The Sam and Max games have always had long titles, and season 3 is no different. Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse Episode 1 – The Penal Zone promises to be the start of an epic adventure that, in the words of the oh-so-eloquent narrator, “will blow your ever-loving mind.”
The story begins at the end, where suddenly Sam and Max must save the world from the evil alien gorilla General Skun-ka’pe by using Max’s newfound psychic abilities and a series of legendary psychic toys to send Skun-ka’pe back to the Penal Zone. Then we jump back in time to the beginning, starting a race against time and ape to find the toys first.
We only get to play with a few of the toys in this episode, and one of them is taken away after the initial puzzle, but so far, each toy adds a unique twist to the gameplay. Teleportation lets the duo teleport to the location of any telephone whose number they know, and it plays a pivotal role in many puzzles. But you’ll likely spend more time with Future Vision, an old View Master toy that can see into the future. While Max is wearing it, if you click on certain items or people you get a quick scene of what they or it will be doing later in the game. In a sense, it acts as a supplemental hint system. Sam or Max will make a quip about a location and you’ll know to go there, but once there, you won’t know what to do unless you whip out the Future Vision. At one point in the game, if you send Sam digging through a trashcan he complains that he doesn’t know what he’s looking for; use Future Vision to watch him take out a banana peel and the next time that you send him over he knows exactly what to do. In this way, the toy works as both hint and solution to certain puzzles.
That’s not to say that the puzzles are easy, in fact having so many hints can leave you with that unique kind of frustration only adventure games can evoke. You’ll know what to do, what item to use, where to use it, when to use it, but not how. As Sam sarcastically points out at one point, most solutions are “probably something clever but over complicated.” It’s odd that some of the most absurd solutions are also the most reasonable . . . well, reasonable within the context of Sam and Max, who live in a world that runs on a cartoon logic that knows its logic is cartoonish and constantly subverts itself. You might think you know what that banana peel is for, but you don’t.
Despite the promise of being the start of something big, The Penal Zone feels disappointingly small. Other than the fact that we don’t get to play with all the promised psychic toys, by the end of the game all major plot threads are tied up. The story seems over until a new thread is suddenly introduced to force a cliffhanger ending. If the credits had rolled just 10 seconds earlier, this would have been a completely stand-alone adventure. The overarching story and episodic story are nowhere near as elegantly entwined as they are in other Telltale games.
Future episodes may rectify this problem, but as it stands now, the cliffhanger feels cheap and disconnected from everything else in the story. The Penal Zone is a good start to the season, and I certainly look forward to seeing the other toys. Hopefully the disparate plots will come together more gracefully.