Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Sam and Max: The Devil's Playhouse Review

The Sam and Max series, a number of point-and-click adventure games based on a comic first originating in 1987, concerns the adventures of two freelance police officers: Sam, a talking, 6-feet tall, trigger-happy canine detective and his partner Max, a talking, psychotic, high-voiced rabbit, who is also the President of the USA, as they travel around in their 1960's-style DeSoto car solving mysteries. This opening sentence fails to encapsulate the madness of the series, which sees the detectives, among other things, fighting a Eurotrash emo vampire, interrogating a suspect using the ever-hilarious medium of "yo momma" jokes, and helping Satan get his job back after being fired. The games are presented episodically, each "season" consisting of five or six games, each with an ongoing story arc which is resolved in each finale. Gameplay consists of the usual point-and-click tropes of collecting and using items, and talking to people using dialogue trees. In terms of gameplay, the first two series of Sam and Max didn't exactly revolutionise the genre; what sets the Sam and Max games apart is their aforementioned wackiness and excellent comedy writing, making every episode fun to play, even the ones where the gameplay lacks, to hear the laugh-inducing dialogue between the characters of the games, plus plenty of visual humour.

Sam and Max The Devil's Playhouse, as with the last season, consists of five games, or "episodes", each providing around 4 hours of gameplay. It feels much more like a sequel than the last season did; rather than just a few more episodes which look and play the same as before, The Devil's Playhouse is a real update to the series in a number of ways.

The central plot of the episodes of The Devil's Playhouse is that Max, the aforementioned psychotic rabbit, acquires psychic powers from the enigmatic "Toys of Power". These powers include the ability to see into the future, shapeshifting, and more complex powers. It transpires that the toys come from "The Devil's Toybox". Other characters learn of this, and try to gain control of the box for their own motives, leading to some ridiculous gameplay scenarios, such as trying to escape from a alien gorilla's spaceship and raiding an egyptian tomb guarded by mole-people.

The central gameplay is similar to that of previous Sam and Max games, though each of Max's psychic powers add a new gameplay mechanic. Rather than being one-time elements to create some token variation, they are used frequently throughout the series. Some of them are fun to use even without providing any use, such as reading the thoughts of supporting characters to listen to more humourous lines. The central gameplay of talking to characters and collecting useful items is also a lot more fun than in the last two seasons. Every episode of the last two season requires the player to collect three items, and/or do something to raise enough money to buy an item from the local corner shop to aid Sam and Max's quest. It was beginning to get repetitive. Fortunately, The Devil's Playhouse changes that, and the structure is always different in its episodes.

 The game is also graphically superior to the last season. Characters and environments are far more detailed and look considerably better. Voice acting is, as usual in Sam and Max, of a high standard, with only a handful of voice actors for 5 episodes of characters.

The Devil's Playhouse continues the series' traditions of insane storytelling and laugh-out-loud humour. Both of these things are difficult to talk about without giving away spoilers, but The Devil's Playhouse is a collection of some the funniest games on the PC. Arguably one of the highest points is in episode 3, which sees Sam become a stereotypical hard-boiled detective, interrogating people on the street and giving the player the option to hear Sam utter dark, philosophical soliloquies, often to the bemusement of suspects. If the idea of a dog-and-rabbit detective duo sounds somewhat juvenile, fear not - there's plenty of intelligent humour to be found for those of us who watch Frasier, while still containing numerous hilarious low-brow jokes.

There's not very much to criticise when reviewing a game as funny  and entertaining as The Devil's Playhouse. The main villains aren't particularly interesting and reoccur often, but are still funny and well-voiced. The music is still high-quality, but not quite as good as the noir-esque jazz tunes in the first two seasons. Also, there is one thing which happens in the fourth episode which is never explained, and leaves a question unanswered at the end of the season. As well as this, a plot thread in the fourth episode is never properly elaborated; one character tries to kill another, and there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for this. It's not a big problem, it's just mildly annoying. Perhaps the biggest, and arguably only real, problem with The Devil's Playhouse is the difficulty. The series' strange storylines make for some equally strange puzzles; the crazy nature of which often makes it difficult to figure out what to do. It may be advisable to bookmark GameFAQs to check regularly.

This isn't too much of a problem, though, as The Devil's Playhouse is still an excellent collection of games. A few difficulty problems aside, the puzzles are fun to solve. This, combined with hilarious dialogue, likeable characters and highly original storylines make The Devil's Playhouse a highly-recommended download. Go to telltalegames.com and pick it up. You won't regret it.

Rating: 4/5

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