Episode 1 – The Penal Zone
I have very fond memories of using the eggplant on the toupee…
Years ago, point and click adventure games used to be a popular genre, with Lucasarts and others churning out a series of classic games with convoluted plots, fiendish puzzles and memorable characters.
Foremost amongst these, in a pointy clicky land somewhere between the simian silliness of Monkey Island and the time-travelling shenanigans of my all-time fave Day of the Tentacle, live Sam and Max – Freelance Police.
Sam, a trenchoat-wearing canine, and his psychotic wisecracking bunny pal Max have travelled the world (and beyond) since 1993 in a series of increasingly bonkers adventures.
When the point & click genre was left behind by more modern tastes, fans of the crimebusting pair thought their days of following their heroes on their madcap escapades were over. Luckily, Telltale games took over the licence and started to create a new sub-genre all of their own: episodic 3D point & click games.
Like a TV season, each part of these is a short game forming part of an overall story arc. Released primarily via digital distribution on a number of platforms, they provide the perfect short fix of fun for fans of this style of gameplay and their well-loved characters. Telltale have released episodic games based on Wallace & Gromit, Monkey Island – and, of course, Sam & Max.
The Penal Zone is the first episode of the third season of Sam & Max games: The Devil’s Playhouse. It opens on alien General Skun’ka’pe’s spacecraft, with our heroes imprisoned as the villain unleashes hell on Sam & Max’s home town. Soon, Max’s recently-found psychic abilities get them out and they attempt to – yet again – save the world the only way they know how. Which often involves them hitting stuff.
Fans of the games will know what to expect: nicely animated 3D graphics, cartoonish environments, amusing voice acting and those ‘use fish on hammer’ style puzzles you either love or hate. As before, the plot contains those bizarre Cthulhu references wrapped up in pop culture references – an early sequence sees Max discover the Eyes of Yog-Sothoth: which of course turn out to be a Viewmaster-type toy which allow him to see the future…
Gameplay takes the ‘not broken, don’t fix it’ approach, with mouse and WASD keyboard commands being used to move the characters around and interact with objects they find. You mainly control Sam, but – when the puzzle calls for it – you can switch to Max’s first-person ‘psychic power’ view, where you can select one of several abilities to help solve the current problem. These range from the aforementioned ability to see a glimpse of what’s about to happen (really a glorified hint system), to my favourite, Rhinoplasty. This allows Sam to use a nose-shaped lump of modelling clay to take an imprint from a picture in any scene; then transform himself into that object. Witnessing the little bunny’s joy at being moulded into a space bazooka early on in the game is truly touching…
The main reason for playing a Sam & Max game is for the humour. The Penal Zone delivers in (Sam) spades, with the acerbic pair’s antics and dialogue often providing laugh-out-load moments. The cast of supporting characters are also well-written: everyone from the creepy Twilight Zone style narrator to the ‘Cake of The Damned’ female golem Stinky (trust me, it *almost* makes sense when you play it).
Newcomers to the series may be a little lost, as this episode contains characters and references that can only be fully appreciated if you’re familiar with the past adventures. However, the writing and scenarios are strong enough to stand on their own and – let’s face it – this isn’t like starting to read War & Peace in the middle…
The Penal Zone is full of humour, great characters and some clever writing. There’s some time-twisting stuff which take me back to those Tentacle days; and Max’s psychic powers are also an original and often hilarious device. This first episode of the new 5-part season bodes well for the future adventures of the Freelance Police, and we’ll be following the surreal plot developments with anticipation.
Now, I wonder what would happen if I use those jump leads on the moleman…?