A long long time ago, in a galaxy that’s actually not that far if you take a left at Ursa Minor, there was this company called LucasArts that had an entire division comprised of the best and brightest minds of gaming to date. Tim Schafer, Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman—three giants who were so successful at their jobs that the mere uttering of their names induces feelings of happiness and good will toward the world. They made such games as Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle and, most importantly, Sam & Max Hit the Road, an adventure game staring a slightly overweight talking dog and a hyperkinetic rabbit thing as they travel all over the world to solve crimes in the most outlandish and funniest ways possible. It was nothing short of hilarious, and the duo were the stars of the adventure gaming world!
Of course, like all good things, it had to come to an end. When LucasArts realized that they didn’t need to spend so much money on all that overrated “game development” business and could just slap the name “Star Wars” on anything to make it sell, the company kicked out all of the greatest minds of videogaming. Several attempts were made to revive Sam & Max, but none of them were ever released, until an angel descended from the heavens, taking the form of an independent game developer named Telltale Games. They brought on Sam and Max, as well as their creator Steve Purcell, and they started releasing episodic adventure games starring America’s favorite (and only) dog and rabbit-thingy duo!
And they kicked ASS! The characters were amazingly realized, the voices were well acted, it was funny as hell, and since then Telltale has become a very well-known name in the games industry for making comedic games in a genre whose gameplay mostly comprises rubbing things together till the story progresses. So, with the release of their new game, The Penal Zone, have they made lightning strike thrice? Or did the third lightning bolt cause a massive heart attack that resulted in instant death, yet also cause a horrible but misunderstood abomination to walk the earth?
Well, the answer is SHUT UP AND I’LL TELL YOU! I’m trying to give a review here, and you had to go off and read all that boring exposition and tortured metaphors. Jesus.
OK, I guess we should start at the beginning.
Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Episode 1: The Penal Zone, Part 1: The Return of the Jedi-*GASPFORAIR*.
OK, so SMTDPTPZ puts you in the shoes of Sam, a crime-fighting giant talking dog with a fixation for long-winded anecdotes and donuts, and Max, a bipedal sociopathic rabbit thingy with such a huge row of razor-sharp teeth that you wonder what he had to eat to evolve into that, as they are currently in the clutches of General Skun-ka’pe: an alien ape who is hell-bent on destroying the Earth. You eventually get Sam and Max out of confinement, turn Max into a bazooka, and defeat the main villain, in what you uneducated masses might call “the ending.” I’m not sure what they were trying to do here; presumably spoiling the ending would be a joke of sorts, but this is played with a straight face, so I’m not too sure.
You soon find out from the narrator from The Twilight Zone that the previous scene was just a glimpse of the future that Max experienced after grabbing one of the “toys of power,” which are mysterious toys that give Max psychic powers. The pair soon see Skun-ka’pe land his battleship in the middle of their street with a message of peace and laughing babies, and they set off to discover the truth behind Skun-ka’pe and the toys of power. They save the world from destruction by causing more destruction!
The plot is your typical Sam & Max adventure, but a few moments seem like they are actually trying to give this game a deep storyline, which I don’t approve of. Come on you guys; I thought Sam & Max were supposed to lampoon tropes, not become them! Thought you could slip the word “Yog-Soggoth” past me, eh?
Let’s cut the foreplay guys and gals: I LOVE the Sam & Max series! From the old cartoon to the games Telltale’s been putting out, they all feature a hilarious subversive sense of humor that’s extremely anarchic and parodies everything from child actors to vampires. But like a well-designed sculpture with tarantulas all over it, problems arise when you actually touch these games. Adventure games don’t have what you would call “innovative gameplay” (or, rather, gameplay at all), so it’s not surprising that people stopped playing them. For this reason, I’ve got to hand it to Telltale; Max’s powers might possibly be the greatest idea ever conceived by a team of human beings until we perfect the orgasm pill.
Max’s newfound psychic abilities can be used anytime, anywhere, and on almost anything, and they play a big part in solving the problem of most adventure games—the aforementioned random item-rubbing to progress the plot when you’re stuck. Max starts off with the ability to see a small glimpse of the future, which eventually just turns into an extra hints system, but once again I tip my hat to Telltale for putting in some diabolical jokes involving this power. Max’s second power is the ability to teleport to any phone number he knows—which is a really specific prerequisite for this power. It’s like having the power to turn yourself invisible, but only when you stick a live mackerel down your pants. Regardless, it’s still pretty damn cool; it removes some of the running around and offers some unique puzzle-solving that actually requires your brain instead of random guesswork.
Where Sam and Max truly succeed in their comedy is how they parody the standard buddy cop trope of one cop being the crazy loose cannon and the other being the straight man who can reel him in and provide something for him to flick flesh-eating scarabs off of him. While Max fills the role of the loose cannon and Sam acts as the straight man, there are so many moments where you can’t tell which one is more insane. Hell, one time Sam almost [SPOILER SPOILER OH GOD SPOILER] shot his past self when it called him fat [ALL CLEAR! I REPEAT! ALL CLEAR!]. Luckily, Sam and Max remain unchanged, playing off of each other and going about their business, not caring about the ramifications of their actions and hilariously screwing with the laws of physics like they always are. Though I wonder how they still seem able to find work.
