As much as I loved the first two seasons of Sam & Max, I'll admit to being a little concerned about their future. It's not that I was sick of their witty one-liners or mind-melting puzzles. Instead I worried that after giving us two phenomenal seasons, Telltale Games would simply rehash instead of innovate. Boy was I wrong. Sam & Max's third season, dubbed The Devil's Playhouse, not only looks better and offers a more exciting narrative, but it manages to drastically change the way you solve puzzles. In short, Sam & Max have once again proven that they are the kings of video game comedy mischief.
It's hard to believe that it's been two years since we last spent time with Sam the crime-fighting dog and Sam the, well, foul-mouthed rabbity-thing. Not much has changed for this dysfunctional pair; they are still solving crimes, Max is still the President and they are still surrounded by a group of colorful characters. Wait ... did I say that not much has changed? Okay, maybe that's not entirely true, because as the game starts up we learn that Max now possesses magical psychic abilities and there's a giant alien gorilla (named Skunkape) threatening to blow up Earth.
Instead of taking us on a linear path, The Penal Zone decides to have fun with flashbacks and flash forwards. In fact, at one point there's even a flashback inside of another flashback. It's all very confusing at first, but you feel like you're in the middle of the action right from the get-go. Before long you're brought up to speed and get to see how it all plays out. We learn that aliens have invaded the street Sam and Max live on and that this giant gorilla is having an affair with Stinky, the attractive (yet sloppy) local diner owner. We also learn that in order to fix this problem, Sam and Max are going to have to create a cosmic disturbance, find a winning lottery ticket and figure out how to harness those magical psychic powers the game hinted at. This pair of crime fighters definitely has their work cut out for them.
It seems clear from the beginning that the gimmick this season is going to revolve around Max's psychic abilities. The flash forward suggests that you will be able to turn Max into just about any object thanks to magical Silly Putty. We also learn that with a deck of magical playing cards Max can read people's minds. All that is cool, but the real powers come from a magical play phone and a powerful View Master. These pieces of plastic may look like toys, but they both offer amazing powers that will drastically change the way you play the game.
The first toy you pick up is the View Master, which gives Sam and Max a short glimpse into the future. It's here that we learn that the future is not set in stone and you can change it at any time. The game allows you to see the future for all kinds of objects and characters, including stuff that doesn't directly relate to the story at hand. The other toy is the play phone, a device that magically teleports you to an entirely different part of the city. Of course, with such power comes great limitations. Sadly you can only teleport to phone numbers you know, so there's no opportunity to dial seven random numbers.
Both of these powers come in handy when solving puzzles. In fact, many of the puzzles are centered around these two powers. For example, early in the game you will pick up a cell phone that you can drop off in all sorts of places; this will allow you to instantly teleport anywhere you want to go ... even if you're stuck in a sticky situation. You can also use the View Master to figure out what you're supposed to be doing and get clues to each mystery. The way these powers are implemented make them feel like more than a gimmick, they really feel like a substantial new addition to this series.
It doesn't hurt that all of these powers are sandwiched between all kinds of memorable moments. I could go on for hours talking about everything I love about this installment, from the new member of the C.O.P.S. team (which is already made up of Mr. Moviefone, a Pong game and a Tandy computer) to Bosco's deceased mother to the crazy paranoia of Flint Paper. The game is full of great pop culture references, including a few subtle ones that will send you to Wikipedia for clarification. And best of all, the whole thing has a Rod Serling-style narrator to go with the Twilight Zone theme.
And did I mention that the game looks substantially better than the first two seasons? Look, I'm not one of those people who was complaining about the visual style of the first nine games. I understood that in order to get the games out monthly some cuts need to be made. It's just the nature of the beast. But this time around they've decided to rebuild the engine and give us a game that actually looks like a modern day release. Oh sure, it's not as detailed as some of the ultra-realistic first-person shooters on the market, but the characters look better and the whole game has a finished look that will make it hard to go back to the past seasons.
On top of the new graphics engine, The Devil's Playhouse comes with a brand new control scheme. At first I was a little disappointed that the traditional point and click interface was replaced by a more console-friendly control scheme. Instead of pointing where you want to go, you hold down the right mouse button and then physically move Sam around the screen. You can also use the traditional W, A, S, D keys, much like a standard PC shooter. After getting the hang of it I quickly saw the benefits of this system, since it allowed for speedier traveling and less accidental clicks. It's still not perfect, but I definitely like the direction Telltale Games is taking this series.
With four more chapters ahead of us, it's impossible to tell how strong this season will turn out. However, if this first episode is any indication then we're in for one hell of a ride. The games new controls and improved graphics are welcome improvements, but it's the new narrative and magical psychic abilities that really steal the show. Throw in some familiar faces and a new batch of one-liners and you have one of the best graphic adventures in years. Regardless of whether you're new to the series or a veteran of the first two seasons, The Penal Zone is one of the best PC games of the year.
Sam & Max definitely know how to make an entrance. While I would have been happy with nothing more than a new batch of cases to solve, The Penal Zone offers a crazy new narrative, improved graphics, a gripping storyline, an improved control scheme and brand new psychic abilities. Plus you get to play with Silly Putty. And seriously, who can resist Silly Putty?