Pun completely, positively, undeniably intended.
Sam & Max had a hell of a ride before arriving in episodic format. Its first game was a hit, but later attempts at reviving the franchise met with disappointing failure until Telltale, a then relatively unknown developer, decided to pick up the duo for a new series of games that would come out on a monthly schedule. Fast forward a few years, a couple seasons, a few other series, and here we are, Sam & Max Season 3: The Devil's Playhouse. And they have yet to miss their mark.
[image1]The Penal Zone starts the third season of Sam & Max in a confusing manner: right at the end of the episode. We meet up with the Freelance Police held in jail by an intergalactic warlord bent on destroying New York City. Max has apparently developed psychic powers, and through a handful of toys, he can manipulate minds, teleport, and even morph into a variety of items. As soon as the story explains what the hell is going on, the game goes back into time, a la Twilight Zone, back to Sam and Max's street, and the story truly begins.
Anyone who has played the previous Sam & Max seasons knows the series has evolved, in both technical art and comedy. Season 3, right from the intro sequence, is no exception. Environments, characters, and items look much better this time around, along with a much improved presentation that adds some really interesting cinematic effects.
Like past Telltale games, the voice acting and writing are top-notch, making a bunch of allusions to past seasons and featuring many returning characters. Telltale continues to show they know the tone of the Sam & Max's style of humor. From the episode title card to the last name in the credits, it's really difficult not to have a laugh or two.
[image2]Unlike past seasons, players have direct control of both Sam and Max and similar to the Wallace and Gromit games, pointing and clicking moves Sam with Max in tow. Due to his new developing mind powers, once you take control of Max, the game shifts to a first-person view where you can use them on just about every object and person in an environment.
His best ability in the episode, premonition, makes for some of the game's best moments, especially when used on his partner Sam. Sure, seeing events unfolding before you actually figure out the puzzle might seem redundant and annoying, but some of the best humor in the game takes place in these deja-vú moments.
Telltale takes a cue from some gameplay ideas from other genres as well, most notably conversation trees from, say, Mass Effect. Sadly, there are no renegade interrupts, even though Sam carries a gun. The conversation wheel makes the game move with a more dynamic pace, even though it's really an interface change to the old question list format of past seasons.
[image3]Puzzles thankfully revolve around Max's newfound abilities. You're often blocked by inaccessible places, so creative use of some of those powers is essential. The subtle hint system makes a welcome comeback, not that the puzzles are very difficult to figure out. Sadly, there really isn't a dialogue puzzle to be found, but I have hope they'll make a return in later episodes.
Sam & Max Episode 1: The Penal Zone is a damn good start for their newest season and if past seasons are any indication, The Devil's Playhouse is well worth booking a ticket from the get-go. Not that there's much of a choice other than ordering the entire season at Telltale's website or PSN for $35.
Given Telltale's record for producing excellent games, returning fans shouldn't even think twice about picking up this first chapter for Chapter 3. But if you are a first-time adopter, a demo of the game might be worth checking out, if not just to see if its type of humor is up your alley. Phew, I made it through the review without making a wisecrack about The Penal Zone! Oh wait... *sigh*