They Stole Max’s Brain! Indeed, they have. But who is they? In the third episode of The Devil’s Playhouse, Sam sets off alone to find out just that.

Actually, Sam finds out pretty much straight away who stole Max’s brain and let’s just say it’s no surprise. The opening section of episode three takes the shape of an inspired noir parody. Sam, with his hat off and his sleeves up, drives his DeSoto about town roughing up suspects and delivering moody monologues. An interesting new gameplay mechanic is introduced, allowing Sam to get information from his suspects by threatening, interrupting or shouting “liar!” during dialogues, providing a great mix of timing and logic. Weirdly, this inspired new type of puzzle is the only one of its kind in the game. Also, by the time it’s over you know exactly who stole Max’s brain. Properly integrated into the standard Sam and Max template (like the psychic toys have now been) the mystery and the puzzle could have overarched the whole episode brilliantly.

Talk!

Don’t worry though, amazing as the first few minutes are, the episode never stops being a solid slice of comedy adventure gaming. The moody lighting and noir theme carries on into the second chunk of the game, with some great backgrounds and hilarious writing. By this point, still trying to get Max’s brain back, Sam does find a brain and this leads to more great humour and a cunning way of re-introducing the psychic toys.

There are no new arrivals this month with regard to the psychic toys, with Max (or not so Max) having access to ‘Future Vision’, ‘Teleportation’ and ‘Rhinoplasty’ to the usual effect. Whilst ‘Future Vision’, as it did in The Penal Zone, acted as a nice hint system, ‘Teleportation’ got somewhat forgotten about. There is only one point in the game where the toy is used for something you couldn’t achieve on foot or with the DeSoto. The emphasis in They Stole Max’s Brain is very much on the ‘Rhinoplasty’ power. It does make for a couple of fun puzzles but its re-introduction just isn’t as strong as the two other powers, when they were used in The Penal Zone. Because ‘Rhinoplasty’ involves turning Max from one thing into another, when to use it is almost always obvious, leaving the majority of the puzzling to the other powers or the different mechanics.

The absence of Max’s brain in his body leads to a frightening alternate world, ruled by an adolescent and extremely fickle Egyptian pharaoh, titled ‘Sammun-Mak’. This character provides the central puzzle mechanic of the later half of They Stole Max’s Brain!, concerning the player with winning the favour of the boy-pharaoh whilst grappling with Max-in-a-jar and a brain-washed Sam (which I have to say didn’t immediately come across).

It's gone all Egyptian-y! I'm sure I've said that before.

Straight and Narrow has been conspicuously re-rendered with sand encroaching on its doorways and massive statues and pyramids replacing some of its iconic shops. But it isn’t even half as great or interesting to look at as the moody night scenes in the opening section. Episode 3 also very nearly fell into the trap of completely re-using characters from previous episodes, with a certain Space Ape, creepy fez-wearing museum guy and the usual season 3 mole people all making a reappearance. In fact, the Stinkys are the first people you see in Egyptian-Straight and Narrow. Luckily, however, they do not provide the majority of the puzzles and ‘Sammun-Mak’ and Sal (an overworked, slightly dim cockroach security man) manage to steal the show.

All in all, They Stole Max’s Brain! is a good game; it’s just not a stellar Sam and Max episode. The game starts with a great premise and some innovative gameplay to match in Sam’s lone quest to save his best buddy and bring the culprit to justice. But this great premise is just plain wasted. Instead of a noir, yet zany, mystery yet silly episode to unravel the question of who ‘Stole Max’s Brain!’, there is a ten minute exploration of that idea with a standard fare episode attached. The important thing to note, however, is what ‘standard fare’ means when we are talking about a Sam and Max episode. It means a funny, well designed and good looking slice of adventure game goodness with some interesting puzzles and a tantalising cliff-hanger to get us all exciting about next month’s offering: Beyond the Alley of the Dolls.

Mark’s Score: 3/5 starks

How on Earth did that happen?