Michael Kontoudis
21 Apr, 2010

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse - Episode 1: The Penal Zone Review

PS3 Review | Say hello to my little buddy!
After two seasons worth of episodic adventuring, gaming icons Sam and Max return in Telltale Games' latest love-letter to the resurrected genre, Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, a five episode season destined to take players on a journey through the bold, bizarre and downright baffling. The first episode in the series, The Penal Zone, arrives in the aftermath of the developer’s own exalted Tales of Monkey Island, and is therefore burdened by the highest of expectations. The downloadable point-and-click-style adventure title also marks the dynamic duo’s debut on the Playstation 3 console and Apple's iPad, so it is no exaggeration to say that Telltale Games have much to prove with The Penal Zone; but does it deliver on the laughs, imagination and devious puzzling which are the hallmarks of the series?

The Freelance Police return.

The Freelance Police return.

For the uninitiated, Sam and Max are the creations of Steve Purcell who had the fortune of starring in the revered LucasArts point-and-click adventure title, Sam & Max Hit the Road. Sam, a fedora-wearing, pistol-packing dog is paired with Max, a hyperactive, sociopathic bunny rabbit, and together, they form the ‘freelance police’, a private detective unit which seldom hesitates to take on the most nonsensical of cases in the pursuit of justice. Barbed wit, irreverence, and crazy slapstick are the pleasures in which the series trades, and The Penal Zone is no exception, providing Sam and Max with the opportunity to investigate an alien invasion by the power-hungry extra-terrestrial gorilla named General Skunkape who seeks a mysterious artifact for his own oh-so-mysterious purposes. The episode gets off to a disorienting start, with the player rejoining Sam and Max on-board an alien spacecraft and making use of Max’s bevy of psychic abilities to thwart the belligerent Skunkape. The game then departs from this bewildering vision of the future and returns to the ‘present’ in an effort to show how Sam and Max found themselves in such a predicament. It is an interesting introduction which confuses and intrigues in equal measure, and Telltale Games should be applauded for beginning their story with such pace and interest.

Snappy writing is the one of two ingredients critical to the success of any entry in the Sam & Max series, and The Penal Zone delivers handsomely. The narrative itself is characteristically absurd, but the dialogue marks a new high for Telltale Games, who manage to imbue each and every line by every last character with charm and humour. The cast is mostly made up of returning favourites who prove to be their predictably hilarious selves, but even new characters such as Skunkape manage to hit the mark, making The Penal Zone a massive improvement over the earlier seasons which sometimes featured bland and pedestrian supporting characters which paled against the forceful and winning personalities of the titular twosome. By episode’s end, some questions are answered and others are left hanging, and hints to the season’s overarching narrative are laid out. All in all, The Penal Zone tells a funny and frantic story worthy of the series’ name, supported by some of the best comedic writing and voice acting in the medium.

The environments are as bizarre as one would imagine.

The environments are as bizarre as one would imagine.

The other essential Sam & Max ingredient is, of course, its variety of brain-busting puzzles, and The Penal Zone is no slouch in this regard thanks to some interesting additions to the series’ mechanics. Guiding Sam with the left analogue stick and cycling through highlighted points of interest with the right on the PlayStation 3, players will spend most of their time investigating a small, but detailed set of locales, examining objects and chatting to a cavalcade of loquacious non-player characters in search of a hint or a giggle. Some objects, when collected, are added to Sam’s inventory and are then able to be combined, applied and used in conjunction with others to solve devious puzzles which are usually grounded in some sort of abstract adventure game logic. Navigating and puzzling works well with the DualShock controller, and the quality of the brainteasers on offer in The Penal Zone is very impressive, with an adjustable hint system ensuring that even a novice to the genre can overcome the odd cruel and unusual stumper. On the PC, the same control method found in Tales of Monkey Island re-appears, which is not as intuitive as the simpler 'point and click' method, but functional.

Compared to episodes of previous seasons, The Penal Zone is mechanically complex, with the player’s new-found ability to assume direct control of Max and use one of his unique psychic powers adding an exhilarating layer of intricacy to the series’ core design. We look forward to seeing if Telltale Games can expand the range and utility of Max’s powers in future episodes to deliver puzzles fit for veterans, but on its own terms, The Penal Zone is as clever and satisfying a puzzler as can be found today. Clocking in at around four or so hours, the game is a tasty morsel with enough length to support its story and mechanics without ever overstaying its welcome.

The PS3 controller handles navigation and inventory-management with surprising ease.

The PS3 controller handles navigation and inventory-management with surprising ease.

While The Penal Zone sits far from the cutting edge in terms of its visuals and is marred by some fairly obnoxious and frequent loading screens, it represents a noticeable and welcome improvement over previous seasons. The typically chunky cartoon-styling of the characters is now augmented by a pleasantly-tactile film grain and enhanced lighting effects, and the game’s few locations are pleasingly detailed, making it the most attractive 3D entry in the series by a significant margin. Voice acting is similarly above-par and the jazzy, 1930s-inspired soundtrack accompanies the action without ever overpowering proceedings.

If past Telltale Games titles are any indication, the first episode in any of its seasons is often the weakest, having to lay foundations in support of a grander narrative and increasingly refined puzzles. In that context, The Penal Zone is most impressive, auguring a satisfying and hilarious season of adventure gaming to come. Its graphics are solid, the puzzles are better and the writing is as sharp as it has been in years, making this first instalment of The Devil's Playhouse a supremely satisfying slice of downloadable gaming and yet another feather in the cap of Telltale Games, who are well on their way to capturing the genius of the LucasArts classics of old. A must-play for fans of the series, fans of point-and-click style adventures, and those who have been waiting for a game featuring a murderous rabbit who transforms into an alien bazooka. Welcome back, Sam and Max; we have missed you so.
The Score
The Penal Zone is as charming and laugh-out loud funny as any entry in the Sam & Max franchise; intricate puzzles and sharp writing making it a smart download for any adventure game aficionado. Good job, little buddy.
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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3 years ago
the giantbomb guys were very complimentary about this in their podcast. I see you feel the same. might have to look into getting this.
3 years ago
i all i can see on the PSN store is a demo .... am i missing something ?
3 years ago
mikezilla2 - I think at this stage you have to buy the 'pre order' which is $33.95. That downloads an unlock thingy which will unlock the demos of all five episodes.
3 years ago
Adam wrote
mikezilla2 - I think at this stage you have to buy the 'pre order' which is $33.95. That downloads an unlock thingy which will unlock the demos of all five episodes.
okey ... i recall reading that but where would the option be > , don't want to waste bandwidth .....
3 years ago
Adam wrote
mikezilla2 - I think at this stage you have to buy the 'pre order' which is $33.95. That downloads an unlock thingy which will unlock the demos of all five episodes.
Quite a silly way to do episodic gaming. Pay for the whole thing up front then give the game piecemeal to the consumer over the next 5 months. Good thing telltale make good adventure games.

(when the hell is LeChucks Revenge:SE coming out? I've been pining for it daily since finding out the voiceover works in both modes and the art looks a million times better than the first remake)
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