Telltale Games started experimenting with nonlinear storytelling in the previous episode of this season of Sam and Max, The Penal Zone, with Max’s ability to see into the future. In The Tomb of Sammun-Mak, they go all the way.
This episode begins with Sam and Max discovering two eerily familiar skeletons in the basement of their office, along with a conveniently placed film projector and four reels of film. The game itself spans these four reels, telling the story of how Sameth and Maximus (Sam and Max’s ancestors) stole the Devil’s Toy Box from the tomb of Sammun-Mak.
The game starts on the third reel, letting you play until you come upon a puzzle that you have no way of solving. You then get the chance to jump to another reel, and for the rest of the game, Maximus’s ability of Astral Projection allows you to change reels at any moment. You’ll constantly be jumping forwards and backwards in time searching for solutions.
Need to help elves think of a new toy? Just jump ahead and see what they’re making in the future. Need a hieroglyphic password to get through a gate? Just jump back and learn the hieroglyphics. In a clever little twist, you won’t even see the opening credits until you start the first reel.
With this kind of structure, it would be easy for the game to fall back on a more linear progression; as in, you can’t do much in reel two unless you finish reel one, etc. The game uses this trick to force you into playing the fourth reel last. This begins with an interview of sorts in which you must explain how you passed the big obstacles earlier in the timeline or be booted out of this reel. Thankfully the rest of the game isn’t like this, and you’ll progress through the first three reels at a rather even pace. It’s impossible to finish one without eventually jumping to another.
Maximus has some new psychic toys this episode, but the real selling point here is the timeline manipulation. Each reel feels like its own game, making The Tomb of Sammun-Mak feel like a real sprawling adventure. The best benefit of having four concurrent stories is that you’ll probably never get frustrated with a puzzle. If you get stumped, you can just jump to another reel since progress in one likely results in progress in another. As long as you remain aware of all your options, it’s doubtful that you’ll ever get stuck.
I, however, did get stuck at one point only because I was so focused on manipulating the timeline to solve puzzles that I forgot about the new psychic toys. Maximus is also an unexplained psychic, and the toys still have a role in solving puzzles, but it’s a much smaller role when compared to the previous episode. There’s no toy equivalent of Future Vision here, which was best used multiple times in every new scene. Most solutions involve the timeline or mole curses, while the toys taking a backseat. But this is not a problem, as it adds a variety to the puzzles that was missing in The Penal Zone.
The Tomb of Sammun-Mak is still a very episodic story. Without the thirty second prologue and cliffhanger ending, it could stand all on its own. It’s a little disappointing that even after two episodes into this season of Sam of Max I still don’t know what the overarching story is, or if one even exists, but within the context of this wonderfully disjointed adventure, it’s a minor complaint. And the cameo by a character from a previous season is a genius bit of fan service.
Telltale Games is arguably the most popular developer of adventure games today, and it’s heartening to see that instead of resting on their laurels they’re pushing the genre forwards. Clearly, they’re not afraid to experiment, and the world of Sam and Max is more than wacky enough to allow some experimentation. I’m excited to see what new twists await me in episode three.