Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Episode Three – They Stole Max’s Brain! (PC)

POSITIVE

Atmospheric opening acts; noir Sam is a bad ass; top voice acting; Sal is a great new introduction; on-going story is ramping up in excitement

NEGATIVE

Far too easy; short as a result; full of repetition in a variety of areas; psychic toys get boring; some animations look unpolished

Time flies when you’re episodic. They Stole Max’s Brain! is Telltale’s latest release in their dog-and-rabbity thing saga, and I think you can guess what it entails. Someone, or something, has stolen our furry friend’s noggin power. When Sam discovers the horror of his lifelong buddy’s head flapping open, he flips out and presents a darker side of himself: sleeves rolled up, gun showing in holster and a gnarling expression. However, he doesn’t stay like this for the whole adventure, splitting the episode in two stylistically distinct halves – the good and the mediocre.

First, Sam sets out questioning everyone he can find as to the location of Max’s brain. Taking some advice from Flint Paper, Sam employs hard-boiled detective techniques, allowing the player to engage in dialogue puzzles through smacking, interrupting and questioning the suspects to gain information. It lets David Nowlin show off his voice acting skills, switching between the gruff and composed to provide a humorous effect. To scout out the liars Sam will travel back and forth between an assortment of minor characters, although it’s here that some repetition will occur when, on returning for multiple visits, they repeat lines you’ve heard previously. The overall mechanic feels underutilised; this is the only time through the whole episode it’s used and thus doesn’t fulfil its potential. Regardless, it’s a unique and fun, albeit easy, way to open the episode and set the mood.

Neon signs fly past as Sam speeds the DeSoto along the open roads

The opening acts are a great parody of the noir films, with the film grain effect working especially well here. The dark, gloomy night is brought to life with the floating mist and crashing thunder and lightning. There’s some brilliant cinematic direction in here too, such as Sam lugging Max across a road as cars zoom past or the window-lit buildings and neon signs scrolling in the background as Sam drives in the DeSoto. Mix in some jazz and you’ve got a superb atmosphere which, disappointingly, isn’t retained for the second half of the episode. Instead, the local neighbourhood is decked out with sand and Egyptian imagery. It’s an interesting touch, with some neat twists here and there, but it just comes off as too familiar to The Tomb of Sammun-Mak and as a result feels slightly bland and samey.

Both Skun’ka’pe and Paiperwaite make a welcomed return to the cast. I won’t spoil their involvement in the story, but suffice to say it’s great to see these characters back and becoming more defined. The plot in this episode is perhaps the best so far, if only due to the joining together of elements and increasing pace of excitement that is forming. Questions are raised throughout that’ll leave you hungry for answers. A new chap – pardon, cockroach – by the name of Sal is introduced as the museum’s security guard. Right off the bat I knew Sal would be one of my favourite characters. His calm, inviting voice and friendly personality make him instantly likeable and I’d have no quarrels with seeing him return in the future, despite his fairly significant role throughout the episode.

Although the aforementioned dialogue engagements are inventive, the rest of the puzzles rely far too much on Max’s psychic powers. More specifically the Rhinoplasty, which makes up the majority of the solutions. In fact, two key moments are solved basically identically. Future Vision is used very briefly and there’s a neat scenario in the museum involving Sal’s headset, but other than that there is little variety to be found. It not only makes the episode feel formulaic, but easy and short in length because of it. After some of the clever approaches to puzzles in the previous episodes, this is just a step back in design.

Lightning clashes through the dark museum to create great atmospherics

A couple of other problems have snuck in. On arrival at a certain location, Sam attempts, and fails, to slide over the bonnet of his car. It’s a funny joke, but it’s played every single time you arrive there, completely sucking the humour from the gag and highlighting the stiff and odd-looking character model animation of it. Elsewhere, the molemen are meant to be running fast, but the motions of their legs look far too sped up. Assumingly these are issues that could have been dealt with fairly easily, and it’s just sloppy that they’ve been left in. You may think it’s minor, but they stand out and I found it to be quite jarring and annoying.

Don’t get the impression that They Stole Max’s Brain! is a bad game. It certainly isn’t. What it is, however, is a game ripe with creative juices that fail to see the light of day. The opening acts of the game are highly enjoyable and engaging, and the plot is gripping with interesting characters, but as the episode progresses it falls downhill into lacklustre puzzles and concludes pretty quickly. You’ll definitely get thrills while playing through, but you’ll probably be left wondering what could have been.