Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse

Game Description:  The new season Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse is the biggest, strangest and most epic to date. As the saga begins, an otherworldy power for controlling matter and space calls to the strongest and strangest who might wield it—intergalactic warlords and eldritch gods, under-dwellers and scholars of the arcane. Gaming's greatest dog and rabbit sleuths Sam & Max seek the power's ancient secrets, as Max gains shape shifting, teleportation, mind reading and future vision abilities for battling these foes. The saga plays out in a surreal 5 month-long symphony of mayhem that gets deeper and more twisted with each episode.

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse — The Penal Zone Review

Who Says Games can't have Great Stories?

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse — The Penal Zone Screenshot

HIGH: A Scanners joke and Lovecraft references! Those never get old, dude.

LOW: Didn't I just fiddle with the boiler controls? Oh, wait: I had to do it exactly right.

WTF: A sociopathic rabbit has been elected President of the United States. Twice.

The premise of Telltale's Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse—The Penal Zone is simple enough—a criminal space gorilla on the lam lands on Earth, and it's up to a dog and a "hyperkenetic rabbity thing" to bring him to justice. Besides the ape there are psychic powers, mystical toys, and obscure religious cults. Such strangeness could easily turn the game into an absurd, toneless mess that's hard to take seriously, but with Telltale's deft writing and well-developed characters, even the silliest plot point is not too ridiculous to make sense.

Sam and Max are two canine and rabbitish detectives (er—freelance police) who live in New York. I get the feeling that they aren't the greatest detectives ever; they aren't above stealing from old men, and Max solves just about every problem by blowing it up. Still, they are all that stand between us and world domination and, more importantly, they're a lot of fun to spend time with.

It's a good thing they are fun. Characterization is especially important in an adventure game, where players will spend lots of time just talking to other characters. On the surface, Sam and Max should be a cliché waiting to happen: the big, slow-on-the-uptake fellow and his smaller, faster, possibly angrier partner have been a staple of everything from Of Mice and Men to Fargo, but the pairing works perfectly here because the developers manage to make the cliché work for them while not relying on it too much.

Sam comes off more naïve than Patrick Star-ish. As the player character who's asking all the questions and putting clues together, his cluelessness is perfectly appropriate. (I'm not exactly Sherlock Holmes, especially when it comes to adventure games; it doesn't make much sense to play as someone who is). As a bonus, Sam's personality allows the writers to joke about the adventure game form and not look like they're trying too hard. "Can I just give you your crystal shard or key so you can go off and do whatever it is you do?" a frustrated interviewee asks. "Sorry, Stinky," Sam replies. "We gotta go through all the questions. It's the rules."

Sam &   Max: The Devil's Toybox — The Penal Zone Screenshot

Telltale isn't the rule-following stickler Sam is, thank goodness. Asking questions and solving puzzles are perfectly good mechanics for an adventure game—and there are plenty of those here—but the developers are so familiar with the formula that they aren't afraid to break out of it. For example, Sam's partner Max may be high-strung and amoral, but he's also got psychic abilities that are unlocked by special Toys of Power.

With the Eyes of Yog-Soggoth, for instance, Max can see into the future by looking at any object or character. At one point, someone refuses to give the freelance police something they need because he wants to use it to make tons of money. Turning the Eyes of Yog-Soggoth to a nearby radio, Max learns that a big-winning lottery ticket has been sold to a familiar (and stupid) person.

Throughout the game, Max's future vision is very useful for giving players some hint of what to do next when they get stuck—especially since they can switch between Sam and Max at any time. Max is also able to teleport himself and anyone he's touching, using telephones. Any telephones. Aside from getting the detectives into and out of places where physical access is blocked, this power allows Max to move other characters to different locations—a skill that comes in really handy. While future vision and teleportation are the skills most used in The Penal Zone, there are (strong) hints that Max will discover more skills in subsequent chapters.

