Review: Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse – Episode 1: The Penal Zone

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Wow … so it is time for another season of Sam & Max already.  I know it has actually been a while now, but the way Telltale has kept us busy with Tales of Monkey Island feels like the last season just ended.  Now we get to launch into yet another series of action-packed episodes with the Freelance Police in more wacky and hilarious adventures.

In general, I will assume that if you are reading this review of Season Three of the Sam & Max series that you already have some passing knowledge of the episodes from the previous two seasons. I still won’t pull a ‘Vader is Luke’s father’ moment that some people who hadn’t seen Empire before Jedi trailers started airing experienced (sorry if I just shocked you and welcome to 1980!), but I will likely drop some names and recurring themes and other minor references throughout. It won’t ruin the experience any more than my having said that Bosco would become a recurring character would have ruined the first episode for you. Please also forgive the repetition, which is necessary for getting readers who are new to the series up to speed – if you’ve read it all before then skip straight to the game quote further down!

Just for a quick background on Sam & Max, the LucasArts game Sam & Max Hit the Road from 1993 was a great mixture of adventure and humor, and has become a deservedly classic milestone in gaming history. After a false start for a series revival by LucasArts and a passionate Internet campaign by the fans, Telltale Games (creators of the excellent Bone series) gained ownership of the license and got straight to work, crafting a series using their adventure builder to tell stories through a point-and-click adventure interface featuring full 3D animation. The move to episodic content was a concern, but true to their word Telltale continue to release new episodes on a regular basis, and in some ways it’s better to be forced to spread the experience out rather than wolf it down in one go. The first two seasons have been excellent in every way, so fans have been excitedly waiting for the return of Sam & Max.

The Sam & Max games use the Telltale tool that the company has developed and perfected over the years. Season Three looks very similar to the first two seasons — perhaps a bit better as the artists have further refined their work processes — but everything looks quite familiar and you’ll immediately feel at home.  The emphasis is on storytelling rather than delivering buzzword compliant technology, so expect loads of dialog and options rather than the latest version of pixel shader models. This is actually a good thing, because so many games focus on delivering a great looking experience that they fail to deliver a great gaming experience. The Telltale Tool aims to do some of both – the game certainly is great looking, but in a 3D comic book style. This means that the world looks much like something out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit; everything looks real but exaggerated.

The 3D styling makes everything look modern and the characters are all nicely animated, to the point where lip-syncing perfectly matches the dialog. The goal isn’t realism so much as believability – I mean, how real do you expect a detective dog and his psychotic lagomorph sidekick to be?! The realism is injected into the dialog – the voice acting is superb and gets better with each passing season and episode! The voice actors really bring a wonderful passion and humor to their characters that makes each of them leap out of the screen and adds tremendous depth to already great stories – and the timing and delivery of the humor is spot on throughout.

The storytelling is where things really shine – the interface just begs you to click things, talk to people and try all sorts of crazy stuff. Quite simply, this is one of the nicest interfaces I have ever used in an adventure game. Everything is easily accessible – options and game saves are quickly located in a screen-level drop down and the inventory system is an ever-present box in the lower corner of the screen. Little things help – saves are done nearly instantly, with each one providing a clear caption and image to illustrate exactly where you were when you saved. Interacting with items is equally easy; the mouse-capture range is adequate for discerning small objects close to each other and you simply click on things to interact. This allows you to talk, flip switches, pick up items and so on – and to use an item in your inventory on another item by simply choosing the item from the box and then clicking on the desired object to interact with. It is incredibly intuitive and friendly – and allows you to focus on laughing!

Although similar to the earlier seasons, Telltale has changed everything up, as is evident from the opening menu screen.  The graphics are sharper and more detailed, and the inventory manipulation system is tighter and easier to control.  The introduction also shows a seemingly darker and more detailed tone, though of course all of that changes very quickly as soon as the antics begin.  I was amazed at how well the developers did at providing a tutorial introduction that also jumps right into the thick of things.

My biggest criticism is how the control adaptation for consoles plays out for the PC version: instead of click & move you need to use a virtual joystick to move around.  It isn’t a huge deal, but it is a bit of a hassle for a long-time adventure gamer such as myself to adapt to an unnecessary control scheme put there to help out with another gaming platform.

As always, there is much zaniness throughout the episode, with Max usually at the center of it all.  It is difficult to talk about much without ruining the fun, but suffice to say that an extraterrestrial gorilla lands in the neighborhood looking to take over the world, and so Sam and Max need to thwart his plans.  Max soon learns he has added tools at his disposal, and some really wild stuff happens as a result.

The character actors jump right back into the action at their highest level yet – everyone is amazingly well done and really bring things to life.  There are interesting new characters and a Rod Serling-like narrator who delivers a juicy-dry performance!  It doesn’t hurt that the humor and overall writing they are given is some of the best in the series.

The puzzles and challenges are generally quite good, but there were a couple that were more convoluted than in Season Two.  It is always a tricky balance between challenge and obfuscation, and I felt that this time there were a couple of puzzles that crossed that line.  The game features a hint system that you can customize to be more or less helpful, but even with those hints a couple of the puzzles were somewhat of a crapshoot. But it doesn’t take away from the overall sense of fun.

And fun is the name of the game for a Sam & Max adventure, and it is here in mass quantities!  Once again the episodes are short … and once again I can’t wait for the next one to arrive!

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Pros:
+ Great graphical improvements
+ Excellent storytelling
+ Top-notch voice acting

Cons:
– Controls are not as efficient
– Some puzzles are obscure

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for Mac and PS3
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 4/15/2010
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!