Sam and Max Season 3: The Penal Zone (PC)
Adventure games have changed very little since the days of King's Quest and Maniac Mansion. Combining items with other items, stealing everything that isn't nailed down by the developer, simple dialogue trees...it's been the same formula for decades. And as much as I've rejoiced at the second comings of Monkey Island and Sam & Max, I have to admit that the formula was starting to get tiresome. But just when I think developer Tell Tale Games has settled into a nice, profitable niche, they decide, "Aw what the hell, let's throw a wrench in the ol' formula." Thus begins Sam & Max Season 3: The Devil's Playhouse.
The first thing you will notice about the opening chapter of Season 3 (The Penal Zone) is that chronology is no longer a constant in the story telling. We start at the end and work our way forward through flashbacks. The tutorial, while short and sweet, is itself, rife with great jokes and even a hefty amount of plot relevance, which you won't even realize until later on. Here, we are also introduced to a Rod Serling-esque narrator, who adds a wonderful Twilight Zone atmosphere.
Even the credits are fun to watch!
Tell Tale is committed to the idea of playing with time, as you receive a device right after the tutorial that allows Max see the futures of certain characters and items. Don't know how to sneak by a giant gorilla guard? Just point your new future vision device at him and witness a helpful hint, showing how you managed to do it in the future. One of the best things about this story telling invention is that it provides for great joke material. At one point, in a future vision we see Sam in utter amazement when he witnesses the result of pushing a secret button and we, the audience are that much more excited to see what he saw. Upon finally pushing the button in the present, Sam, again, reacts with awe, but now that the outcome is plainly visible to everyone, Max jokes that Sam's reaction was disproportionate, subtly, playfully poking the audience for falling for such a gag.
The fourth wall is a constant casualty in this episode. Some of the best jokes involve calling attention to video games, TV and movies and one gets the feeling that Sam and Max are fully aware that they don't really exist and are, in fact, being controlled by the player. It's odd, but hilarious, to control characters that act both as the story's heroes and also the Greek Chorus.
Along with the future vision "toy", Max is, at varying times, granted access to alien machines that give him the power to teleport, read minds and even morph into other object. Other than just being damn fun to play around with, these new toys serve to shake up the old item-collecting-and-combining formula. Yes, you still collect items, but now (for the most part), they serve as clues rather than tools. Your real tools are the toys of power. And this couldn't be a bigger breath of fresh air, for the genre.
Don’t ask what’s going on below the camera.
Items, now relegated to clues, finally allow Sam and Max to be the detectives they always claimed to be. Combining two items in the new Crime-Tron device will allow Sam and Max to pinpoint new locations to investigate. For example, analyzing a shot glass with the contact list inside a cell phone, could open up a new bar location. The times when you would need to actually give certain people items from your inventory are few and far between, and only then, you have to use the toys of power to even figure out those solutions. No more random clicking through every item you own, hoping you get lucky.
Some areas of concern are the difficulty and controls. Being able to see the future is a great idea, but it can make some puzzles a bit too easy, giving you a bit too much information. I'm going to give Tell Tale a pass on this, however, as this experimental functionality not only affects gameplay but also narrative, and thus, gets high marks for being done so well on the first attempt. I'm sure future episodes will even further refine the mechanics, or maybe even introduce another game-changer. Controls are under constant revision at Tell Tale, always tweaked from season to season, trying to find the best balance between ease of use, functionality with new console frontiers, and robustness to navigate the ever increasing complexity of the environments (because point and click movement just isn't sufficient enough anymore). Personally, I had no trouble using WASD throughout while holding down mouse buttons to navigate works equally well, and so I'm also willing to give this area a pass as well, vocal complainers notwithstanding.
Tell Tale now requires that you purchase the entire season rather than individual episodes. And while this eliminates the "Try the first episode to see if you like it" recommendation as a possibility, there was a clear reason why they adopted this new tact. The Penal Zone (following in the footsteps of their Tales of Monkey Island episodes) is highly serialized. It doesn't, yet, tell a complete story and playing only one or two episodes out of the five would just be wrong. It's slightly disappointing to not get a complete story, with beginning, middle and end, but the promise of a much better, deeper and more complex story spanning five episodes more than makes up for it.
Normally, I would say that if you like adventure games, buy this and if adventure games bore you, avoid this. But since Tell Tale put such a fresh spin on things, I would petition everyone to give adventure games another try by buying Sam and Max Season 3. The Penal Zone is a wonderful intro episode and there's no reason to believe that it has anywhere else to go from here but up.
This review is based off a retail game.