"Sam and Max" The Devil's Playhouse Episode 4 - Beyond the Alley of the Dolls
US: 20 Jul 2010
Beyond the Alley of the Dolls is the most straightforward Sam and Max adventure of the season so far. At the end of the last episode, our heroes were surrounded by an army of nearly naked Sam clones (or as Max calls them, doggelgangers, easily my favorite pun of any Telltale game), and at the start of this episode, the titular pair set out to learn who’s controlling the army and why.
Nearly the whole cast from this season makes an appearance here, taking up shelter in various buildings connected by mole men tunnels, and all of them are viable suspects. This large number of suspects trapped in a limited space makes this episode play out like a classic mystery. It’s not so much about discovering who’s controlling the army as it is about discovering who’s not involved and whittling down the suspect list from there. The game does a good job dangling information just out of reach as everyone has something to hide so they’re always uncooperative.
Since this is a more straightforward story, it has a more linear structure as well, which is disappointing considering the wonderful open ended nature of the previous two episodes. In both cases, Telltale had created semi-open worlds that allowed players to work on multiple puzzles at the same time, and it’s not like that open structure wouldn’t work here. Since every character is hiding something, it’d be fun to unravel their lies in any order. Alas, Beyond the Alley of the Dolls sticks players on a set path and doesn’t let you deviate.
The biggest downside to this linearity is that after just a few hours I had reached two separate “chokepoints” in the story where I needed a specific clue to progress and had a hell of a time finding it. The first chokepoint had me pixel hunting at every screen until I found a clickable trash can that I hadn’t noticed before.
The second involved a bizarre dial mini-game that was completely unintuitive. I managed to bumble my way through it, turning dials and hitting a big red button until Sam noticed something that I didn’t and put a sticky note next to a dial indicating that I shouldn’t change it. So I’d fiddle with the others and hit the button again until he placed another note next to another dial. I don’t know which fact is worse: that I still don’t understand the puzzle after solving it, or that I could solve the puzzle without understanding it.
Still, the trademark slapstick pun-tastic humor is here. In fact, this is one of the funnier episodes of the season. A lot of back story is revealed as well. We learn more about the dark dimension of Yog-Soggoth and even the sordid history of the Devil’s Toy Box itself. These revelations and the maneuvering of certain characters in and out of the picture make Beyond the Alley of the Dolls feel more like a set up than anything else. In that regard, it does its job quite well, ending with an awesome cliffhanger that doesn’t feel pulled out of thin air. As a standalone episode it’s the weakest of the season, but it’s a great lead into the finale.