Review – Sam & Max: The Penal Zone – The Freelance Police Return!

It’s been fifteen years since Sam & Max’s last appearance on the Mac, in the legendary Sam & Max Hit The Road, released by LucasArts in 1995. It featured side-splitting dialogue, intuitive gameplay, and left an impression on gamers everywhere. But that was fifteen years ago. In the time since, Sam & Max have been left dormant, almost resurrected, left dormant again, and finally, in 2006, resurrected by Telltale Games. PC gamers were treated to a continuation of the Freelance Police’s trademark (mis) adventures, while those with Macs were left out in the cold. But Telltale has finally come around, with the release of Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse for Mac AND iPad, available from Telltale Games ($34.95 for the whole season). While we were unable to test the iPad version due to lack of hardware, we did get our hands on a Mac version.

This installment of the Freelance Police’s adventures has them dealing with Max’s recently acquired psychic powers. The first episode, entitled The Penal Zone, sets the stage for the rest of the season. From the bizarre opening sequence to the shocking ending, this episode is a great way to open the latest season of Sam & Max. One of the main things that make this series so great is the writing, and this episode is no exception. Max is as demented as ever, and Sam is still sprouting random exclamations (For example, “Flint's fists are made of steel, his belly is full of booze, his lungs are a symphony of cigarette smoke and cheap perfume and his brain is awash in regrets and revenge.” “That's one damn poetic nutritional card, Sam.”). Kudos to the voice actors, who put on great performances for our entertainment. The story itself is also extremely amusing. While alien invasions are nothing new as far as storytelling goes, the writers manage to put a good enough spin on the tired tale.

The gameplay is the same as every point-and-click adventure game ever. You use your mouse to point at something you want Sam to focus on, and then click on the object/person. It’s tried and true, but it seems tedious at times when you just want to speed the action up. The usual puzzles and quests are there, but with a twist. The player is now able to use Max’s psychic abilities to solve puzzles and complete missions. It helps make missions more interesting, and shows that you can teach an old genre some new tricks. The classic point-and-click control scheme still works, but you no longer navigate by clicking on the place you want to go. Instead, you drag in the direction you want to go, or use the WASD keys. While this is a slight departure from previous games, it makes you feel like you have full control of Sam.

Another great thing about this game is the art and visual style. The creator of the Sam & Max franchise, Steve Purcell, made sure that the games matched the distinct visual style of the comics. However, as nice as these graphics are, I personally prefer the original style of Hit The Road. But style is a feature that so many games lack today, so Telltale’s games are a welcome relief. Plus, the new season adds a new level of visual detail not present in previous games (i.e. stitching on Sam’s jacket, more detailed character models). And while this is only one episode of a much larger season, there is still a lot to be found here. Clicking on nearly anything will provoke a response from the duo and, on occasion, other characters. I expect that when the season itself is finished, there will be a ton of stuff to do.

Like all Telltale games, the season is made up of 5 individual episodes. The first one, entitled The Penal Zone, involves Sam & Max attempting to save the Earth and Humanity from the wrath of an evil intergalactic warlord named General Skun-K’ape. Max also gains psychic powers, which add immensely to the gameplay and make things very interesting. The second episode, called The Tomb Of Sammun-Mak, has a great premise, challenging puzzles, but has some characters that seem like filler, and don’t really add much to the experience (save for a certain few). The third episode, entitled They Stole Max’s Brain!, is the current standout of the season. Max is missing from this episode, or at least doesn’t really contribute anything. While this could be potentially disastrous, Sam saves the episode by becoming a noir-style detective, and the absence of Max really helps you appreciate Sam and what he contributes. The dialogue was superb, and my only real quarrel with the game was that it was over too soon. At the time of writing, only these 3 episodes have been released. We’ll update this review periodically as each new episode comes out.

However, as with all games, there were a few things that weren’t up to par. One thing was that some of the plotline just seemed too ridiculous at times, even for a Sam & Max game. For example, I have never heard of a giant gorilla going around collecting Mole People for food. Also, some locations you can travel too just seem like filler, and don’t really contribute much to the story, save for a couple of laughs. Plus, there are just a few technical bugs that hampered my experience, such as freezing during the opening credits. But the gameplay and puzzles certainly make up for the more ridiculous aspects of the plot, and the bugs really only appear once, and are then never heard from again.

The Devil’s Playhouse marks a triumphant return for Sam & Max, not just from a two-year hiatus, but to the Mac platform as well. Unless you hate cartoons, irreverent humor, and intuitive puzzle-based gameplay, then I strongly suggest you buy this game, lest the wrath of General Skun-K’ape be upon you! You can buy the entire season for $34.95, but individual episodes do not appear to be available for purchase. To play this game, you’ll need an Intel-based Mac running OS X 10.5 or higher.

Thomas Fogel, Posted 7/1/2010

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