GAME REVIEW – Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Episode 1 – The Penal Zone

By Marty Mulrooney

penalzone

Telltale return to our PC monitors (and also our iPads, PS3s and Macs!) with Sam & Max Season 3: The Devils Playhouse. Episode 1, entitled The Penal Zone, is being released today and quite a few things have changed since we last saw the dynamic duo in action.

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The first thing players will notice about The Penal Zone is that the interface has been somewhat brushed up and altered. No longer are we treated to the old ‘gear’ style menu system that used to pull down from the top of the screen in Seasons 1 and 2.

Instead, the menu is now an accentuated charcoal grey, functional and stylish, yet understated. Subtitles are off by default and you get the option to change your resolution prior to playing. I chose my monitor’s native 1400 x 900 resolution, which was nice as I recently replayed some of Season 1 and  this widescreen resolution was not available, although Season 2 and 3 work just fine with it. Once you finally begin to play, you will instantly notice that the graphics seem to have had quite an overhaul too. The presentation here is a step up from last time, no doubt about it.

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The story begins in a quite bizarre manner, with almost no explanation at all. Sam & Max are prisoners onboard space gorilla General Skun-ka’pe’s spaceship and must use several ‘Toys Of Power’ via the in-game tutorial to send him back to ‘The Penal Zone’. As well as being a somewhat confusing beginning, I found the tutorial to be a slight overkill too. Are we suffering here for the newcomers to the series on iPad, PS3 and Mac? Luckily, when the game begins at the actual, you know, real beginning… it all pays off rather wonderfully. I can reveal no more! But it does pay off to stick with the slightly confusing and underwhelming opening scenes, believe me.

The aforementioned ‘Toys Of Power’ are selectable throughout the game via Max alone, shown in a hilarious first person view that is prone to flashing bizarre images before your eyes. The initial two powers in this episode totally rock too: teleportation through telephones and seeing into the future! Rather than being a mere gimmick, these new gameplay mechanics actually add a fresh injection of originality into the puzzle solving and never outstay their welcome either. I look forward to seeing what other ‘Toys’ Telltale give us over the coming months!

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The rest of the puzzles are great as well but don’t hit their stride until near the end, with the help of the always hilarious COPS and with some dashing around town in the DeSoto thrown in for good measure too. Several familiar faces make welcome returns including the always chuckle-inducing Harry Moleman and Agent Superball. There has even been an overhaul of the dialogue system, which now looks and works much more stylishly with the use of a topic wheel. The story is entertaining and the jokes hit their mark more often than not. Still, one cannot help but feel that this is all a setup for something far more exciting and entertaining further down the line.

Elsewhere, in place of the simplistic yet pristine graphics of the prior Seasons, we are now presented with something altogether more cinematic. Telltale seem to be utilising some kind of post-processing effect to add a subtle layer of grain to the visuals and it really works a treat. Sam & Max have never looked more gritty and gumshoe than they do here. Seriously, boot up an episode from last Season and then come back to The Penal Zone. The difference is like night and day. It isn’t a drastic difference artistically but it does look a hell of a lot smoother and our protagonists are much more effectively animated too. The atmosphere has been successfully dialled up a notch, the world sold to us just that little bit more. It pays off dividends.

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However, something seriously peeved me off from the outset despite these aesthetic improvements. In Seasons 1 and 2 players controlled the game with good old 100% point n’ click controls. Yet here, this is no longer an option at all. That’s right, Telltale have implemented the same control scheme last seen in Tales Of Monkey Island. A control scheme I came to accept in the end, to almost love even. Yet here I was a little annoyed: I mean why remove the old scheme after all this time? The WASD keys now control Sam’s movement instead, with the mouse doing the rest of the work. It just seemed a little silly to me initially and took me a while to accept. You can also control Sam by holding down the right mouse button and dragging a little ghostly analogue stick icon in the desired direction. Which is suspiciously like the touch movement control in the iPad version actually (and many other iPad games for that matter!) Hmm…

Luckily, I soon stopped acting like a sulking child and actually played the game. This new control scheme does work well and players old and new should get used to it in no time at all. Still, I don’t understand why they couldn’t let us have the choice. Is clicking to move really that hard to implement alongside the new controls? I actually received a new Xbox 360 Wireless Controller for Windows the same day as the review code for this game arrived so I decided to take it for a whirl and see if it helped this control situation at all. I was delighted to find that it actually worked a treat with Sam and Max Season 3! Telltale seem to have implemented full controller support at last. Bravo!

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I played the entire game in this manner and found it rather wonderful. (As an adventure gaming purist I feel rather sheepish admitting that actually!) The left analogue stick moves Sam, whilst the right trigger allows hot spots to be highlighted (something I couldn’t even get to occur on the keyboard!), which you can then cycle through and interact with using the face buttons. The inventory also alters its presentation when using a gamepad so it is easier to use items with the environment. You can even switch between control schemes on the fly. It really does work rather well, giving me confidence that the PS3 version will be just as enjoyable an experience as the PC version. The Penal Zone seems specifically tailored for use with a controller and I will certainly be playing the rest of the Season in this manner. I give in to the gamepad!

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Overall, this is a strong start to the new series of Sam & Max. The beginning seems confusing at first but then pays off. The new controls agitate initially before soon becoming second nature. Finally, the vocal talents of David Nowlin and William Kasten never do any less than live up to the larger than life personalities of Sam & Max. I laughed out loud constantly whilst playing for the five hours or so that The Penal Zone lasted. The music is, as always with this series, a jazzy delight.

Just please be aware: this episode is more setup than payoff. Perhaps even more so than Tales Of Monkey Island, Sam & Max lends itself very well to the episodic format. First episodes are never going to reach the lofty heights of a midseason release, but I have faith that Telltale are going to be doing some very exciting things with these characters over the coming months. They even nearly managed to not make a joke referencing the game’s title… but surprise surprise, Max couldn’t help himself in the end! Childish? Perhaps. Hilarious? Most definitely!

8 OUT OF 10

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “GAME REVIEW – Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Episode 1 – The Penal Zone

  1. Symbermine

    Great review!

  2. Jim

    I haven’t had the same experience with xbox 360 wireless controller support. It kinda works but we have found you have to click on items with the mouse a lot of the time and there are glitches like auto scrolling items, etc. I not see any option to adjust settings once the game starts either, or to save it for that matter? This is on the pc.

  3. Jim

    Also finding that the character can walk left but once we release the stick he moves back to the right automatically.

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