Oh, and the game also features the same annoying control scheme as Tales of Monkey Island, but I honestly don’t notice it so much now. It was probably implemented to help with the iPad and console versions. Hmmm…this must be what Stockholm Syndrome feels like.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Justin, stop riding Telltale like a mechanical bull at a gay cowboy bar! Get to the hate already!” I’m honestly offended you would even suggest that! I am an unbiased critic (e-mail:email@example.com) whom wouldn’t even dream of kissing up to a developer (ivehadwritingfeaturedpleaseemailme) just for the possibility of getting his foot in the door of the games industry–OH CHRIST I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE PLEASE HIRE ME! I’M A GOOD WRITER AND I’LL BRING YOUR SLIPPERS IN EVERY MORNING! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!
OK, there are some negative points I want to talk about.
While I do like these new powers, the problem is that those are the only ones you use! OK, sure, you can play around with the Rhinoplasty that lets Max turn into any inanimate object he smears it over, and the deck of playing cards that lets him read minds, but you only get to use these powers twice before the game snatches them away from you. Come on Telltale, I know coding anything beyond a level transition and a psychic hints system is hard and shit, but you could have skipped a few suppers to at least fully code in the mind reading! A few more nights of hard work voice acting and writing hasn’t killed anybody yet—at least, nobody that EA has told us about.
Although Sam and Max are great, the other characters in this game aren’t as up to par. For starters, there are only three new faces around town: The elusive Grampa Stinky, the alien brain, and General Skun-ka’pe.
Grampa Stinky has got the whole grumpy sea captain act down so well that you’d expect him to have an odd fascination with harpooning whales. Ultimately though, he doesn’t do much else besides grumble at all these new kids today. General Skun-ka’pe is a rather blatant homage to Planet of the Apes, and as such isn’t as outrageous or unique as the other villains of the series. I mean, he’s got some funny moments, but mostly he is just so blatantly evil that even the in-game characters don’t believe his attempts to kiss babies on the head to be earnest. When you put him up to Brady Culture, the shambling corporate presence, or any of the other villains, he just feels one dimensional.
Then there’s Momma Bosco, a character who appeared briefly in the last two episodes of the previous season and now manifests as a ghost/scientist that only serves to give Sam and Max the specific MacGuffin they need to keep the story going. She’s very bland when compared with her son Bosco and his lovely paranoia; they could have just replaced her with a magical treasure chest with rubber breasts attached to it. The only new character I really liked was the alien brain, who was so delightfully juvenile despite being a supposed all-powerful psychic entity. He acts all wise and mysterious one second, and then begs Max to show off his cool new powers the next.
You might be wondering what the rest of the cast is up to, and I would reply “that’s a very good question because they all seemed to have caught the sniffles and phoned in sick.” There’s no sign of Sybil Pandemic, Bosco, Abraham Lincoln, the Soda Poppers, or Jimmy Two-teeth and his Tourette’s syndrome son! I mean what the hell, Telltale; that’s like half the freaking cast! The city feels less like a city and more like a town. A town with a lot of fog and a guy with polygons for a face. Harry Moleman is back, but he’s been reduced from the leader of the mafia to the series punching bag. Stinky, the uncaring manipulative diner lady and representation of today’s youth, is still tending the diner beside her grandfather, but her addition last season wasn’t exactly like mixing chocolate with peanut butter, if you know what I’m saying. The glorious Agent Superball returns, but without a song and dance routine or without retaining any of the deadpan humor that made him funny the last time. I mean, he went from randomly breaking into song and dance and asking the player to rub his unicorn with a straight face to a standard G-man. What happened? Did he just get off a bad relationship and wasn’t feeling up to speed? Did he catch the sniffles like everyone else, but already used up all of his sick days? Did he accidentally mind wipe one of the writers with his MIB sunglasses?
And while there were some chuckle-worthy moments, and even one or two laugh-out-loud moments, the dialogue just wasn’t as punchy as it should have been. I heard the phrase “Yeah…right” in a smug, sarcastic tone a lot, which is just bad humor. To put it in perspective, it’s like asking Santa Claus for a Batman action figure with a kung-fu grip, and getting a Robin action figure with a rocket launcher instead: still pretty cool, but you can’t help but want more.
Also, “The Devil’s Playhouse”? Didn’t we already visit the Devil’s Playhouse in Season 2? Hell, Sam and Max are so buddy-buddy with the devil that they have their own statue down there! I’m not kidding; the lord of darkness himself regards Sam and Max as the greatest heroes of hell, so much so that there is a golden effigy of both of them!
So after all of my bitching and whining, the question remains: is this game worth buying? Well, I suppose it is. It’s got some good laugh-out-loud moments and the psychic powers are definitely a welcome improvement, but it wasn’t as funny as previous seasons, and the town feels noticeably bare. I still love you Telltale Games, and I’m still gonna throw my money into the pot for the season. But I’m watching you, Telltale. I threatened my editor with the possibility to welcome the sweet embrace of death to get an opportunity to play this; you do not want to know what I’m going to do for a review copy of the second one. Let’s hope Paul’s accident will not be in vain.