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Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse Review

[tab:Introduction]The Devil's PlayhouseFirst of all, I’ll start off by saying this is my first experience with Sam and Max (or point-and-click adventures in general). I’ve heard of the series before, but had never actually played the episodic games (which were previously available on PC via GameTap before being released to the general public). Well, the series has now made it’s way to the PlayStation 3, with Season 3 of Sam and Max, entitled “The Devil’s Playhouse”.

Sam and Max have actually started as a comic book series in the 80’s. It consists of two main characters, Sam, a six-foot dog wearing a suit and a fedora, and Max, a hyperkinetic rabbity thing. They make up what is called the Freelance Police. After their comic book adventures, they then starred in games by Lucas Arts, until their contract expired in 2005, which Telltale Games picked up and holds the rights for to this day.

Since the episodes for the game will be an ongoing release (there will be 5 in all) and they are all based off of one purchase (you can pick up the entire season for $34.99 and download the new episodes as they become available), I’m going to be doing this review a little different than others, using the same topic for all five episodes, updating it with each episode’s release by adding a tab for each of them, and then bring the topic back up to the main page for reading. Basically, the review is going to be 5 months in the making :P.

Current Reviews and Upcoming Episodes:

  • Episode 1: The Penal ZoneReviewed
  • Episode 2: The Tomb of Sammun-MukReviewed
  • Episode 3: They Stole Max’s Brain!June 2010
  • Episode 4: Beyond the Alley of the DollsJuly 2010
  • Episode 5: The City that Dares Not SleepAugust 2010/TBD

[tab: Episode 1: The Penal Zone]

The beginning of the adventure kind of just throws you into an escape scenario. I assumed that this was maybe a continuation of the end of season 2, but it turns out, the whole episode is, in a sense, it’s own story, which is where I’ll start.

Somehow, Max has some psychic abilities, and these abilities tie into different psychic toys that help enable powers, such as teleporting via a toy telephone or seeing the future through something like those old ViewMasters. With the help of these devices, it helps both Sam and Max find hidden clues and help point the player in the direction he or she needs to go.

The story revolves around a ‘Space Gorilla’ by the name of General Skun-Ka’pe, or, as Sam puts it, Skunkape (which is actually a nickname for the Southern US version of Bigfoot in crypto zoology) who invades Earth, after escaping an intergalactic prison known as the Penal Zone, to seek out these toys in order for him to take over the universe.

Of course, with the beginning of the game, you’re on his ship and must escape, but then the story backtracks to an earlier point in time, and picks up just as the ship lands on the intersection of Straight and Narrow, where Skunkape pretends to be a friendly visitor, despite his obviously evil overtones. This is where the story finally begins to make sense. From here on, your goal is to try to stop Skunkape, working your way to get to where you were at the beginning of the episode.

What this game does really well is make solving clues both fun and thoughtful. The only problem is, when I played through it, I got a little frustrated at the beginning because I didn’t really pay attention to the subtle hints the future vision, and various other items, were giving me. Others familiar with the genre might be able to figure it out far faster than I can, though. The most important tool, as a matter of fact, is the future vision, so always keep an eye out for clues it reveals to you.

Overall, though, the story is filled with plenty of humor. Some of the lines will give you a chuckle, all while keeping it family friendly (for the most part; one of the trophies is for hearing ten double entendres, which I found funny). Once you start getting the hang of the game and everything starts to flow, it’s hard to put down, since the story is pretty good and has that fun factor to it. The characters are likable as well, including the talking old-school devices in the DeSoto (Sam and Max’s cruiser) collectively known as C.O.P.S. which seem to have a life of their own (you’ll probably get a kick out of them). Some of the characters could use some fleshing out, though (Girl Stinky being one of them) and others could use some more game time (such as Flint Paper, another detective).

Progression of the story is at a workable pace, too, as you’ll always be finding new items and clues, as well as solving some of the smaller mysteries without any real pauses in between (though, if you can‘t figure out some clues, you could be stuck wandering around aimlessly unless you figure out some of the subtleties of the clues and visions like me). I played through it a second time as well, since I knew where to go and what to do and wound up with about an hour and a half play-time, which is really good considering there are 4 more episodes to come, and if they have similar times just for grinding through the game, you’re looking at about 7 to 7 and a half hours of play time, which is really good for the price (and the story is enjoyable enough for a second play through, especially since you unlock something after the first).

