There's no shortage of premise in The Penal Zone [EDITOR'S NOTE: heh.] much of which is front-loaded within just the first few minutes of Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse. First we're thrust into an end-of-the-world scenario with General Skunkape (pronounced Skun-ka'pe) a power-hungry super-intelligent space-ape in the Gorilla Grodd mold. In the middle of this, we're introduced to Max's apparently flourishing psychic abilities--abilities bound to a set of magic toys that happen to be the object of Skunkape's obsession. Just as you get a handle of Max's new mind tricks and it seems like Skunkape fate is sealed, the game's narrator--a Rod Serling/Amazing Criswell amalgam--steps in and turns back the clock, leaving you with the rest of the episode to figure out how to work your way back to the beginning... which is also the end. Kind of. It's a lot to digest, but it makes one thing clear: Telltale Games isn't looking to take it easy with its third season of Sam & Max.
Despite an opening sequence designed to disorient, this episode is intent on easing players back into the world of Sam & Max: Freelance Police. There are plenty of returning characters and callbacks to events from the first two seasons, but neither the story nor the puzzles really hinge on details that aren't presented or reiterated within the episode. The game also comes equipped with an auto-hint system that will also do some aggressive handholding if you let it, features that make it fairly suitable for players unfamiliar with the characters, and those without a sharp sense for adventure game puzzles.
Aside from all the ridiculous, voluminous premise, what really jumped out at me in the opening minutes of the episode was the presentation. The Telltale adventure games have always had a certain chunky charm to them. A low-key cartoony style still carries here, but it's lent some depth by more sophisticated lighting and a decent film-grain effect. The camera angles can even get a little jazzy from time to time, though not so aggressively that it jams up navigation too often. Regardless, the graphical upgrades make Sam & Max look fresh again.
While still a generally conventional adventure game that relies on lots of punchy dialogue and bizarre-yet-logical item interaction, a lot of the puzzles in The Penal Zone [EDITOR'S NOTE: pfft!] focus on the abilities Max gains from two toys he acquires early on. One is a View-Master that lets him see a vision of the future; the other a toy telephone that lets Sam and Max teleport to a person's location, provided they know that person's phone number.
There are lots of time-travel gags baked into the whole future-vision ability, which can make for some fun, circuitous logic, though as a side-effect, you also end up hearing lots of repeated dialogue as you make Max's visions a reality. It's funny a couple times, but eventually you realize the last thing any adventure game needs is more repeating dialogue. Still, it lands enough of its gags that it's a minor point, getting good mileage out of self-aware nods to the episodic format and adventure game conventions and absurd wordplay.
Telltale brings its A-game with The Penal Zone [EDITOR'S NOTE: bwah!] and it's a strong start for the season. It clearly establishes a repeating theme of Max gaining and then exploiting ridiculous new psychic powers with each episode, something that, if the quality of the execution stays where it is, should make for a fun season. Of course, the catch here is that, other than the iPad version, which has some tragic frame rate issues, both the PSN and PC versions of The Devil's Playhouse require you to invest in the full season up-front. It's a bit of a gamble for first-timers, but fans of the series and the genre should have little to worry about.