The Key of Imagination
The Devil's Playhouse is the title of Sam and Max's third season of episodic games from Telltale, and if The Penal Zone is any indication, it could be the best yet. With a focus on B-movie tropes and Twilight Zone styled plot lines, the classic adventure game duo bring with them yet another extremely well-written game. And this time, with an array of helpful improvements to bring the adventure game into a more modern and friendly framework. It won't completely change the way you feel about the genre, but the time has never been better to explore this great world and its outrageous inhabitants.
General Skunkape – or rather, Skun-ka'pe, an ornate pronunciation that everybody but our duo uses – is wreaking havoc on Earth. Or at least, he will be. Everyone's favourite anthropomorphic dog and rabbit have a chilling flash forward of his eventual menace...shortly before he arrives on Earth. Hailed as a hero by humans, Skun-ka'pe is secretly toiling away in search of the Toys of Power, child toy facsimiles that grant supernatural abilities to those who possess 'the gift.' The story soon becomes a race to out Skun-ka'pe as the villain he is, find out how you got to the chaotic flash forward from the beginning of the game, and discover the Toys of Power.
If you've never played a Sam and Max game before, Telltale believes this would be a great place to start. The game does paint in some of its background from the past two seasons, but the villain and storyline are of course brand-new. So although it's preferable to have experienced the last games firsthand, you could join in with The Penal Zone and not miss your step...too much.
Regardless of whether you've been playing Telltale's series since the beginning, you have a lot to be excited about with the new season. Conversations use a Mass Effect styled dialogue wheel. This keeps the on-screen clutter to a minimum and, best of all, prevents you from seeing a punchline before it's actually delivered. The game also gives you an evidence-matching device (courtesy of the C.O.P.S) to help you piece together clues and, as a result, unlock more places check out. Best of all, the game's visuals have received a significant touching up. A slight grain filter supports the B-movie theme wonderfully, and every detail of the environments seems more fleshed out and grimy. The looks of the series have definitely matured with the new gameplay. And of course, who could forget about yet another brilliant soundtrack by Jared Emerson-Johnson?
The most significant tweak in The Devil's Playhouse so far are Max's psychic powers. It turns out that Max possesses 'the gift' and can use the Toys of Power to help solve the case, and this leads to some marked changes in how Sam and Max plays. The powers you mostly use in The Penal Zone are Teleportation – which allows you to warp to any phone you know the number for – and Future Vision. When used with any important object, Future Vision will show you a quick clip of what happens after you successfully use the item in a puzzle. This time-jumping mechanic supports the Twilight Zone inspired feel of the game, and they remain vague enough to be enticing hints instead of obvious solutions. It strikes a sublime balance, one that really makes this an adventure game that just about anyone could play, as long as they stuck with it. And if you're a diehard and want to figure out every last step by yourself, using the Future Vision is very rarely mandatory.
It takes about four or five hours to make it through to the end, which isn't bad for an episodic game; especially one of this quality. When you reach the credits, you'll be aching for the next episode to hit. For the first time ever in the series, though, you can actually play through the game again with a few subtle changes, like a brand new psychic toy for Max that lets you play around with the environments in new ways. It won't keep you busy for weeks on end, but it's great to see Telltale offering some extended value in a genre where replayability is forfeit.
The Penal Zone is clever, funny, and a joy to play – what more could you ask for from an adventure game? Telltale is often credited with the revival of traditional adventures, but they are also now making some subtle but much-appreciated refinements to the classic formula, and the end result is something both deeply satisfying and approachable. I didn't think it would be possible, but the pair's third season is the perfect time for newcomers to jump aboard, and veterans will be equally as excited.