Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Episode Four – Beyond the Alley of the Dolls (PC)

POSITIVE
Some great jokes; excellent, enthralling story; music is a real standout; wide selection of psychic toys adds variety; climatic ending
NEGATIVE
Some bad jokes; heavy reliance on past season characters; new locations (bar the finale) are boring; as buggy as ever

So, we’ve got Max’s brain back, but now there’s another problem on our hands – a bunch of Sam clones are running loose, calling out for “toys” as they close into our faithful detective pair. Beyond the Alley of the Dolls is the penultimate episode in this craze-packed Sam and Max season, and after the fairly disappointing outing last month I was hoping for something to boost the experience back to excellence. Sadly, until the very last act of the game, the quality the series has established itself for is still lacking  due to bland locations and an overabundance of characters from previous seasons.

We open outside Stinky’s diner, with girl Stinky shouting at Grandpa for firing her beloved Sal (pay attention to this plot point, it gets weird later on). There’s little time for conversation with those clones clambering down the street though, so the pair, along with Sam, Max and a frightened Skun’ka’pe take shelter inside the diner. It’s here that some epic music kicks in, similar to that you’d find in a blockbuster movie, and it’s worth noting the quality of the score throughout this episode. It elevates things to a new level and successfully ramps up the intensity to match the plot. The music can often go unmentioned, but it really stood out to me here as a shining feature.

Clones attack Stinky's as Max holds them off in trigger happy fashion

With the clones invading the city, Sam and Max make use of a tunnel system to get to most places. They’ll first find themselves in an underground cloning lair, a fairly bland environment with little to explore. It has false depth and is made up of greys and purples. It’s all very clinical and industrial and doesn’t have any particular zany charm; it functions fine, but you’d expect something just a bit more out there in design for this series. There’s also the dock, a generic New York locale that is just boring. It has nothing going for it and is a cheap addition rather than a substantial place of exploration. The final scene, the setting of which I won’t spoil, is the best new location, which is ironic considering you spend the least time there. It’s grand on scale and a brilliantly written scenario, wrapped together with a variety of different puzzles.

Making a return are some familiar faces. Perhaps too familiar. There are seven (including the Stinky pair) supporting characters in this episode that have made appearances in past seasons, some more welcome than others. Considering that in a sequel to a full retail game you’d be unlikely to see such high numbers of returning cast, it’s frustrating that Telltale feel need to recycle in such a vital area. There are some new(ish) and interesting faces popping up though, including the unveiling of the mysterious Dr. Norrington and an amusing high-pitched fellow with an inflated sense of importance. Greats such as Paiperwaite and Sal make a welcome return here too, their individual plots developing excitingly well.

The overall story that these people find themselves in is totally enthralling. Who cloned Sam? Who is working for whom? It unravels as it progresses, and the twists and turns are gripping, as well as being great fun. Although the overview is exciting, the writing does occasionally suffer in the way of humour. Some jokes fall flat, while Max’s constant insisting of correcting any mention of clones to doggelgangers wears a mildly amusing joke into the dirt. Then spits on it. On the flip side, some of the humour is on top form. Harry Moleman comes out with some particular winners, there’s a great Shakespeare parody and the reference to a certain team class-based shooter is pure brilliance.

Thanks to the inclusion of nearly all the psychic toys, the puzzles in this episode are pretty varied. There is a new ‘destroyer’ toy, but it doesn’t really do much apart from the obvious. Not all of them are used as much as each other, but it’s good to see the mind reading cards get utilised well. There still isn’t a huge reliance on the inventory, which may swing you either way, but I found the difficulty level satisfying. Apart from one puzzle where you fiddle with dials that I solved randomly (and still have no idea how it works), everything else is logical and clear.

Sam ponders the curious disappearance of his most trusted friend: his hat

As seems to be the running theme for this season, Beyond the Alley of the Dolls doesn’t get by without its fair share of technical bugs. Probably the most so far, in fact. Flint Paper obstructs the view during dialogue; Max will turn invisible and just leave his gun floating; characters jump to a different place when you click an item; the refusal to act upon a mouse click… the list mounts up, and it’s a real shame to see the quality slipping like this, especially on some of the more obvious issues.

Last month I was fairly critical of certain parts in They Stole Max’s Brain!. I can’t say I enjoyed Beyond the Alley of the Dolls much more. It has a strong opening and a stellar ending, it’s just the meat inbetween that is fairly plain. The episode is bloated with old characters and is boring to explore. The fact that it’s still as buggy as ever doesn’t help either. Telltale seem to have let their quality control down in the middle of this season, and I just hope that the conclusive episode will deliver on where this one left off.