The beauty of The Penal Zone is how well its often silly elements fit together. Telltale always keeps the game's absurdity from overshadowing good storytelling or game logic. In fact, Sam & Max's disparate pieces come together so well that the game's one tiny slip-up seemed much bigger than it was. Near the end of the game, Sam is supposed to turn up the heat on a boiler. To touch the dial, the player has to click in exactly the right place. Having to find this place took me out of the flow of the game. This tiny hiccup only happened one time; it's not even a pattern. Still, all other aspects of the game play off each other so perfectly that this one out-of-step instance stuck out all the more for me.

The first chapter of Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse shows us that storytelling in games doesn't have to be a luxury, and perhaps shouldn't be. In The Penal Zone, good writing isn't just an added bonus: it infuses every aspect of play. Without its story or characters—without Sam and Max—Sam & Max would be nothing. For Telltale, storytelling is not an amenity; it's central to the entire project. If only more developers understood that. Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Disclaimers: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately six hours were devoted to the game, and it was completed.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: alcohol reference, cartoon violence, comic mischief, mild language, and suggestive themes. The ESRB's list is pretty accurate. There are several "damn"s and "hell"s, as well as some sexual innuendo—mostly in the form of "penal zone" jokes. Max isn't exactly a morally upstanding citizen, either. The Penal Zone should be fine for older children and teens.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing: You should have no problems. Subtitles for the dialogue can be turned on in the options, and there are no significant auditory cues.

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse — The Tomb of Sammun-Mak Review

Old Movie Serials are Fun

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse -- The Tomb of Sammun-Mak Screenshot

High: The non-linear storytelling.

Low: That last puzzle is a tricky beast. Either that, or I'm just very unobservant.

WTF?: Baby Amelia Earheart?

When we last left Sam and Max, they were under their New York office in the secret lair of a moleman cult. They also saw two rabbity and dog-like skeletons. Was this a gruesome vision of their future? Not at all, it was just of the remains of their great-great grandfathers.

In Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse—The Tomb of Sammun-Mak, our heroes find a series of old film reels that contain a movie starring their great-great grandfathers, Sameth and Maximus. The film takes place in 1901, when Maximus, Sameth, and his handlebar moustache steal the Devil's Toybox from an Egyptian tomb. Like the last installment, the story seems straightforward—tomb-raiding is nothing unusual in old movie serials or video games. But, like a Quentin Tarantino film, it's the way the story is told that makes the game special.

Indeed, the story of Sameth and Maximus is very much like Pulp Fiction; it doesn't unfold neatly from beginning to end. The player has access to all four film reels at once. Using Maximus's power of Astral Projection, she can switch between them at will. What's the awesome toy idea that will make Santa's elves give Sam and Max the can 'o nuts in the first reel? Skip to the third reel and find out. By the time players are ready to raid the Tomb of Sammun-Mak, they will have already taken the train home from Egypt after stealing the treasure. While one could see these film reels as just a clever twist on Max's "future vision," they are more than just a way to see what the game wants us to do. The Tomb of Sammun-Mak makes players feel as if we are part of the story, crafting it as we bump up against dead ends and skip from chapter to chapter. Lost in the labyrinth, we make our own way.

Unusual structure aside, The Tomb of Sammun-Mak is still recognizably Telltale. There are tons of interesting characters to meet like a retainer-wearing teenage mole girl who writes hilarious love letters. There are also elves, vampires, (and vampire elves), not to mention Baby Amelia Earheart and a kindly old moleman who really hates people from Stuttgart. But, as in chapter 1, the game's whole is much more logical than its often ridiculous parts would suggest.

Aside from Astral Projection, Maximus can use a can o' nuts to hide in and a dummy named Charlie Ho-Tep to throw his voice in "psychic ventriloquism." (Is ventriloquy psychic? "I know exactly what my dummy's going to say before he says it," Maximus explains). Even more impressive than Maximus's powers are the curses a family of molemen can throw at him and Sameth. These, too, are useful for solving puzzles. At one point, the elves need a kid to test their secret project. Baby Amelia Earheart has too much dignity to do it, but when cursed with the "Sexo Rejexo Hex" by the mole teen's father, our heroes can make any woman recoil at the sound of their voices—violently, and into the arms of those they would not willingly go to.

