So, after two years Sam and Max are back for season 3 of Telltale’s re-imagining of Steve Purcell‘s classic characters. Now, I’ll admit right away I’m not a Sam and Max regular, however with this being the comedy duo’s first adventure to be released simultaneously on PC and console (and new platforms such as iPad), it is aimed squarely at newcomers to the series, as well as the regulars.

The Penal Zone, episode 1 of new season: The Devil’s Playhouse, throws players into a wacky, B-movie-esque adventure with plenty of great puzzles and laugh out loud moments. The episode starts with a flash forward to the Freelance Police defeating malevolent ape from space: General Skunkape, which provides a fun and handy tutorial for the games new ‘psychic powers’ and general control system. After the corny intro-sequence, complete with a science fiction style narrator, it’s back to the present and down to the traditional comedy adventuring we’ve come to expect from the series.

Welcome to The Penal Zone, friends!

Season 3 introduces a new element to this adventuring in the form of the psychic toys. Players get to control Max for the first time ever, using various ‘powers’ Max picks up through the course of the game and, presumably will continue to collect throughout the new season. Max’s psychic powers, which most notably include ‘Future Vision’ add a whole new dimension to the puzzles in The Penal Zone. Telltale’s Sam and Max series, like so many other modern adventure games, does away with the ‘verb’ structure for player interaction. The ‘verb’ interactions have been really important in the past, especially for comedy adventures, in providing the player with bonus interactions, glib remarks and deeper puzzle structure. I found myself entering a new room or environment and using ‘interact’ then all Max’s powers on everything in a similarly ritualistic way to how I would ‘use’, ‘look at’ and then ‘talk to’ everything in turn in a traditional adventure game.

Max’s powers in The Penal Zone also offer a great new way of ‘hinting’ the player through a puzzle. We often get a glimpse of the solution with the ‘Future Vision’ power, for example. Part way into the game, Max gets to use the teleport power and I was worried it was just a convenient way of rewarding the player with a ‘fast travel’ function, in the same way ‘Future Vision’ provided an extra hint system. I’m glad this turned out to not be the case. In the end you get to use both powers to solve some interesting puzzles in interesting ways.

The new dialogue 'wheel' - snazzy!

That said, there was an element of repetition in the process the puzzles were solved – and it’s one of the only faults I have with the game. Although the new powers provided some great new ways to solve a couple of particular puzzles, the same thing did start happening over and over – the same inventory item used with the same power to get the same result, just applied to different situations. This can be forgiven overall though, as the execution was always unique and funny and with new powers no doubt being introduced as we progress through the episodes, I can’t see this repetition being a problem in the season as a whole.

I’ve talked about the big addition to Sam and Max that this season introduces but it was the little things that made the game into a great few nights’ entertainment. The series has seen a substantial visual improvement and after having only played the free episode from season one, Abe Lincoln Must Die! I was pleasantly surprised by Sam and Max’s new models, textures and fonts. Did I say fonts? Yes, I did. Some real effort has clearly gone into adding a bit of polish to the style of the game’s menus and GUI but the one thing that stood out for me was the new fonts used throughout the game, which compared to the old were great – they used to look like clip art fonts. The new improved visuals are one of the improvements I hope they keep up across the season. I may sound shallow in this but it helped immeasurably with the immersion.

A thumb-stick icon? I wander why that's there?

The little bits of polish were especially great, being a relative newcomer to the series. When Sam and Max are first seen after the intro-sequence and when they meet regular characters for the first time, a ‘character bio’ freeze-frame kicks in, with one of Max’s descriptive bullets points, for example being: “Hyper-kinetic rabbity thing”. I can’t see these little diversions being a problem for regulars either; they are short enough and after the break are probably a welcome refresher and thus don’t seem at all out of place. Other little touches that made me smile were hotspot descriptions such as “spend time with pigeon”, the pictures that pop-up when you enter Max’s mind and a great science fiction reference when ending a conversation with Max: “Keep watching the skies, Max!”

I suppose one gripe for PC players would be Telltale’s decision to use their ‘drag-to-move’ control system in the game, as opposed to the traditional point-and-click. After about two minutes of randomly clicking the floor I seized to find it a problem, though. Point and click works great in 2D but in fact, the new drag-to-move system is actually an improvement for keeping the camera under control (which is important as many of the rooms have appropriately wacky camera angles). I was worried I would end up just using WASD to move Sam – which ruins the ‘play with one hand whilst sipping a drink’ advantage of adventure games but actually got used to the new controls very quickly.

I come in peace. Honest.

In short I found the game to have few faults besides some repetitive puzzles. The story and characters were funny and unique, the one liners were top notch and all the dialogue had me feeling warm inside, if not snorting audibly. The puzzles in The Penal Zone were moderate in difficulty and Telltale have done a good job of guiding less experienced players through – both by using the powers system and helpful comments from Sam as you wander around. Despite this and despite the extra emphasis on The Penal Zone’s console release and iPad début, I felt there had been no amount of ‘dumbing down’ with the puzzles. I got stuck plenty of times.

The style of zany comedy in The Penal Zone lends itself incredibly well to the adventure genre and it’s great to see Telltale sticking to this style and even intensifying it, despite the potential new audience. And that is what I really admire about Telltale’s approach to this game: how they haven’t toned it down one bit. In fact, they’ve taken it one step further in its quirkiness, wacky-ness and general adventure game-ness – and they’ve totally pulled it off. I’d recommend this game to any fan of the genre and anyone else at that!

Mark’s Score: 4/5 starks

About The Author

Mark Richards is a physics undergraduate, making games with AGS in spare time (not easy by the way). His big project is called The Longevity Gene (a dystopian sci-fi game) and he has a couple of collaborations lined up that will happen with a bit of luck. The Longevity Gene’s progress, vids, screenshots & other goodies can be followed here.