Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like I’ve woken up in some slightly-askew parallel universe. Like a lot of people, I’ve often jokingly wondered if there’s some perfect alternate reality running alongside our own where all our favourite, unfairly-cancelled shows lasted 7 seasons, our favourite actors and directors didn’t squander their talent and creativity, and where Paris Hilton is broke, destitute and about to be eaten alive by ravenous badgers. And while the latter especially, sadly, has yet to happen, it’s hard not to think of that perfect, daydream parallel universe when I see games like Sam & Max get a new release.
Years ago, while other kids were likely off climbing trees, mugging pensioners or embarking on Gordie LaChance-style life-altering coming-of-age adventures narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, much of my own childhood was squandered playing old LucasArts point-and-click adventure games. Games like Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island and Sam & Max, though intelligent, hilarious and incredibly well-made, critically-adored games, still felt like niche titles ignored by the mainstream, especially as console gaming became a bigger market with the SNES and MegaDrive/Genesis and people flocked to PC action games. It wasn’t long until LucasArts began cancelling follow-ups to its adventure titles left, right and centre and adventure games became the red-headed stepchild genre of gaming.
Suffice it to say, if you’d told my 12 year-old self that there’d be both remakes and new instalments of Monkey Island, alongside regular Sam & Max sequels on every major console, he’d probably call you a liar and bid you good day with an abundance of foul language. He’d also be pretty pissed that we’re no closer to the invention of hoverboards in 2010, but he always was an ungrateful git. He’d be pretty damn delighted if he sat down and played the first episode of Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, though – 17 years later and the video game adventures of Steve Purcell’s creations’ are just as funny, clever and inventive as ever.
The 3rd in Telltale Games’ line of episodic “seasons”, The Devil’s Playhouse is also the first Sam & Max game to hit the PS3 and serves as a standalone series of adventures to welcome Sony-owning newcomers, while cramming in oodles of references and recurring characters to satisfy returning players. The Penal Zone kicks off with 7 foot tall Bogart-voiced canine detective Sam and his gleefully maniacal, sociopathic rabbit pal Max imprisoned on the ship of intergalactic gorilla General Skun-ka’pe as he reigns destruction on the city. Naturally, only our P.I. duo (with help from Max’s new-found psychic powers) can stop the primate warlord, save humanity (and the hideous, work-shy manual labourers of the moleman species) and banish Skunkape to the titular dimensional prison.
The Devil’s Playhouse adopts the familiar Telltale look, favouring 3D, third person exploring over the classic 2D animated aesthetic, and the point-and-click interface of old has been streamlined to suit the PS3 controller. Sam’s full range of wandering movement is mapped to the left thumbstick as he walks in whichever direction you push (thankfully avoiding the tank controls of Escape from Monkey Island) while the right stick cycles through hotspots in the current location; anything you can examine or interact with in the environment has its own blue arrow icon that pops up when you cycle to it, with the option to either examine or talk to it with the X button, or to press the square button and select an inventory item to use on it. It’s a simple, smooth and effective scheme, and one perfectly suited to joypad controllers, with the unfortunate caveat that sometimes with a number of items grouped near to each other at different heights, it can sometimes be tough to cycle the one you want. The visuals, too, have their irksome kinks – camera view switches sometime cause brief, stuttery frame rate issues, while location switches oven cause awkwardly long pauses before the loading screen. They’re very minor issues, but confusing ones considering it’s a game that shouldn’t exactly test the PS3′s hardware and doesn’t need to constantly read from a disc.
The big major change in the series formula comes when you press the triangle button, which switches the game into a first-person mode as you control Max, selecting one of his psychic powers to use on the environment. Understandably, the addition of first person modes and random psychic powers might’ve naturally raised eyebrows for many series faithfuls, but in action it’s fantastically implemented. Throughout the game at any point, you can use Max’s teleportation powers to warp him and Sam to the location of any telephone, as long as he knows the number (his powers are channelled through mystic toys, one of which is a kid’s retro dial phone) or select certain objects to gain a quick glimpse of their future (through use of an old View-Master toy). The latter option is ingeniously used and serves as a clever hint system – viewing the future of characters obstructing your path, for example, might give an idea of how you’ll be able to foil them or which item you need. It makes the puzzles a tad easy at times, but thankfully even the simplest puzzles are usually fun and rewarding. The future-viewing also sets up some amazing visual gags (one joke involving a manhole is incredible), while the telephone-warping is used not just as a handy way to switch locations, but is tied into some of the game’s more memorable and cleverly-designed puzzles, and with two other skills briefly glimpsed in the episode and more to come in later instalments, I’m eager to see if new skills will be as wonderfully implemented.
It’s frustrating then that while the majority of the game’s puzzles are intelligent and with logical solutions, that doesn’t extend to the C.O.P.S. scanning puzzles. A couple of times you’ll need to consult the trio of obsolete electronic gadgets that live in Sam’s DeSoto who can inspect certain objects for you. Putting two clues into the Crime-Tron scanner will hopefully give you a suspect’s location, only at times there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, logic to which objects you need to combine, and more obtuse, random combinations are accepted while more clear and obvious ones are rejected. It’s a minor point though, and there’s only one puzzle that’s overly random.
But while the puzzles are mostly excellently handled and pop up frequently, chances are you’ll willingly take your sweet time getting there anyway; the game is just so damn funny that much like with the original, it’s hard not to linger around each location exploring every item and exhausting every possible conversation just to hear every fun line of incidental dialogue and each tiny gag from Sam & Max. Naturally, with an episode titled The Penal Zone, Telltale cram in as many low-brow gags as possible, with more innuendo than you could shake a phallic euphemism at (there’s even a PSN trophy for hearing 10 double entendres), but there’s also a massive heap of sly humour, subversive fourth-wall-breaking jokes to spare and, most importantly, Steve Purcell’s trademark surreal and gleefully twisted acerbic wit is here in spades, and often as funny as its ever been.
It’s quite easy at times, and has a few minor problems here and there, but for the most part, The Penal Zone is a fantastic, promising (and surprisingly lengthy at around 6-8 hours) opening to the season and hopefully Telltale will be able to keep up the quality throughout the next four episodes. After that, my 10 year old self thinks they should turn their much-needed attention to a Day of the Tentacle sequel. And he’s totally right, too.
Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse is now available to buy on the PlayStation Network and is also available on PC, Mac and iPad.