Sam and Max may not be the most famous icons of the gaming industry, but you'd be hard pressed to find a pair who are so fondly-remembered and respected. After appearing in comic strips drawn by Steve Purcell, the dog and rabbity thing were adapted into the legendary Sam & Max Hit the Road adventure game by LucasArts, and their reputation among the gaming community was set in stone. After a sequel to the game was unexpectedly cancelled mid-development, the developers who had been working on it left to form their own company, Telltale Games, and eventually got the rights to make these games again, in episodic form. The first 'season' of episodes was Sam & Max Save the World, which had some highs and lows as Telltale were still finding the right flow with a season of episodic games. Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space is their second season, which has now been ported to XBLA for Xbox 360 owners to enjoy. The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition proved adventure games could still play well on consoles, so how do Sam & Max measure up?
Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space picks up shortly after the last season, although it doesn't really assume much prior knowledge for newcomers. Sam and Max are 'freelance police', which is somewhere between private investigators and psychopathic cops, receiving cases from a faceless 'Commissioner'. It includes all the episodes from the second season, including Ice Station Santa, Moai Better Blues, Night of the Raving Dead, Chariot of the Dogs and What's New, Beezlebub?. Through the course of Beyond Time and Space they're tasked with saving Santa Claus from gelatinous demons, investigating bizarre events at Easter Island, fighting zombies, travelling through time and even meeting good old Satan himself. The common thread between all these episodes is not obvious at first, but as the story takes you to stranger and stranger places it all becomes clear. Side characters that may have been a little annoying in the first season are now fleshed out a bit more (one even persues a bizarre romantic relationship with the animated head of Abraham Lincoln's statue), and the game regularly pokes fun at itself and the industry at large. All of this adds up to a very funny outing, that feels tighter and funnier than the first season.
As mentioned, Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space is an adventure game, in the point-and-click style that was popular in the 90's. That means, you'll be guiding Sam (the saner half of the duo) around, clicking certain objects to get Sam's comments on them or to pick them up, adding them to your inventory and then using or combining them to solve puzzles. You'll talk to people, choosing dialogue options, while occasionally utilising your partner lagomorph for his more psychotic talents. While there are driving and boxing mini-games to be found in the different episodes, the game doesn't really build upon the adventure game formula so much as it works within the framework already established by the genre. This isn't a bad thing, as it has some corker puzzles that require much out-of-box thinking, and there's always plenty to explore. There's a great variety in the locations, from the North Pole to a gothic night club, which means you're hardly ever forced to re-tread the same old tired ground.
Controlling Sam & Max on the Xbox 360 works pretty much just like the PC version, for better or worse. Instead of moving Sam around, the left analogue stick controls the cursor, which you need to position over objects of interest, clicking with the 'A' button. As such, neither the game nor the controls have necessarily been redesigned to make full use of the 360 controller, instead just trying to replicate the PC experience. On the plus side, this gives you precise control over what you're clicking on, but on the down side it can be frustrating to maneouvre without the use of a mouse. The inventory being mapped to the 'X' button does help matters, although it makes its constant on-screen presence a little redundant.
Sam & Max certainly has a lot of visual charm, with a great art style that perfectly suits their insane version of our world. While simplistic when compared a lot of other, more technically advanced games on the 360, it sometimes shows a lot more character, such as the chaotic destroyed street on which Sam & Max live, and the corporate offices which control Hell. Unfortunately, as the episodes get more complex, the game suffers from some strange frame-rate dips and hard-to-describe ghosting, which are noticeable and unfortunately distracting, especially in some of the faster moments. The jazzy (and sometimes blues-y) music perfectly suits the atmosphere, and the voice-acting is top notch, especially for Max.
Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space is pretty good value for 1600 Microsoft Points. You get five episodes, each of which last around four hours or so, with no real weak link in the chain. Every episode has some great lines, bizarre puzzles and overlong word-strings from Sam, and for any fan of the characters, or the genre it's a blast to play through. The issues with the controls and visuals do bring down the experience a little bit on the 360, but they're forgiveable thanks to the quality of the rest of the game. If you want to see a dog and rabbity-thing take on a giant, pop-song quoting, philosophising killing robot, then this is pretty much your only option. But it's a great game too.