willy staggers into the inn, having crashed his still-not-entirely-roadworthy bike outside, it's clear this is the sort of place where Guybrush Threepwood or Jack Sparrow would feel totally at home, sloshing back the grog and singing bawdy shanties. You almost expect the barman to have a wooden leg and an eyepatch. Head upstairs, though, and you'll find signed photos of Christopher Walken and (just past the suspicious stain on the carpet) a comfortable-looking bedroom – just with a bell rope rather than an intercom, because all this modern-day stuff only goes so far.
After an eventful night, exploring the rest of the town the following morning reveals a similarly eclectic mix of ancient, run-down shops and occasional attempts at modernisation. The whole place has the feel of a western frontier town that grew out of clusters of ramshackle Elizabethan wood-beamed buildings, leaning perilously close to each other in places. The dilapidated remains of a fun fair rub shoulders with a psychedelic music shop run by an ageing hippie, while the town blacksmith alternates between shoeing horses and repairing cars. He's not the quickest mechanic on the block: a passing motorist wound up waiting so long to get under way again that he stayed and decided to set up an amusement arcade masquerading as a bar. The arcade, with its vending machines and 3D printer, is one of the few outposts of modernity in this town that time forgot. That said, there are oddly brand-new and shiny copper gutters everywhere, installed by the mayor (your father's childhood friend) as a cheap alternative to replacing the failing water supply.
The soundtrack is nicely varied, ranging from gentle harpsichord melodies to a bouncy carnival feel, with some funky bass grooves for the hippie to chill out to. The voice acting, however, is often bland and unnatural. Willy's actor does a pretty solid job, but the rest of the cast often struggle to inject much emotion. The characters’ English is more than a little quirky – often oddly formal, with some unusual word choices – and that took a bit of getting used to, both for me and (I suspect) the actors. However, over time it just added to the feeling of being somewhere new and strange.
So far so 21st century, but underneath the high-res graphics and crisp music, Willy Morgan is as much of a blast from the past as Bone Town itself, just without the need to stay upwind of the sewage smell. Everything's reassuringly familiar, starting with the interface: you left-click to interact, right-click to look, and your inventory runs along the bottom of the screen (being hidden until revealed with a keystroke). Then there's the map, given to you by the innkeeper as a much-appreciated guide to the town's meandering streets and a quick way back to the places you’ve been. There's even a save system with all the slots you could want, though the lack of an autosave feature might catch out those used to just continuing where they left off. Finally, pressing space will highlight all the available hotspots.
This classic sensibility also extends to the puzzles, which send you on a convoluted mission to uncover the fate of Captain Kidd's ship and crew. Along the way, you'll find yourself committing all manner of minor mischief, from sending the innkeeper off on a wild goose chase to tricking a restaurateur and forging your family tree. Not to mention struggling to obtain five cents for some jelly beans and vandalising the local church. (It's just as well it’s all in a good cause, really, otherwise he'd be run out of town!) These tasks generally strike a good balance, being tricky enough to be interesting without requiring hair-pullingly left-field solutions. Despite the comic plot, there's little cartoon logic here. There's also no hint system as such, but there are some subtle clues scattered about to point you in the right direction and make connections between seemingly unrelated areas.
Willy's early bike maintenance issues make for a slow start, but once he makes it to Bone Town the story really starts to pick up steam. It's an endearingly unusual place, full of oddball denizens to go with its wonky architecture. Aside from the pantomime villain of the piece, the people you meet are full of bizarre enthusiasms rather than malice, with one devoting his life to finding someone worthy of eating his great-great-grandfather's delicious cookie, and another neglecting his pharmacy to develop a new soft drink that bears a striking similarity to Coke. Even with some slapstick and a few pratfalls, though, the experience is rarely laugh-out-loud funny and more light-hearted. I found myself smiling rather a lot during my four hours or so in Willy's company, and the overall innocence and lack of sarcasm was pretty refreshing.
The story does a good job of slowly drawing you in to the underlying mystery and fleshing out the characters while still leaving much unexplained. From Captain Kidd's boozily artistic map-maker Raleigh to the surprisingly bookish fisherman-cum-pirate Teach, a picture emerges of a motley but interesting crew whose descendants have washed up in Bone Town and still exhibit echoes of their ancestors' traits. While they have largely forgotten about the pirate gold in their past, though, it turns out that someone in particular has not, and is literally tearing the town apart to find it.
Unfortunately, just as the plot is all starting to come nicely to a boil, with Willy hot on the trail and the bad guys nipping at his heels, everything comes to an abrupt end in a painfully short final act. Instead of twists and turns, there's a straight run to the finish, giving you little time to appreciate one of the most spectacular environments in the game and leaving many important questions (to me, at least) unanswered. I'd honestly have preferred to end on a cliffhanger and be left to anticipate a sequel than have everything wrapped up so quickly and neatly.
That said, the fact that I was sitting there wishing for more as the credits rolled says a lot about how well Willy Morgan works while it lasts. Such classic point-and-click adventures with high-end production values have become increasingly thin on the ground lately, and it's great to know that there are still developers out there who love the genre. With its lusciously detailed stylised graphics and jaunty soundtrack, it's both refreshingly unusual and entirely traditional at the same time. Expect a bit of a letdown at the end, but if you have a hankering for good-humoured high jinks and entertaining puzzles, it might be time to set sail for Bone Town.