Friday, April 16, 2010

The Penal Zone Review

After a year hiatus, the third season of Sam & Max is upon us, with a more creative moniker than the original names of previous seasons: "The Devil's Playhouse". Telltale has changed the point and click control method of previous seasons to their direct control methods first introduced in Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures, then refined in Tales of Monkey Island. The control method is not the only thing that has changed this season. The streets of New York where Sam & Max live have been given a coat of grime and disrepair that better reflect the art of the original comics. The disrepair raises havoc in the game from your first moments on Sam & Max's street. The crack in the pavement leading underground that was made in the last season has caused the city to deem Sam & Max's entire block uninhabitable. This means Sam & Max's office is inaccessible, as is Bosco's Inconvenience Store. Sybil is still on her honeymoon, and the COPS have given up their car customization venture. This leaves Stinky's "Bad Food" restaurant as the only indoor location from the previous games that makes a reappearance here.

You'll be spending time in mostly new locations this time around. While Season Two (Beyond Time and Space) improved a lot upon the reused locations from the first season, there were a few feelings of deja-vu around in the form of the locations on Sam & Max's street. Apart from Stinky's, which was a new location from Season Two, the other locations felt a lot like "been there, done that", even though Telltale did their best to renovate them in some episodes. I suppose that is why Stinky's is the only in-door location that is still accessible, since it only appeared in five episodes so far. They did do major renovations on the diner though, giving it a bit of a fisherman's restaurant feel, since Grandpa Stinky is back. This helps a bit with the deva-vu factor, but if the restaurant stays as it is throughout the season I fear it may also grow tiresome as the rest of the locations did by the end of 10 or so episodes.

The biggest change of the season, however, is the addition of Max's psychic powers. This time, you will be able to switch to Max via an icon in the top right of the screen. You won't control him directly, instead you will switch to a view inside his head, where you are shown what looks like a See 'N Say toy. From here, you choose a toy in the inventory which represents a psychic power Max can use. You are only given one psychic power from the start, the rest must be found in the forms of toys throughout the city. Max's future vision is the most used power in the game, and it is both humorous and useful. You can click on objects or people that are highlighted with stars to learn about future events, which can be used to solve puzzles. The powers can be used at any time, often with humorous results. This aspect of the game reminds me of Double Fine's Psychonauts, which is a great compliment since I enjoyed that game immensely. Like Tales of Monkey Island, the game is controlled either with a controller, with a mouse through drag and click, or through a keyboard and mouse combination. The inventory combination feature didn't make it through to this episode, but the examine icon in the inventory did. There is also a use icon, which lets you use the icon directly from the inventory. I was glad to see that this icon is the squeeze toy icon from Hit the Road, which adds a bit of continuity to the game and interface. The Sam's paw cursor from Hit the Road has also come back (though it should be noted it was already used in the Wii port of the previous seasons). In a nice bit of attention to detail, the cursor changes to Max's paw when you are inside his mind.

There are some returning characters from the previous seasons, but the most used characters (Bosco and Sybil) are notably absent. While I did enjoy them, they had their time to shine, so I'm glad to see Telltale shake things up even as far as characters go. The new characters are interesting, although I doubt they'll be returning next season since they seem like they would really only work within the context of the retro-yet-futuristic setting of this season. The Twilight Zone-esque narrator from the trailer is presented here exactly as he was in the trailer, framing various parts of the game. Thankfully, he is rarely used, so he doesn't become a hindrance as I had previously feared. The villain of the game, the ape-like General Skun'ka-pe, makes a good antagonist for our heroes. He is large, intimidating, and only moderately smart, as a video game villain should be. I have mixed feelings about Gordon the brain. His character is interesting, as he's a psychic brain who can control machines with his mind. But, he's portrayed with a bit of a grating voice. It's not quite as bad as the adults trying to talk like they did when they were children voices of the Soda Poppers, but it's a tad too whiny for my tastes. Thankfully he's not used much in this game, so it doesn't really detract from enjoying the game.

The music is once again created by Jared Emerson-Johnson of Bay Area Sound, and he does an excellent job as usual. I was glad to see all (or at least almost all) of the songs with words from the previous seasons available to play in Stinky's jukebox. The Barrelhaven song from Bone: The Great Cow Race was a nice surprise. I used that song as the background for the diner throughout my playthough of the game. It worked surprisingly well with the new fisherman's diner atmosphere of Stinky's. There is also a pretty neat feature here where the music speeds up and slows down as you move Max's head while you are inside of his brain. Max is a pretty unstable character, so it would make sense that his perception of the world would wildly fluctuate. The credits have been completely redone with new music, which works extremely well and gives it even more of a television sitcom feel, which is where Telltale has been aiming with the series since the beginning.

Telltale has shaken things up in every aspect this season. The credits are new, the locations are mostly new, and the previous locations have been highly renovated. Even the gameplay is new in this season, and it works well. The new characters are interesting, and thankfully the one voice I didn't enjoy that much is not overused. This episode is the most exciting first episode out of every season of Sam & Max. If this is any indication of what's to come, we may be looking at Sam and Max's best season yet.

Final Verdict:

4 out of 5

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