However, the most clever innovation isn't the puzzles or even the characters, as well-done as they are. The most clever bit is the framing of the game as a film. With present-day Sam and Max watching the exploits of their great-great grandfathers, I'm playing as the stars of the movie. As I do, I'm so involved in Sameth and Maximus's story I often forget that, for their descendants, they are merely pictures on a screen. Rating: 10 out of 10.

Disclaimers: This game was obtained via publisher and played on the PC. Approximately six hours were spent in single-player mode (completed 1 time). There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: comic mischief, drug reference, mild blood, mild language, and mild suggestive themes. The Tomb of Sammun-Mak isn't graphically violent, but there's a sprinkling of salty language and a lot of innuendo.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing: You should have no problems. Subtitles for the dialogue can be turned on in the options menu, and there are no significant auditory cues.

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse — They Stole Max's Brain! Review

A Dog and his Brat

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse — They Stole Max's Brain! Screenshot

High: The characters, especially Sam and Pharoah Sammun-Mak.

Low: It was over too soon.

WTF?: That a game about a boy Pharaoh who bends reality to make himself supreme ruler doesn't have any WTFs.

I tried to read the Twilight saga once. While the first book had the morbid impetus of a car crash, New Moon was just unreadable. It separates Bella from her vampire boyfriend, which is supposed to create tension (Will they get back together?) but only showed me how poorly-written and boring Bella is. She can literally do nothing without Edward; she has no personality at all and needs his sort-of-interestingness to make her tolerable. In a sense, They Stole Max's Brain! is the New Moon of The Devil's Playhouse: Sam spends a chunk of the game without Max making jokes or prodding him to do things, but unlike Bella, Sam is well-developed enough to carry these sections on his own. He proves himself to be more than just a player stand-in or Max's straight man.

In the beginning of Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse — They Stole Max's Brain!, Sam the dog is alone. He's the only one who can find out more about who committed the titular act, why, and most importantly, where his friend's brain is. As he interrogates witnesses or explores a museum, I see a strength in him that's not out of character at all, but one which I wasn't expecting.

In his new Maxless life, Sam meets the most interesting character in They Stole Max's Brain! who is, oddly, the most stereotyped. Perhaps it's not so odd after all; Telltale seems to know instinctively what stereotypes still have some life in them and how to milk them for all they're worth. In any case, the several-thousand-year-old boy pharaoh Sammun-Mak is exactly what one would expect him to be: egotistical, demanding and whimsical in the worst possible sense—everything is either the best thing ever or the most horrible thing in the world, yet there is something likable in the little tyrant.

I wouldn't want to strike up a conversation with him, but watching Sam talk to him is agreeable. Part of the pharaoh's sour charm is that he functions a lot like Max does, but in a different way. Sammun-Mak is as excitable, as decisive (at least momentarily) and as impulsive as Sam's usual partner ever was. Sam takes the pharaoh's abuse just as cheerfully as he does Max's, even if he's not quite as obsequious as he appears. In the pharaoh, Telltale has struck a fine balance between keeping what fans know and love and changing it enough to keep it fresh. More video game sequels could learn from the work here.

Sam is not as loud or as fast as his partner, and his one-liners aren't the same kind of funny, but he is capable in his own quiet way. But then, he always has been; his calm thoughtfulness is how we find out information, and he even makes Max usable to us. I knew all this before—as I had known while reading Twilight that Bella was boring—but They Stole Max's Brain! accentuates Sam's own special powers. While Max was away, I came to appreciate Sam on a whole new level. Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Disclaimers: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately seven and a half hours were spent in single-player mode, and the game was completed 2 times. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: Although They Stole Max's Brain! hasn't been rated by the ESRB at the time of this writing, earlier chapters are rated E10+ and Teen. There are occasional minor swear words, and an instance of "live nude girls"-type innuendo. (Although in this case, they are dogs in a pet store). Kids who can play the earlier installments can play this one, I'm sure.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing: You will have no problems. Subtitles for the dialogue can be turned on via the Settings menu, and there are no significant auditory cues.