Sam & Max The Devil's Playhouse Episode 301: The Penal Zone

Posted by Erik-André Vik Mamen.
First posted on 15 April 2010. Last updated on 25 August 2010.
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Sam & Max The Devil's Playhouse Episode 301: The Penal Zone
Sam: canine shamus
Sam & Max The Devil's Playhouse Episode 301: The Penal Zone
Max: hyperkinetic rabbity thing
Sam & Max The Devil's Playhouse Episode 301: The Penal Zone
Who is the mysterious narrator?
Sam & Max The Devil's Playhouse Episode 301: The Penal Zone
Max surfs on top of Sam's DeSoto Adventurer, in style and in danger.
Sam & Max The Devil's Playhouse Episode 301: The Penal Zone
The new interface simplifies dialog selection.

Sam & Max: Season Three

The season, Sam & Max The Devil's Playhouse, is comprised of 5 episodes:

Episode 301: The Penal Zone

Episode 302: The Tomb of Sammun-Mak

Episode 303: They Stole Max's Brain!

Episode 304: Beyond the Alley of the Dolls

Episode 305: The City That Dares Not Sleep

Telltale Games has had great success in reviving LucasArts' Sam & Max franchise. The company released Sam & Max: Season One (subsequently re-released as Sam & Max Save the World) in 2006 and Sam & Max: Season Two (subsequently re-released as Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space) in 2007 to both commercial and critical acclaims. The episodic series then went on a long hiatus, during which the series was re-released on other gaming platforms. Finally, after much fanbase anticipation, Telltale Games is now ready to return the series for a third season. The new season, The Devil's Playhouse, will again comprise of 5 short episodes—the first episode is The Penal Zone.

The trademark bizarre antic and politically incorrect humor of Sam and Max return to full force for the new season. Once again, the dynamic duo of "canine shamus" and "hyperkinetic rabbity thing" hold deep to their belief that guns are the answer to fighting crime, and they care little about people whom they "do not" know. For people whom they "do" know, they do not really care that much either.

This episode is no exception. The game starts out rather absurdly: Sam and Max are trapped on an alien spaceship, which is getting ready to destroy the Earth. This is not the only bizarre revelation, however. The alien captain seems to be a space gorilla, and Max has suddenly developed strange psychic powers. Fortunately, Sam and Max are able to quickly defeat the alien gorilla, but only to discover that this is just another of Max's psychic visions of their future.

The first vision of the future serves as an introduction as well as a tutorial for the game. This tutorial is a welcomed start, as the new and expanded interface can seem a bit overwhelming at first, even for fans already familiar with the series. The tutorial states more or less exactly what to do, so that the player can complete it rather quickly. Once the game proper starts, it is revealed that Max has found by accident a device that lets him (and Sam) see the future. The alien captain, whose name is Skun-ka'pe, arrives on Earth apparently looking for a similar artifact. Of course, Skun-ka'pe claims that he is on a peaceful mission. He is also eager to get a hold on as many of the mole people as possible, which is rather suspicious. It is easy to see that his intentions are questionable, but everybody else seems to trust him. There is also the mysterious narrator, who tells the story of what is going on.

Telltale Tool, the engine on which the game is run, has improved a lot. The most notable improvement is the graphic texture, such as the texture of Sam's suit (or perhaps Sam has just brought a new wardrobe for a new assignment). The background scenes are now populated with more details, and character animations are now enhanced with more special effects.

Past seasons of the series have been criticized for heavy recycling of scenes between different episodes. It is too early to tell whether or not this will be the case also for this season. So far, only a few locales from previous episodes have made reappearances, all of which have been heavily modified so that they appear rather fresh. Still, some familiar scenes are to be expected—after all, Sam and Max are still living in the same neighborhood. It is noteworthy, however, to find that Sam and Max's office, once served as a starting hub for the game where they receive their new assignments from the commissioner, seems to be closed for good. This may mean that the new series is ready to make a change in the familiar formula in how each episode will begin.

Past seasons of the series have been praised for their very stylish intros. The developer has rightly decided to keep this cult style. In addition to the reworked intro, whenever a new character is introduced, the game now pauses momentarily to give a short description of that character. This is probably done for the benefits of gamers who may not be familiar with the history of the series.

It is very easy to see that Telltale Games is no longer aiming to release its games on the PC only, but also the consoles and even mobile devices. This game is the first game to be released by Telltale Games on Apple's iPad. To accommodate this platform expansion, the user interface has been reworked to use direct control (similar to that used in Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures and Tales of Monkey Island), rather than point-and-click control for character movement.

The inventory still appears as a little box icon, but now it opens to a large box showing all available inventory items. There are also more options to manipulate items in the inventory. Not only can you describe and take out the items, some items can also be used in a special way, such as reading the content of a note (rather than just describing it) or activating a device.

The biggest change in character interaction, by far, is the new way of controlling Max. Given his new psychic abilities, he can now be controlled by clicking on an icon of him and choosing a power. The most useful ability is teleportation, which allows Max (and Sam) to travel instantly to other people's telephones, provided that Max knows their phone numbers. The other heavily used ability is the future device, which can be activated to show a clip of what is going to happen. Other new abilities are likely to be unlocked in future episodes. When playing as Max, there is still no way to move the character. He can look around, however, and can see the scene from another perspective that is not otherwise possible.

The dialog system has gotten an overhaul too. It is no longer possible to know ahead what Sam will say. Instead, a subject such as a name or an attitude towards a character is chosen to trigger a question or reply about the subject.

The notebook is a new element. It can be used to read up on the bio of the characters in the episode, an explanation of Max's psychic powers, and even a summary of the current case, such as what is done and what that remains to be done.

Telltale Games has always included a robust hint system in its games. The built-in hint system remains the same in this episode. A character, usually Max, will utter at random times on where the player needs to go or what the player needs to do. Sometimes, the hint is vague; other times, the hint is more direct. The level of help sets the regularity by which these hints are given out. In addition, the ability to see the future is also a form of hint in disguise. When this ability is used on a character or an object, it is possible to see what the correct action is. The future device is also deeply integrated into several key puzzles in the game. For example, in a particular scene, Sam states that he has no idea what he is looking for in a garbage can, but Max can use the future device to see what needs to be picked up.

Sam & Max The Devil's Playhouse Episode 301: The Penal Zone is not only a great leadoff for the new season, it is probably the most impressive episode for the entire series. Notwithstanding the somewhat overwhelming new interface, the game is nearly flawless. It is funny to play and to experience. Keep up the good work, Telltale Games! Max demands more psychic powers!

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