Review: Sam and Max 303: They Stole Max's Brain
Thus far, season 3 of Sam and Max has been stellar. Episode 1 introduced the toys of power which give Max various nifty puzzle-solving abilities. Episode 2 did an amazing job of providing a fun story and interesting characters. Does episode 3: They Stole Max's Brain continue the upward trend?
Picking up with the ludicrous non sequitur of Sam coming back from a bathroom break to find Max's brain missing (when will developers stop rehashing the same old story premises!?), our usually calm and collected doggy-cop descends into a grief-stricken madness, frothing at the mouth for answers and revenge. The new theme is Noir and developer Tell Tale knocks it out of the park. Sam sports an instant 5 o-clock shadow and a very visible gun holster as he violently, angrily interrogates everyone in his path.
To go along with the darker theme is a new conversation mechanic. Much like the trial portions of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney games, Sam has to cut into his victim's stories by either asking for more information, calling them liars, or even sticking a gun in their face. And just for the hell of it, you also have a "Noir" dialogue choice at every step, so Sam can pontificate drearily about all the misery and darkness in the world...funny, funny stuff.
Who does Number 2 work for!
However, once this brief segment is over (lasting about half an hour), the game quickly gets back to the usual adventure game fare. New environments include a creepy museum/planetarium during a thunderstorm and an alternate reality. But I've already said too much, don't want to spoil the surprises.
This adventure once again does a lion's share of plot progression, moving the story forward a lot in a short amount of time. Unfortunately, without the introduction or re-visitation of interesting characters, which episode 2 did so well, the game never quite feels as memorable. There is one exception, that being the giant cockroach, Sal. The funny thing is, his character is, aside from the obvious bug-y-ness, not all that animated or colorful. The reason he is so memorable is that he is voiced by someone who does a dead-on impersonation of Patrick Warburton (Family Guy, Venture Brothers) mixed with a dash of H. Jon Benjamin (Archer, Home Videos). For any fan of those adult cartoons, Sal will be someone you love talking to throughout the game.
Sam reenacts a scene from Office Space
Jokes, the only thing lacking from last month's episode, are more of a focus this time around. Half way through the game, for reasons I won't get into, Max has to assume the role of "voice of reason" and take charge of the situation. The problem is that he's still Max, and thus, wildly unstable and whimsical. The juxtaposition of Max as hero is a constant source of laughs that carries the game right to its conclusion. If Tell Tale can keep getting new jokes out of old friends, I have no doubt this will be the funniest season they have yet made.
The main problem with this episode is that it just doesn't do enough new things to be considered great. After beating on some punks and threatening some rats in the beginning, I was really excited to see where the story took me. But then I was immediately plunked down in the same old gameplay of collecting items and seeing into the future to figure out puzzles. I'll admit that, since I wasn't in the mood to play an adventure game, I had to force myself to play through and I was glad when it ended. Contrast that with the previous two episodes, where the "to be continued..." screen drove me mad with curiosity. Episode 3 just doesn't quite get there.
This installment has convinced me that Tell Tale's episodic games really do mirror episodic television, in more ways than one. Just like a successful TV series, most episodes are good, very few are outright bad, and some just linger in between. They Stole Max's Brain is one of those "eh" episodes. It doesn't do anything wrong but it also doesn't excel at anything, either. Aside from the 30 minute Noirish intro scenes, this is the same Sam and Max we've seen before. However, I can't be too hard on the game since the only reason I'm even a little negative is that Tell Tale set the bar so high with the first two episodes of season 3. This episode keeps the season at an even "buy it", but if the next entry doesn't resume that high standard, the season may be in danger of slipping back into "try it" territory.