Sam & Max: The Devil's
Playhouse - The Penal Zone
Sam and Max are back in another season of episodic adventure games! Expanding upon the established point-and-click formula explored in Sam & Max - Culture Shock and following episodes, the first game in The Devil's Playhouse season, The Penal Zone, lets you see things through the warped perspective of Max. Yes, it's as crazy as you think, if not more so. But it's still a lot of adventuring goodness with the duo's characteristic sense of humor slapped on every object and situation.
Summing up the Sam & Max series to the uninitiated is a bit like rattling off the CliffsNotes version of a Tom & Jerry cartoon with the epic scope of Lost. Here it goes: Sam is an anthropomorphic dog-like critter with the rumbled wardrobe of a Raymond Chandler character and a nose for justice. Max is an unsettling, impulsive lagomorph with no wardrobe to speak of and the attention span of a six-year-old on pixie sticks. Together they are Sam & Max, the Freelance Police, who solve crimes with a flair for wacky mayhem and a broad disregard for property rights and public safety. Sam & Max's road to gaming stardom began with a classic LucasArts adventure title, and more recently, they became stars of the flagship series for Telltale Games' venture into episodic adventure games.
After a series of increasingly bizarre cases, which involved mass hypnosis, the bureaucracy of Hell, and Max's election the the Presidency of the United States, our heroes have made an accidental discovery: toys are awesome. And certain toys are really awesome, especially for those with "special" brains like Max. It seems the galaxy is littered with Toys of Power, which enable gifted wielders to exhibit cockamamie, paranormal psychic powers. And everybody wants them, including, as we discover in Episode 1: The Penal Zone, a General Skunkape, an alien uber-gorilla with a suave baritone and possibly hostile designs on Planet Earth.
The marquee new feature to the Sam & Max series is the inclusion of Max's psychic puzzles, a bold shakeup of Telltale's standard adventuring formula. Most of the time you control Sam, clicking on various objects and dramatis personae to examine, acquire, and speak with them. Click and drag to move Sam, or just use the [WASD] or [arrow] keys. You can examine your inventory by clicking the cardboard box in the upper corner.
To use Max's powers, click on the shield and switch to seeing the world through Max's warped point of view. Here you can rotate with the [WASD] or [arrow] keys about a fixed, first person perspective and pick which of Max's available powers you want to use. You can also pause and go to the game menu with the [esc] key. With the addition of Max's powers, use the traditional adventure-gaming skills of interrogation, examination, and item gathering to figure out what Skunkape is up to, and to discover Max's ultimate destiny.
Analysis: I can only conclude that Telltale believed that gracefully introducing new players to the convoluted backstory of the Sam & Max universe was an impossible goal, and opted instead for sudden, chaotic immersion. The intro to The Penal Zone is the most wonderfully disorienting experiences I've ever encountered in a game. It begins at the end of the game, for one (and it's not even the right ending). You are imprisoned aboard Skunkape's ship, Skunkape is busily destroying New York, and a disembodied brain is telling you to do strange things to liberate yourselves. There's also the matter of a cryptic, Rod Serling-like narrator, giving what turns out, amidst the chaos, to be a useful tutorial to the ins and outs of the game. My only consolation to any neophytes who may find themselves overwhelmed is that veterans of the series are likely just as confused (though they'll recognize some familiar faces, at least). My advice to new and old players alike is to ride with the insanity, because the insanity is a perfect distillation of what makes Sam & Max great.
Sam & Max's world has gotten a bit of a visual overhaul, thanks to what the game calls "the mayor's new city-dirtification program." Gone are the bright, plasticine textures of previous entries. Characters are more detailed and expressive, and environments are grittier. The new designs really enhance the outlandish decrepitude of Sam & Max's universe, without compromising its energetic, cartoony brio. The background music is all-new as well, though it still alternates between edgy jazz and campy sci-fi music, perfect for the mood and spirit of the game.
The big question for fans of the series concerns Max's powers. How well do they really work for the game? Pretty well, actually! I was concerned that "psychic powers" wouldn't mesh with the canon, but sci-fi is no stranger to Sam & Max, and the powers are executed with such madcap bluster that they fit right in. A Silly-Putty knockoff called "Rhino-Plasty" lets Max change shape, a toy telephone lets you teleport with phone numbers, and a 3D View-Master-like toy lets you see the future. Something about the mix of cheesy childhood nostalgia with the paranormal makes what could have been a klunky fit feel entirely natural. The Toys are also responsible for some slick puzzles, my favorite involving the neutralization of two of Skunkape's "research assistants" with nothing but a clever application of Max's powers. My one complaint is that it can be a little tedious using Future Vision on everything in the game, which is about the only way of determining what bits of future insight are necessary for solving puzzles.
Another question is whether the series, in its third season, is still funny. Yes, says I! A lot of the humor comes from marinating in the overall strangeness of the story, but there are several laugh-out-loud moments as well ("In case anyone was curious, second is licking," was particularly well-played). It helps that the voice acting remains top-notch, especially for the cast of familiar extras. Newbies may be a little perplexed by the surfeit of regular characters, but the game does a fairly good job of introducing them, and generally avoids too many inside jokes and winking references.
The Penal Zone is an excellent introduction to the new season, The Devil's Playhouse. It shows that the new powers system works, while promising more tantalizing things to come. As a Sam & Max fan from way back, I can say I'm excited to see where the series is going.