Review: Sam and Max 302: The Tomb of Sammun-Mak
My respect for Tell Tale Games continues to grow. Not satisfied with the standard point and click, inventory-dependent nature of the adventure game formula, they've used the third season of Sam and Max to experiment with new ways of leading the player through puzzles and even new ways of telling stories. So far, this season looks to redefine how adventure games are made.
This latest episode, The Tomb of Sammun-Mak, doesn't even star Sam and Max at all, but rather their turn-of-the-century counterparts, Sameth and Maximus. After the completely random non sequitur that was The Penal Zone, Tell Tale has us take a break and witness a prequel of sorts - the origins of this season's big McGuffin: the Devil's Toy Chest. Where did it come from? What is its purpose? Does it validate parking? All are revealed, Lost-style!
I won't give away any details of the story, since that's what makes up the delicious feast of playing the game yourself. But what I will marvel at is the amazing level of detail when it comes to continuity. Time manipulation continues to be a strong theme here, though it is used in an entirely different manner than the first go-round. Instead of using clairvoyance to solve puzzles, you are now tasked with weaving together a three act movie. If you've ever been checked for head trauma, one of the tests they give you is to assemble a coherent story out of various tiles with scenes drawn onto them. Episode 302 takes that game mechanic and runs with it.
I don't care how much candy he says he has, do not get in this man's car, kids!
One of the new puzzle elements in the game is using time manipulation to learn simple information like passwords and punchlines. Don't know how you got on a train bound for Egypt? No problem, just skip ahead to act 2 and have someone tell in casual conversation. The puzzle aspect comes in the form of getting that conversation to occur in the first place. It's an ingenious new spin on the adventure mechanic that eschews inventory headaches and even keeps the gimmick of Max's psychic powers to a minimum, thus preserving their appeal when you do use them. At most, I only ever had three items on me at one time, and two of those stayed with me the entire episode.
The other stand-outs of this episode were the clever origin stories for many established characters and the general quality of the voice over work. Who would have thought that Jergen the vampire (from episode 203) started his life as a vampire hunter? Or that the mole people emigrated from Egypt 100 years ago? Tell Tale rewards the player who has completed the previous two seasons with tons of easter eggs and returning characters. Even Santa is back as a nasty little robber-baron archetype!
Comedic timing is something that is very hard to pull off in games, where timing is at the mercy of programmed scripts firing on cue. Yet somehow, everything is seamless, with people talking over each other when needed and awkward pauses lasting just the right amount of time. Along with that, the voices are pitch-perfect with these cartoon personalities. The standout for me is Baby Amelia Earhart. Yes she's a baby, but she has the voice of a charismatic, no-nonsense 1940's era liberated woman. I'm not ashamed to admit that I developed a small crush on that baby. And yes, writing that sentence means I'll never be able to run for office.
Baby Amelia Earhart lays out her eight-point rebuttal.
Another welcome departure from the norm was in the varied environments. Many have pointed out that in order for Tell Tale to produce so much content, year round, they needed to reuse set pieces and character models. While the characters are all well-established by now, the scenery in Sammun-Mak is entirely new. I was shocked when, while walking down a 1901 New York street, I eventually realized that it was the same street I had been plodding back and forth on for two seasons already. It was at that moment that I became aware of just how much effort Tell Tale has been putting into strengthening the "weaknesses" of their games.
If there's one area where this episode isn't quite stellar, it's in the humor. Between all the time jumping and character development, there just didn't seem to be much time for lots of jokes. I laughed a few times and smiled through a lot of it, but it just wasn't as funny as previous Tell Tale games. Personally, though, I'm willing to sacrifice some jokes for the engrossing immersion that I got while playing.
Max - the incontinent years.
Now comes the tricky part. Those of you reading this will either have bought the whole season already, or you haven't. If you have, then this review is just for your own entertainment. If you haven't, then you it's not like you can pick this up by itself. So what does this review seek to accomplish? For the rest of the season, I'll be keeping a tally of the quality of each episode and adjusting the score of the overall season as it progresses. 301 started things off well and I recommended it to most people. 302 has upped the ante and knocked this season into a full blown "Buy it!" This rating may change as the season marches on, so stay tuned for next month's review.