By Marty Mulrooney
The penultimate episode of Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse has finally arrived. Regular readers of AMO will remember that I was slightly disappointed with last month’s effort, feeling that the latter parts of the game were rather safe and cookie cutter. Thankfully, the cliff-hanger ending certainly made up for any prior misgivings, indicating that the next instalment would be a much stronger endeavour. It was therefore with great anticipation that I loaded up Sam & Max’s latest adventure, Beyond The Alley Of The Dolls…
My initial impressions of this new episode were excellent. Grandpa Stinky and Girl Stinky are arguing as usual outside their diner, when Sam, Max and General Skun-ka’pe run past them in a hilarious fashion, terrified. The Stinkys soon join them inside, seeking safe haven from a huge clone army of Sams – referred to as Samulacra… I mean doppelgangers! – that are lurching down the street, upturning cars and knocking down lampposts, leaving general destruction in their wake.
It is undeniably cool to see the gang holed up in Stinky’s Diner, boarded up windows still leaving gaps for various arms to poke through, desperate to find any nearby toys of power. Skun-ka’pe has reverted to a childlike state, rocking back and forth on the floor, useless. Max’s gun is having little effect (as usual). Girl Stinky is busy texting the mysterious S. Yet it is Grandpa Stinky who seems most in control. He is amazingly badass as he suddenly grabs a hidden shotgun, marching to the front of the diner and bringing the pain. It is an opening scene reminiscent of the very best B-movie zombie flicks.
But then the game begins and all of that glorious momentum is lost. The sense of claustrophobia and atmosphere disappears as soon as Sam & Max leave the diner, a few quick puzzles revealing an easy way out. Locations in this episode are connected via a series of tunnels, with the beloved DeSoto not making an appearance for the first time in the series (besides the opening credits and a special treat that I won’t spoil).
It isn’t that the storytelling is bad per se, rather that the grandeur of the storytelling is hampered by some poor design choices. This has been a much darker series for the detective duo, a change of direction that I actually applaud. Yet to therefore have them exploring generic locations such as a dock, a lab and many recycled areas from previous episodes immediately makes the sense of satisfaction gained through exploration and discovery plummet. It is only near the end that our interest perks back up as we finally get something fresh and new on screen… but by that point it may be too late.
There was vast potential here for the doppelgangers to actually feature as an organic part of Beyond The Alley Of The Doll’s puzzles, yet this never comes to fruition. There are some wonderful moments where Sam interacts with one clone in particular, leading players to wait for a payoff either emotional or comedic… yet it never arrives. The clones are merely a plot device to restrict the player in whatever scene they appear in.
It may sound slightly odd to some readers that I would want an emotional element to feature in a Sam & Max game, but I really would have loved the humanity of the Samulacras to have been explored. Instead, after the initial attack scene in the diner, the clones’ subsequent appearances throughout the game prove merely humorous rather than intimidating… to the atmosphere’s ultimate detriment. Much like last month where a superb noir motif was squandered, here we are treated to the promise of a zombie movie pastiche that folds in on itself within mere minutes.
The puzzles are a mixed bag. Some are far too easy, making use of teleportation and ventriloquism on a regular basis. The introduction of a mind reading ability admittedly works well, although I was actually quite disappointed that it worked so effectively. Elsewhere, I got severely stuck because the game refused to give me any sort of nod in the right direction. I often wished that speaking to Max and asking what to do next would offer more than just a vague, generic response.
At other points, red herrings are an absolute pain. This is never more apparent than during the final stage of the game, where Max can transform into many different objects (without spoiling anything) yet only actually needs to interact with one. This may be my fault due to over thinking the puzzle in question, yet it still left a bad taste in my mouth and was my first real instance of feeling hopelessly stuck in the entire series. I would much prefer real puzzles with a fully loaded inventory than these instances of trying anything with everything until something eventually happens.
At this point I feel I should interject with some positive aspects. There was certainly enough here to stop the game completely failing. Sal returns and although his screen time is limited, I still found him hilariously deadpan. Likewise, Girl Stinky acts her bitchiest and evilest yet during this episode and I really liked her character arc. Yet it is Max who steals the show.
After being helplessly confined to a jar last month, he blossoms here now that he has his body back. He has the best lines, the best delivery, and truly comes into his own during the final moments. There are glimmers of genuine heroism and loyalty shown that I wish Telltale would hone in on more: players are ready to see that side of the characters. The studio shouldn’t always feel the need to pull back just because the franchise has so far been associated more with wackiness than drama. It worked with Tales Of Monkey Island and it could work here if they just took a few more chances.
Sadly, my review copy of Beyond The Alley Of The Dolls (PC version) had quite a few significant bugs. This included my game controller causing all prompts to show the triangle button from the PS3 version (bizarre), a scene where Max was rendered completely invisible and many other instances of severe graphical bugs and errors, including missing sound effects. Of course, giving Telltale the benefit of the doubt I am sure most of these glitches will be ironed out by the time regular players download their copy, yet it must also be kept in mind that last episode I noticed many errors from my review copy still rearing their ugly heads in the final build. There is nothing game breaking yet it undeniably hurts the immersion.
So, did I enjoy this episode? In parts. There were two kissing scenes that had me laughing out loud and some of the revelations were brilliant. The scriptwriting is as sharp as ever and there are still moments of greatness that will stop you from turning your back on the series entirely. Yet I also felt that this episode undid some of the hard work done so far to position Skun-ka’pe and Papierwaite as worthy antagonists. Fair enough there is a nice new baddie offered here, but he appears far too briefly to be a truly satisfying adversary.
This has been a strange series so far, peaking with Episode 2 (The Tomb Of Sammun-Mak) and then taking a step backwards with Episode 3 (They Stole Max’s Brain!). Episode 4 needed to deliver this month and it sadly hasn’t. It isn’t a total failure by any stretch of the imagination, but the problem is that Telltale are usually so good that when the quality does dip it becomes a lot more noticeable. All players can do now is hope that next month’s finale will be a total knockout.
Still, this episode certainly raises plenty of questions in the meantime. Such as, is a Sam clone in hot pants supposed to look so sexy? Ahem. But seriously, it does make one wonder whether Telltale Games are spreading themselves a little too thinly as of late, with so many projects being developed at once and several more in the pipeline. The quality of these past two Sam & Max episodes has paled in comparison to the amazing third and forth episodes of Tale Of Monkey Island from last year for example. It is a shame, but luckily there is still just about enough here to recommend, to Sam & Max fans at least. The burning question now is whether The Devil’s Playhouse can go out with a bang next month rather than a whimper.
6 OUT OF 10