The City That Dares Not Sleep is more than just the third season finale of Sam & Max. It's an action-packed episode that is just as funny as it is tragic. It's an episode full of surprises and a resolution that feels completely satisfying. But more than anything, this episode proves that the developers are more than capable of executing a complicated plot full of deep ideas and complex emotions. This is a company that continued to innovate with fresh ideas and exciting narrative choices. What this third season finale proves is that Telltale Games has arrived.
The writing has been on the wall this entire season. From the very first episode it was clear that Telltale intended to be more ambitious. They drastically changed the gameplay, allowing players to take control of Max in a number of different ways. There were episodes where the pair separated for large chunks of the game. We went back in time thanks to the magic of the cinema. To say that this has been a crazy season is an understatement, so it shouldn't surprise anybody that this finale goes so over-the-top that I don't think Telltale will ever be able to top it.
Like earlier episodes, The City That Dares Not Sleep is openly mocking a lot of geeky pop-culture. We open with a gigantic, mutated Max devouring entire blocks of New York City. It's like something right out of Cloverfield. Before long we're introduced to a new title sequence, a direct homage to the cheesy 1970s action films and TV shows. This finale knows what it wants to be and isn't afraid of a little kitsch.
The story is equally goofy, involving Sam and the most memorable characters from this season (including the return of a fan favorite) jumping into a retrofitted car and, you guessed it, traveling deep inside Max's body. But don't expect blood and guts, Max's brain, legs, stomach and arms are decked out in a 1960s space-age bachelor pad motif. It's the kind of digs that Mad Men's Don Draper can feel right at home in. Without spoiling too much, this season manages to wrap up all of the loose ends, explain the Twilight Zone-style narrator and make us genuinely care about these two cartoon crime-fighters.
This is the first time I've beaten a Sam & Max season and wanted to immediately go back through it again. While I adore the first two seasons, the overarching story wasn't deep enough to warrant a second or third play through. If somebody wanted to go back through the episodes it was for the comedy and not the intricate storylines. But that isn't the case here. Enough of the elements are set up early in this season, though nobody knew it at the time. The whole course of events plays out exquisitely, which may be why I'm so excited to go back and look for clues and foreshadowed jokes.
Unfortunately not every new element of The Devil's Playhouse stood out in a good way. Even five episodes in, I was still fighting the new control scheme. I got the impression that the controls were designed around the PlayStation 3's control. That would be fine if I was playing it on a home console, but I experienced this season on a PC. The new controls felt awkward and unnecessary. It would be fine to keep this set-up as an option, but why not let us old-timey gamers choose the classic mode?
Thankfully that is my only complaint with the entire third season run. I loved the new graphics and the storytelling was a huge step up from seasons one and two. It's hard to imagine the production value getting much better than this, but I dare Telltale Games to prove me wrong. Even five months later, the season finale looks spectacular. It's not that the graphics are cutting edge (they're not), but rather how the animators work with these characters. There's a heartbreaking sequence at the end of the game that is unlike anything I've ever seen before. It's not that it's pushing the most polygons or using the newest lighting effects, it's just the look of the world and the emotion of the characters. It's a gut-wrenching sequence that underscores just how good the presentation is.
The Devil's Playhouse is the kind of game that will stick with you long after you've beaten it. Even though it's presented as nothing more than a light-hearted comedy, there are some exciting ideas that I found myself pondering as I moved on to other titles. This gives me incredible hope for the future of graphic adventures, no matter if it's another Sam & Max adventure or something as out there as Back to the Future. If you've somehow missed this season, stop reading this review and start from the beginning. Actually, that's a pretty good idea no matter who you are. Let's stop this review and start The Devil's Playhouse over again.
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