Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse Review: Telltale’s Finest Series Yet?

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I was meaning to do a review for Sam & Max: Beyond the Alley of the Dolls over a month ago (to continue on from reviews I did for episodes one, two and three), but I decided that because of the way the series was structured – the episodes weren’t quite as stand alone as episodes in the previous series were – a season overview would probably be better suited. Now that Telltale Games have wrapped up the whole season, I thought it better to treat the whole thing as a full game, and write one review for the lot.

The Devil’s Playhouse starts off with Max discovering toys that give him psychic powers. This sets the pair – an anthropomorphic dog and “rabbity thing” – on a quest to stop a crazed space gorilla from destroying the city, watching an ancient film about their ancestors, who also encountered the toy box, running into an ancient pharaoh’s disembodied brain intent on ruling the world and more, all climaxing in an epic monster movie-type rampage on the streets of New York. The Devil’s Playhouse‘s plot is as crazy and varied as it sounds, and acts as a loving tribute to the b-movies it satirises and emulates.

The irreverent and slightly warped humour is still as dark and funny as it was back in Hit the Road, or the Surfin’ the Highway comics by creator Steve Purcell. The cast, whilst missing Bosco from the previous series, is a nice mix of new and old. Momma Bosco, Grandpa Stinky and the C.O.P.S round off the returning regulars, whilst General Skun’kape, Professor Norrington and Papierwaite are introduced as some of this season’s more memorable newcomers. One thing they have in common is that they’re unique, and all funny in their own way. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that The Devil’s Playhouse as a whole is a step above the previous two seasons’ humour, especially the second episode – The Tomb of Sammun-Mak – where the game peaks. From there on its consistently funny, but not quite as good.

Just like in the LucasArts classic, Hit the Road, The Devil’s Playhouse harks back to the adventure gaming days of old where thinking with wit was rewarded. Numerous times throughout the series I actually felt quite funny for trying things out with the toy box, sometimes finding an easter egg or sometimes accidentally solving a puzzle, but always feeling smart for joining the dots. Unlike many contemporary adventure games, including some of Telltale’s previous efforts, The Devil’s Playhouse made me feel smart and witty.

As with Telltale’s other games, The Devil’s Playhouse features classic adventuring, but is also mixed with the toy box gimmick. It was a fun variation on what many consider stale adventure gameplay stuck in the 90s, and the experiments you could do with it sometimes lead to amusing outcomes, if totally useless to progressing through the game. Though it’s fair to say that the blend of toy box puzzles and traditional challenges was a success, and Telltale should be credited for not relying too much on the new gameplay at the expense of the old. However, as great an addition it was, I think that they’ll have to do something different for the next season.

As opposed to previous Sam & Max games, the controls are closer to Tales of Monkey Island, with the option of either controlling movement with the mouse (emulating a joystick or the iPad’s touch screen), which I found rather rubbish on my PC setup, or the preferred option of controlling Sam with the W, A, S, D keys, and using the mouse to highlight items. These control schemes allowed for a larger variety of camera angles to be used, and more interesting environments to be had too, so it’s a marked improvement upon the traditional point & click interface, which really didn’t work well at all in the 3D space.

As for the episodes themselves, they were rather lengthy – between two and four hours each – meaning by the end of a season I’d got a full game’s worth of content nearing fifteen hours, which is considerably long for an adventure game (I’d normally expect under ten). This is down to the episodic approach, which I’m not sure will work when playing the whole season back to back. Personally I enjoyed the monthly gaps in between each episode, and the length of the full season is really conducive to this kind of play.

Whilst I’d say this is a great series, there are some flaws. Firstly, the difficulty was all over the place: episode one was the right difficulty level, and episode two ramped up the difficulty appropriately, but episode three was far too easy, as was episode five. I was extra upset that the penultimate episode had some really tricky puzzles in it, only to find that the series had lost a lot of its challenge by the finale.

My second gripe is that there was no Bosco. I can’t stress enough how awesome this character was, and for him to not feature at all is quite disappointing. Then again, he played a large role in season two, and perhaps giving his character a break for a potential return in the next season is a good idea. Though considering none of voice actor Joey Camen’s characters – Bosco and the Jimmy Two Teeth family – appeared in The Devil’s Playhouse, I suspect he wasn’t available to reprise the roles this time around.

All this said, The Devil’s Playhouse was Telltale’s best series yet. Aside from a few inconsistencies with the difficulty, the whole experience was a positive one. If you like adventure games then Telltale are making the best ones right now, and this is their flagship title. If you want to get into the genre, the easily digestible chunks mean you can span your adventuring over weeks or months without becoming fatigued, and you wont return to the game from a long stint and have to re-learn everything all over.

The Devil’s Playhouse is an excellent buy for adventure gamers and Sam & Max fans alike, and a decent place to start for people new to the genre.

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