Reviewed: June 27, 2010
Released: April 15, 2010
For nearly thirty years, the “Freelance Police” duo – consisting of a fedora wearing gumshoe canine named Sam, and an overzealous, hyper-psychotic rabbit named Max – have been saving the world from destruction. First, in comic strip form, then as full-fledged comic books, finally moving into the world of video gaming with LucasArts classic 1993 point-and-click graphic adventure Hitting The Road. |
The duo went on a hiatus, reemerging thirteen years later on the GameTap service. No longer a LucasArts property, Sam and Max Save The World released under the wing of Telltale games, and received decent critical reception. But more than the content of the game was the delivery method; the pioneer franchise in the episodic sales model – a series of six scheduled incremental partial releases delivered digitally rather than in hardcopy.
The benefits of episodic sales to the developers are obvious – low overhead with respect to retails sales (no discs, cases, or inserts), leveling of the development process (allowing developers partial releases while continuing development), and stabilization in cash flow (from periodic partial sales rather than a single post-production lump sum). On the gamer’s end, the benefits are equally favorable – incremental partial-cost purchases rather than a single $50 bill, the capacity to pick and choose episodes, and the ability to start and/or stop subscriptions at will.
Sam and Max Save the World was followed up shortly thereafter with Sam and Max Beyond Space and Time, and the subsequent re-release of Save The World on the Xbox Live system. Now Telltale is bringing the dynamic duo to the PS3 with Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse – delivered via the PSN network.
As The Devil’s Playhouse is a five-part monthly episodic release, we will briefly discuss each of the episodes individually. However, as the general gameplay mechanics and technical specs should be fairly similar over all episodes, I will discuss those in general terms.
The Devil’s Playhouse remains largely a PC-style point-and-click adventure, but the controls have been tweaked to work within the confines of a console – mapping character movement to the left analog stick, and pointer selection to the right analog stick. The system is a bit awkward to get used to, which is not made any easier by the pre-determined camera angles that seem to switch at the word possible moment. These control problems are nothing that cannot be overcome with a little fiddling around, but it does put a bit of a damper on the fun.
Visually, The Devil’s Playground gets the job done but leans toward the low-budget end of the spectrum. The cast members are sharp, detailed, and full of character, but the backgrounds are relatively static and unimpressive. There is some charm to be found in the odd dichotomy to be had when kid-friendly cartoons meet adult-friendly humor, but what we have here is not quite goofy enough to make it endearing.
The audio quality is equally lackluster, except for the top-rate voiceovers that all but make up for to mediocre presentation. A quick search of IMDB shows that much of the game’s voiceover talent has pedigrees in cartoon work as well as other video games, and the experience shows. The background music is as jazzy and free as ever, but it always seems to be a bit detached from the gameplay.
Episode 1 – The Penal Zone
The Penal Zone starts with a brief tutorial mode that just happens to be the final boss battle of the episode. Yes, the gamer learns how to play the game by beating the final boss – and if that sounds a bit strange to you…welcome to the world of Sam and Max.
The game’s villain, General Skun-ka’pe, is a bit like a blue-and-white hybrid of King Kong, Pepe Le Pew, and Michael Clarke Duncan. Interestingly, the real-life folks living in the Deep South call their version of the Sasquatch/Bigfoot legend “Skunkape”, or “Skunk Ape”, which is pretty much what we have with Skun-ka’pe – so while he may seem odd ad first, it makes perfect sense…somewhere.
After the brief tutorial mission the game backs up to the scene of General Skun-ka’pe’s arrival on Earth, where he – sidled by series favorite Agent Superball – cites his visit as a peace keeping mission from his home planet. Given the fact that you’ve already seen the ending scene – or a version of the ending scene – it is no surprise that Skun-ka’pe is not being completely honest, as has come from his home planet in search valuables; women, gadgets, and Mole Men.
The gameplay takes Sam and Max around the city, interviewing shop owners, barkeeps, ghosts, and more in puzzle-based point-and-click adventure that is Sam and Max. Most of the gameplay takes the form of question and answer sessions, using the analog stick to steer the discussions as the characters tell their stories and deliver their laundry list of items that need collecting.
The characters are just as over-the-top as we’ve come to expect from the series, from the aforementioned Skun-ka’pe and Agent Superball, to the crotchety old sailor Captain Stinky, his bar-mistress granddaughter, er…Stinky. There are even a handful of old-school patchwork electronic devices who have set up residence in the duo’s trademark ride, and deliver some of the best deadpan lines in the whole game.
Speaking of humor, the Penal Zone makes attempts to lay the humor on pretty thick, and for the most part the experience is at least entertaining. I wouldn’t necessarily say I was laughing out loud at any point, but I can see how the bathroom humor and double entendre would hit a few chords with fans, and I have to credit the developers for going the extra mile.
I will say that I found myself wandering about a lot more in Penal Zone than I really cared to – not so much to take in the lackluster backgrounds or to incite yet another long clickety-click dialog scenario, but rather because the puzzle elements were often so nebulous that I really didn’t know where to go next.
More than one time I was left scratching my head wondering if I had not triggered all of the conversations in the correct order or had some way or another blacklisted myself from further progress, until I finally realized that the answer was sitting right in front of my nose and all I had to do was use one of Max’s special powers. Call me an over-analyzer, call me dense, but the flow just did not seem as smooth as I would have hoped – at least on the console.
But I cannot fault the game for being clever, and at just under 3 hours total, the episode is over just when things begin to really mesh, leaving you wanting more from the second episode. And the best value of all, Episode 1 serves as the working demo for the entire series, so PSN gamers can download the title now – for free – and give the series a try.