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Sam and Max: The Devil's Playhouse Episode 3 - They Stole Max's Brain!

(Telltale Games; US: 22 Jun 2010)

For a long time, all of Telltale’s games followed a predictable formula. They begin with a small puzzle to acclimate the player, then open up the world while introducing a larger puzzle with multiple parts. Finally, they close the game with another small puzzle. The Tomb of Sammun-Mak mixed things up by combining the first two sections into one very large section and then ending with the usual small puzzle. This little change made that episode feel much larger and longer than others. They Stole Max’s Brain! takes things even further, constantly upping the action to create an exciting mid-season climax.


With Max indisposed, the opening puzzle has Sam interrogating witnesses in a noir-infused semi-violent rage. The whole puzzle revolves around dialogue, finding holes in a suspect’s story and interrupting them at the right moment to catch them in a lie. It’s a refreshing change of pace to have to look for a solution that, for once, has nothing to do with item combinations, and this twist is a great introduction to an episode that’s only too eager to break from formulaic traditions. 


For a while, however, it continues to follow formula. After the intro, the game world poens up and a more complicated puzzle with multiple parts is introduced. It’s worth noting that the two new characters introduced here are easily the best new characters this season. I love the laissez-faire voice of the ultra-obedient cockroach Sal, and I hope the fickle and hyperactive Pharaoh continues to have a central role in future episodes. As you work your way through the game’s riddles, you can feel the episode coming to a climax, but just when you think that you’ve reached the end, the world suddenly opens up even more, dropping you into an alternate reality. By the time that you reach the real end, it’ll feel like you’ve played through two episodes, not because this one is really any longer than the others, but because so much happens over the course of time that you’ve played. There’s finally some major plot progression.


They Stole Max’s Brain! is the culmination of all those seemingly unrelated plot threads: Skun-ka’pe and the psychic toys, Paiperwaite and the Devil’s Toy Box, Sammun-Mak and the Mole Men, all of them come together in a way that’s surprisingly logical. It’s good to see that all those disparate story elements weren’t as disparate as they first seemed, those cliffhangers weren’t just for linking one stand-alone episode to another, they were actually important. And it’s good that Telltale proves this, because They Stole Max’s Brain! ends in much the same way that the first episode of the season did. After everything is wrapped up, there’s a sudden twist, and the game ends. In the first episode, this kind of sudden cliffhanger felt like a cheap way to hook to keep the player interested, but since Telltale has now proven there’s a method to their madness, I’m excited to see how the twist plays into the rest of the story.


The only disappointing thing about this episode is that while the Future Vision toy makes a return, it’s sadly underutilized, but this also means that the spotlight can shift to other toys (Rhinoplasty in particular) that are great fun in their own way. It’s strange that when switching to Max that there are so many open slots for psychic toys, yet we only ever get three at a time. That’s often more than enough for a single episode, but I’m anxious to see if Telltale starts giving us more simply for the sake of giving us more, though based on the excellent pacing and plotting of They Stole Max’s Brain I shouldn’t be worried. Telltale clearly knows what they’re doing.

Rating:

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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The episodic format is a holdover from a time when it was necessary for Telltale to be able to continue making games and no longer seems like an inherent part of the stories they tell.
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With episode 4 of its second season, I feel as if the well is running dry on Telltale's ability to wring new meaning out of The Walking Dead franchise.
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Noir isn't about deduction or reasoning. It's about shaking the trees and seeing what falls out. That's what these episodes are about.
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This season of The Walking Dead is not satisfied with establishing a status quo, nor with simply playing to expectations. It doesn't care how we think things should go. It isn't that kind of world anymore.
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