by Stefanie Fogel
reviewed on PC
The Freelance Police are back!
When we last left the Freelance Police in 2008's Beyond Time and Space, canine gumshoe Sam and his hyperkinetic rabbity-thing partner Max (he prefers to be called a lagomorph) journeyed to Hell to rescue their friend Bosco's soul and stop a trio of washed up child actors from taking over the world. The episodic point-and-click adventure skewered Santa Claus, the Bermuda Triangle, the walking dead and even Satan with its unique blend of insane humor and pop culture parody. Now, season three is upon us in the form of The Devil's Playhouse Episode One - The Penal Zone.
A parody of The Twilight Zone - complete with Rod Sterling-esque narrator - Sam and Max's latest adventure brings back all the gleeful absurdity fans of the series love as it pokes fun at everything from Planet of the Apes to Lord of the Rings. It continually breaks through the fourth wall with lines like, "He's biased towards non-player characters," "That's an answer for another episode" and "Luckily, people don't do anything until we talk to them." It's also not above making jokes about the word "Penal." The episode begins with the anthropomorphic crimefighting duo being held captive on board the flagship of General Skun-ka'pe, a power-hungry warlord who has just escaped from an interdimensional prison. Telltale Games has given their long-running adventure series a major overhaul. The opening scene serves as the game's tutorial, before rewinding events a bit to explain how Sam and Max got into that situation in the first place.
No, Max! Not the Chrysler Building!
The biggest change to the series is how the player interacts with Max, who now has psychic powers thanks to some mystical children's toys. In earlier seasons, he was the unplayable sidekick, there to provide color commentary and the occasional hint. But now Max and his newfound powers are not only integral to the plot, they are integral to the game play as well. By taking limited control of Max, players can use his psychic abilities to solve puzzles. Using a viewfinder and Future Vision, he can get a glimpse into the future for clues on what to do next. A toy telephone lets him teleport to other phones who's number he knows, taking whatever unfortunate soul is touching him at the time along for the ride. And some Silly Putty lets him shapeshift into any object he makes an imprint with, like a house plant or a bazooka. Getting a peek into the psychotic rabbity-thing's melon sized head provides a couple of fun sight gags that include flashes of real life black and white photos, warped music and phantom livestock. One great scene in particular – that I won't spoil that occurs soon after you get the ability to teleport – is brilliant.
The psychic powers are well-designed and add an extra layer to the usual "smoosh two objects together and see what works" mechanic adventure fans have come to expect over the years. However, they are also my biggest gripe with the game. I felt that the psychic powers, the new journal that catalogues clues and provides background information on the plot and characters, and the usual in-game hint system were an overabundance of help. I breezed through all of the game's puzzles without once having to Google a walkthrough. Some might consider that a good thing, but personally I missed the challenge of figuring things out on my own through experimentation and the odd logic one develops when they play way too many adventure titles. There was little sense of accomplishment to be found in the puzzles of The Penal Zone, so I hope the developers present more of a challenge in later episodes.
Use gun with gorilla
The controls have been redone, obviously with the console crowd in mind. In fact, The Penal Zone might be the first PC game I have ever played where I felt it would have been easier to plug in a game controller, rather than use the mouse and keyboard. Not that the controls are bad, per se, but I have never been a big fan of using click-and-drag to move. Interacting with NPCs is now done through a Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel, and the game has been given a much-needed face lift. Sam and Max's cartoony world is now covered in a light film-grain effect and there are a few new locations to explore, including the inside of a spaceship shaped like a simian's head and the outside of the Freelance Police's favorite restaurant, Meesta Pizza. Many familiar faces from earlier seasons are back, along with all the same voice actors, who do as good a job as ever. David Nowlin and William Kasten reprise their roles as Sam and Max with their usual dry wit, but sometimes its the pair's facial expressions that get the biggest laughs. Thanks to the design team, the Freelance Police have never looked better.
As a fan of the Sam & Max series, and adventure games in general, I thoroughly enjoyed The Penal Zone despite its few flaws. It is a funny, solid start to the new season, with a climatic ending that leaves you eager to get your hands on episode two. But you probably don't need me to tell you that. If you are a fan of the Freelance Police also, this is already on your must-play list. If you are a newcomer, this is a good time to jump into one of the funniest titles currently on the market.
Sam & Max are as funny as ever; graphics have improved; psychic powers are well-implemented.
Puzzles are way too easy.