I might have been able to play it faster if I knew that the circle button helped you run, though. The only thing I wish there were more of are locations, but what’s there works for the story, despite some of them only being needed for not even 5 minutes worth of gameplay (some of which don’t unlock until about halfway through, and then they all unlock in rather quick succession). Still, I wouldn’t let that deter you.

Control wise, the game does well with character movement and overall button layout (the inventory system works great). Pay attention at the beginning to get an idea of how the controls work, though. I might have ignored the bit about circle being the run button, so that may have been my fault. I’ve noticed a couple control issues when the camera changes, though, as Sam would walk in a direction I wasn’t intending. The presentation is decent as well, but could still use some work (I couldn’t figure out how to save my game until much later into it, and the automatic save points aren’t very common). The ease of navigation through the menus is decent as well, seeing as everything is pretty straightforward and you can usually quickly find where you need to go to change some of the settings. I know some games out there hide things like Subtitles pretty well. The only real issue I had with the presentation was actually while playing as Max and using some of his tools, since some areas do not allow you to view in a 360 degree environment, so some of the interactive objects wouldn’t be viewable at some angles.

As far as the technical aspects of the game goes, the game looks pretty smooth and the colors and detail are well done, though, far from realistic (so don’t expect anything on the lines of Killzone 2 :P). I have come across some things that might turn some off and are a bit of an annoyance. First of all, there are loading screens. Lots and lots of them (going from one environment to another will always result in a loading screen). That gets really annoying when you have to do some backtracking because you forgot to give something to someone to progress in another area.

Looking past that minor hiccup, this is the first time being on the PS3 as well, so there are some other issues as well. The game doesn’t run that smooth, and in one case in particular, I had thought the game locked up (it was the second use of the rhinoplasty at the beginning), but came back to normal about 15-20 seconds later (and this was on both play throughs). The FPS drops happen quite often and definitely negatively affect the overall quality of the game. Other issues I’ve come across? Some of the subtitles get cut off occasionally, or sometimes I wouldn’t be able to skip through a conversation, but those are generally minor in comparison. Animation of characters is done pretty well, but, sometimes Max’s mouth doesn’t seem to move enough to compensate for his speaking parts (that‘s just nitpicking, though).

The soundtrack is great, as it has that nice noir theme to it, so no complaints there (and it adds to the game’s atmosphere). Sound effects are decent as well, but I had noticed a few sounds repeating themselves a couple times, but it wasn’t enough to really matter. More than anything, the dialogue and the voice acting were the most important, and they delivered on that front seeing as the voice acting was nearly spot on and the voices fit their characters well (Grandpa Stinky was my favorite). It helps with the story and fleshing out the characters, and fit their mannerisms perfectly.

Overall, the Penal Zone is an enjoyable tale and I definitely recommend it to anyone who is into crime and adventure games. It may have a few problems here and there (jumpy frame rate, some sound issues, etc), but there’s still plenty of fun to be had, and it’s great for the younger audience as well. With likable characters, fun story, and humor throughout, it’s a game everyone can enjoy. Of course, if you’re new to the adventure genre, you might have a few issues adjusting to the gameplay (having to get the right object highlighted in order to interact with it, etc), but given the chance, you could find that it’s rather enjoyable. If anything, download the demo, since it will give you a good idea of how the whole game plays. On a personal note, I can’t wait for the next 4 episodes to finish off the Devil’s Playhouse and hope for future support of the PS3 as well. Given time and resources, future games can fix this episode’s shortcomings and receive a better overall score, but as far as the Penal Zone goes, I would give it a 7/10.

[review pros=”Good Graphics
Plenty of Humor
Great Voice Acting
Fun Story
Memorable and Likable Characters” cons=”Some Graphics Stutter
Occasional Sound Issues
Skip Conversation Glitch (rare)
Limited View Angle Environments” score=70]
[tab:Episode 2: The Tomb of Sammun-Mak]

These following portions of the entire review will wind up being much shorter than the first part, so keep that in mind (since a lot of the controls and the like will go unchanged). So with that in mind, here is my review for Episode 2 of Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, entitled “The Tomb of Sammun-Mak”.

