Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse – Episode 1: The Penal Zone (PC)

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Sam and Max are at it again. More adventure and more escapades will surely ensue! Can the world survive another spell of this dynamic duo? Will earth fall into the hands of a huge gorilla alien king and need rescue? Of course it will! And nobody is better at getting us all out of a fix than Sam and Max. Then again, nobody gets us into a fix as quickly as Sam and Max!

Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse – Episode 1: The Penal Zone (this is the abbreviated title…) is the first episode of season 3 of this popular franchise. Technically its season 4, since the original game was long enough to count as a season all on its own, but the numbering started then. It’s also the first time the series makes an appearance on the PS3, but stays more loyal to its PC followers by not abandoning it as easily as the Xbox 360. Does it live up to the standard set by previous games? Stay tuned to find out!

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse Screenshot 1


I reviewed Sam and Max Season 2 on the Xbox 360, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was funny, quirky, zany and a little bit crazy. But it had its problems. It was a bit repetitive and was plagued by travelling back and forth between the same levels and areas. Playing all episodes back to back proved to be the wrong way to approach a game like this and it really is best enjoyed in small doses. The controls were also a bit finicky and I longed for a keyboard and mouse…this is a point and click adventure with a pointer and a clicker!

The biggest element in adventure gaming is the story though. And in Season 2 the story consisted of a few seemingly random episodes, all of which came together nicely in the final episode. Since I am a very big fan of good story telling in all media, especially games, I refuse to give away any huge plot elements. In episode 301 the game starts with a bang and our duo is held captive by a big ape named Skunk-ape (pronounced Skun Ka Pey by himself, Skunk-ape by Sam and Max). Max has somehow developed psychic powers and you are quickly introduced to them. Using these powers you thwart Skunk-ape’s plans to destroy earth. But this is clearly an introduction only and you are whooshed back to the present day where Skunk-ape has only just landed on earth, right outside Sam and Max’s offices. And so the story begins.

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse Screenshot 2


So what is new in season 3? First of all the graphics have been given a nice overhaul. The models appear crisper than before and the texture resolutions have been upped a bit. Sam is now actually wearing a pinstripe suit, and no longer just a bland blue one. The shadowing is also a lot better than before, and the special effects look a bit better as well. Clearly the developers thought the PS3 had more power than the Xbox 360 and this was reason enough to upgrade. The PC, on the other hand, still feels like it is underutilized in this game.

I understand the reasoning behind stylized art in games, but it would have been easy to improve the look of the game just a little to use some of those hardcore PC rigs out there. My biggest gripe with the PC version of the game is the control scheme though. This is NOT a point and click adventure game. If you want to move your character around the screen you hold down the mouse button and an on-screen joystick appears! Point and click adventure games don’t need no steenkeen joysticks! Clearly a straight port from the console then, I bit the bullet and played the game with a joypad, grumbling all the way through.

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse Screenshot 3

The inane collection of random items still continues, but either I am getting dumber or the puzzles are getting harder. Solving a lot of the puzzles is still a case of experimentation. Trying every object with every other object to see if it produces some sort of result is tiring and frustrating. But it’s not all boring, not initially. With Max’s new powers you have a few extra layers to each puzzle. Max can scan pictures and morph himself into those objects. Scan a picture of a shrub and he will become a shrub for Sam to hide behind. He can also teleport to any cellphone number, read minds, and see the future. Combined this will extend the duration of the game as you now have all these extra things to try before the puzzles are solved. I miss the good old days of logical puzzles. I must be getting old.

The game is not a total failure though. The interaction between Sam and Max is as funny as ever, and even though it may seem a little forced at times, it still gets the occasional chuckle (until I realize I am sitting with a gamepad in my hand). Dialogue is adequately cheesy, the characters colorful and the sets well laid out.

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse Screenshot 4

To be continued…

After one episode I am intrigued enough to see where the series is going, and since we have a few weeks between each release I have enough time to get over my gripes and remember the good parts. Clearly a game aimed more at the fans than any newcomers, a lot of the appeal is lost if you have no idea who the characters are. If you have never played any other Sam and Max game, then either wait for the original’s remake ala Monkey Island, or buy a copy on eBay. That is how adventure games are supposed to be made. Fans can go ahead and try episode 301 and will feel instantly welcome.

The good: It is Sam and Max!
The bad: Feels a little too familiar; not using the PC’s strengths.
The ugly: Steenkeen pop-up joystick! The horror!