301: The Penal Zone Review
Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Episode One – The Penal Zone (PC)
Psychic powers add a new dimension; improved presentation across the board; emotive, lively characters; funnier than past games
Some locations seem tacked on; a couple of bugs
It’s been two years since we last saw Sam & Max in their devilish season two finale. They’re back again for a five-part episodic adventure, The Devil’s Playhouse, and I was in anticipation to see where Telltale Games would take the franchise next. After eleven episodes of point and clickery, some of the gameplay was beginning to wear a bit thin, and I think we’d all had our fair share of the recycled locations. Enter The Penal Zone. It refreshes the series and breathes a fresh spark of life into our favourite dog and rabbity-thing detective duo.
It’s clear from the beginning that Telltale is keen to allow new players to feel comfortable jumping right in to the action. We’re greeted by a black-and-white (bar a red rose) narrator, explaining the premise and bringing us to a tutorial segment: General Skunkape, a power mad space gorilla, is after all the psychic toys in the universe. Somehow, Sam & Max have found their way behind the bars on his ship, and the narrator steps you through the basic mechanics to help you escape. Soon the action cuts and it’s revealed you were just playing Max’s vision of the future. Yeah, he can do that kind of thing now. Skunkape lands on Earth in the present, and he sets out to locate all the toys, leaving Sam and Max to beat him at his own game and sending him back to the Penal Zone. This crazy premise matches Sam & Max perfectly, and I found myself laughing at more of the jokes than I usually do, especially when they head in a different direction than you thought they were going.
The toys are the new mechanic for this season, future vision and teleportation being the main players in The Penal Zone. For the first time ever you get to control Max, entering his mind and controlling his sight from a first person perspective. The future vision toy, as its name suggests, allows Max (and Sam, somehow) to see what is approaching. This is used to great effect to create puzzles, letting you work backwards from seeing the solution and trying to figure out how to get to that stage – or in some cases, stop it from happening. Teleportation cleverly comes in to play later on in the game, letting you warp through space to any phone’s telephone number you have. Although it allows for puzzles of its own, it also eliminates backtracking and lets you switch to a different location at the ring of a phone.
As seen in Telltale’s two previous developments, Wallace & Gromit and Monkey Island, direct control has taken over from a full point-and-click control scheme. Although people stuck in their own ways may sneer at the change, give it a chance and you’ll see how utterly better it is. Not only does it allow for more cinematic camera angles, you get the feeling you’re controlling exactly where Sam goes. No longer do you click and watch him stroll across, now you make his every move. There are a variety of control schemes at your command: first is using the keyboard to steer and the mouse to click on objects and interact with them, which I found to be the best option. Second is the ability to operate everything with your mouse, clicking and then dragging in the direction you want Sam to walk, but this feels clunky and awkward. You can also plug in a gamepad to drive with the thumbstick and select with the buttons, an option that works fine and that those more at home on consoles will prefer.
For the first time in any Sam & Max game, you really get a sense that they actually live in a city. A new map feature allows you to drive to other locations in the neighbourhood, no longer tying you down to the street. You don’t just jump in the DeSoto and find yourself inside somewhere; you’ll see Sam & Max driving, then park outside and continue from there. It’s used fairly effectively towards the end of the game in a clue finding segment laid out across the city’s shops. However, although there are different fronts to the stores, I felt a slight twinge of disappointment when you don’t actually get to go inside them. Even if it was just a small interior with a basic design, waiting outside while you see Sam & Max go in detracts from the enjoyment slightly.
The streets of New York have seen their cleanliness stripped away, presenting a dirtier interpretation similar to that found in the original Steve Purcell comics. There’s graffiti climbing up every building and grit occupies each corner. Wherever you look there’ll be vermin scrambling around, like a rat swimming through a sewer, a fat pigeon lurking on a roof or a cockroach scuttling along a table. And although there aren’t people wandering in the background, trains and cars zoom past to create a bustling atmosphere. Along with making it feel more mucky and industrial, these details bring everything to life and give the illusion you’re in a place that is actively inhabited.
Also taking a leaf from the comics are the character’s more expressive and varied movements. All the new animations, ranging from Sam’s pronounced grin or Max’s furrowing brow, make everyone far livelier than they were before. It’s such a joy to watch that I felt inclined to leave the subtitles off, an adventure gaming first for me. Overall presentation across the board is equally as impressive. Fans will be in their element when the new opening sequence rolls, and Max’s inner psyche is a sight to behold – when entering his mind random stock images will flash up, and bizarre objects float around the environment. A new Mass Effect-inspired dialogue selector now just shows the subject of the line you’re selecting, with the options becoming greyed out to show when you’ve exhausted it. All of this is stunningly brought to life using Telltale’s update graphics engine, now capable of real time shadows and updated textures.
As is to be expected in any Telltale title, the audio is stellar. All the new characters are given suitably awesome voices, my favourite being the Brain’s light and whimsical tones. David Nowlin and William Kasten return to voice Sam and Max respectively, with Nowlin definitely finding his stride, ditching some of the dry delivery found in the past in favour of a punchier delivery. Jared Emerson-Johnson and his team provide wonderful music yet again, almost subconsciously playing along in the background and submerging you in the action. The only minor quarrel is a bug during the opening credits sequence which causes the intro theme to be played at a low volume, although this may be fixed in the final release.
There’s really very little to fault with The Penal Zone. This is exactly the type of episode I was hoping for, bringing some new mechanics into play and sprucing everything up. As long as the next four episodes don’t fall down the recycled content trap that entangled the previous seasons, it looks like we’re in for a very exciting ride in The Devil’s Playhouse. Welcome back, little buddies.