The game starts off right where the last one ended. To get you up to date, the creepy narrator describes your previous adventure, ending up to the point where the heroes, Sam and Max, come face to face with skeletons they thought to be their own (hidden behind a wall that was blasted out at the end of episode one).

Turns out, the skeletons are actually those of Sam and Max’s grandfathers, Sammuth and Maximus. This is based off of the discovery of the newest psychic toy, a movie projector, which Max has a hard time not messing around with (of course). The film reel loaded onto the projector depicts their grandfathers getting into some trouble. At this point, it’s up to Sam and Max to basically relive their grandparents’ adventure through the movie projector and figure out the entire mystery as to why their skeletons were there and why they were involved with what appears to be a game show you get into early in the game. It’s a fun adventure, with a few twists and turns here and there, but no real way of failing the game (so it’s perfect for kids, as long as they have some good problem solving skills).

Other than the very beginning, none of the story really has anything to do with the last episode (save for the theme of the psychic toys). The whole premise of the story within the story is that you must get into the Tomb and acquire a psychic toy. In this one, instead of constantly going to different areas in a relatively straightforward timeline, you use the movie projector to go and figure out all the smaller tidbits in different moments of the adventure Sammuth and Maximus by choosing one of four different film reels.

And trust me on this, you will probably be switching between the different reels quite often, as you will figure out one thing in a future reel, which will help you understand what to do in a past real, and vice versa. It’s a pretty good gameplay mechanic, and differentiates itself from the previous episode (of course, the future-vision was used in the last one, but it only affected a decision you made in the present, and not give you the ability to go back). In terms of the story as a whole, I actually didn’t really have a clue of who the real bad guy was until the end, because everyone was starting to look like a suspect.

The psychic toys you get a hold of are pretty fun as well, but besides the movie projector, I only recall there being two more, the Can O’ Nuts (which Sammuth and Maximus use to hide inside of) and Charlie Hotep (a ventriloquist dummy that allows you to throw your voice at other characters and objects). Once you start to unfold the story, you will likely know exactly when to use them.

So, now that we have that bit of the story out of the way, we move on to the characters, which are all different from the previous episode (well, the mole men still sound the same, but they aren’t the same ones). When you first start playing, you have no idea who the characters are. One of them is like a really short Santa (after all, he has elves work for him, and he wants his hands on the psychic toys). It isn’t until you start going through the reels when you start to learn who all these characters are (they did a decent job of giving the characters different personalities).

Now, this is where I start my negatives. First off, this one seemed to be a lot shorter and easier than the last (well, the length might have seemed shorter for me, since I know what to expect in terms of gameplay, and I know how to run now), but the game is definitely easier to figure out, which means some of the challenge that the first one brought is just not there. One thing I will say, though, is that the game does look a bit better than the last one. The only problem I came across was a few spots where it seemed the game locked up (much like the part in the space ship on the first one). When it doesn’t lock up like that, though, the game generally runs pretty smooth and there is definitely far less screen tear.

The story could have also been extended a bit more, but the actual tomb was definitely a good set piece, and probably had most of the puzzles in the game (this one, once you know everything that’s in the temple, like dangerous doorways and the like, you can start figuring out what piece is used for what, etc.) That whole reel was probably the most exciting in the whole game, but that doesn’t mean the others were bad. They just didn’t seem quite as thought out as the others.

As far as sound goes, with this one, the voice work was done very well, even better than the last. The voices used matched the characters really well (the annoying Baby Amelia fit the character perfectly). There were also no obvious sound glitches like I’ve noticed with the last one, so that was nice as well.

Overall, the game had a bit more polish than the last episode, but it’s still got a few flaws that need dealt with. With two episodes down, the game is still proving to be an interesting adventure, and I’m still enjoying it. There are three episodes left at this point, and I can’t wait to get my hands on those as well. Hopefully we’ll see them get those kinks worked out sooner or later, though. And please, less loading screens (even though the loading didn’t seem as bad in this one).

[review pros=”Crisper graphics
Still has that Sam and Max humor
Excellent voice work/casting
Different gameplay mechanics
Less sound glitches
Easier to pick up and play” cons=”Game locks up for a few seconds every now and then (mostly at the beginning)
Story seems a bit shorter than the last one
Still a ton of loading” score=75]

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse provided by Telltale Games.