For every 6,000 sequels released only to cash-in on a videogame’s name value (see: GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, Bomberman: Act Zero, and so on) there is—this is a rough estimate—one Sam & Max Season 1, Episode 1: Culture Shock: A new game in an old series that actually lives up to its fans’ expectations. We were scared, and with good reason; it’s over ten years after the fact, it’s made by a new company, and—oh, the horror!—it’s 3D instead of 2D; but rest assured, my dear readers, that Sam & Max is in loving hands.
Following developer Telltale Game’s episodic gaming trend that started with its ongoing Bone series, Culture Shock is the first “episode” of the first “season” of the newly relaunched Sam & Max franchise. It’s meant to mimic an actual television series, and it works, with this first episode telling a brief (but complete) story that appears to fit into what appears to be the overarching story of this season.
The story of this episode is this: Three down-on-their-luck former child actors (think three modern-day Macullay Culkins) (and then set fire to your brain) are causing ruckus in the form of graffiti, free video tapes and psychoanalysis, and its up to the Freelance Police to figure out what up, homeslice. It pans out like an olde tyme detective story, so if you’re after one of those in the form of an olde tyme point-and-clicker, look no further.
Pointing-and-clicking is, of course, how you play the game, poking at various things with your mouse’s cursor to interact with them. Nothing new there, and that is A Good Thing, as—and this is an entirely fresh complaint that I’ve never before written about in GameCola—developers of these sorts of games are big fans of tinkering with the system and screwing it up, so it’s actually refreshing when someone just gets it right.
And that’s not the only thing this game gets right that the others just can’t handle—there’s nary an obnoxious minigame to be found in Culture Shock, whereas other titles love to make you, say (note: The following is an actual minigame in an actual point-and-clicker) thumb wrestle. The only minigame this title offers is shooting out the taillights of innocent cars at random, then pulling over their occupants for driving with an obviously busted taillight. It’s killer. And by killer I mean awesome.
Telltale, however, doesn’t just copy-and-paste all of its gameplay. Innovation-wise, Cultre Shock simplifies the actual pointing and the clicking substantially—you’re not choosing how you interact with an object (be it pick up the object, talk to the object, etc.); you’re just clicking on the object and letting the game decide what you’re doing with it. It cuts back on the amount of options you’ve got in the game and the amount of mental power it takes to solve the game’s puzzles, but, at the very least, it keeps you from getting stuck for weeks because you were supposed to use an object, not pick it up, even though picking the object up clearly was the most logical thing to do, and it’s the communist developer’s fault for not making it so.
Another innovation Telltale offers has a slightly bigger impact on how much fun its game is: When you’re talking with other character, your dialogue options, instead of being your actual potential words, are instead only the topics you could bring up, meaning every single thing you say catches you unawares. It sounds minor, but it gives the developers a lot more room to bring the funny via surprising you, which they take full advantage of.
Speaking of the funny, Culture Shock not only tried but be funny, but actually succeeds in being funny, both of which had, until now, been rumored to be—in videogames, at least—mutually exclusive. There’s plenty of references to the last game, plenty of (good!) one-liners traded by all of the characters, plenty of small things in the background that are hard to notice but are hilarious when you do, and plenty of all-around sharp writing that just isn’t offered in many videogames of any kind.
Of course, there are a few things this game could have done differently. It could have, for example, allowed you to turn off auto-save, which keeps you from losing progress in the event of a computer deathplosion, but also lags up the game considerably (or at least it did for my computer, though, my computer’s about only half as powerful as a broken Game Gear). It could’ve offered The Best Feature Ever—an in-game tips system featured in Bone that keeps you from ever getting stuck. And it could have—this is by far my biggest gripe—used 2D graphics instead of 3D, not only because it’s more in-line with the original title, but because polygons are stupid and ugly. Even their mothers think so. There’s definitely nothing wrong with Culture Shock’s 3D visuals—they’re among the better I’ve seen in point-and-clickers—but the very fact that they’re 3D means they’re lacking, at least to an old fogey like me.
But that totally is the biggest complaint I have with this game, beyond, that is, the fact that it’s only about five hours long. However, you’re paying only $9 for that five hours of gameplay, and when you consider that this is only the first episode of a much longer series, it works itself out in your mind. Culture Shock is, without a doubt, a must-have for point-and-clicker aficionados, and a probably definitely should-have for everyone else. I’m real keen on seeing where Telltale goes with this.