A new change of format for Sam and Max!
Sam and Max: The Penal Zone is the first episode in the third season of Telltales Sam & Max series. It seems that Telltale is looking to change up the formula that they have been sticking to since the first season, and meet this with lots of success.
The story takes place after season 2 and begins with Max gaining mysterious psychic powers. Soon an alien by the name of General Skunk-a'pe lands on their street, searching for special artifacts of psych power. After a rather climactic opening, the game then gets back into the familiar Sam & Max groove that you'd expect, with some changes. First off, many places and characters you expect are gone such as Sybil, Bosco, and even Sam and Max's apartment. The absence of these things doesn’t detract from the experience, in fact, it gives Telltale more room to change things up and try new stuff.
The biggest change in gameplay (and I assume for the rest of the season), is Max's psych powers. Players can now switch to Max whenever they wish. Doing so will give them a first person view of how max sees the world. From here they can select a power to use, all of which you will need to solve puzzles. My favorite power was Future Vision, which lets you select certain objects or people around you and view a brief moment of them in the future. It’s both a fun puzzle solver and a clever hint system you can use when you find yourself stuck.
Something I found different form previous seasons is the way the game progresses. Typically, when you play a Sam & Max game you expect a particular pattern to it; Visit Sybil about her crazy new thing, Visit Bosco about a new invention or conspiracy theory. Find 3 objects and or solve 3 tasks to complete an objective. Find and or Solve 3 more tasks and objects. Complete final boss puzzle and then you’re done. This time the game has a more flowing pace to it, where you’re following along on your path from one clue to the next. Granted there’s still some go collect these objects, but it’s in a less formulaic fashion.
But the real reason you play Sam & Max is for the humor, and its abundant here. There’s plenty of funny banter from the cop duo, along with crazy scenarios; and yes they even throw in a couple of "Penal" jokes. I did notice a few changes in the style of the humor. For starters, there’s a lot more adult humor thrown in. It’s nothing too crude or in bad taste, but some of it will defiantly go over the heads of kids younger than 13. Another thing is that the characters seem to understand the absurdity of the world they live in a run with it. There’s a lot of 4th wall breaking humor such as Grandpa Stinky being racist toward non-player characters or Max taking about the decline in Musical song quality since the last season. Its moments like these that make this game really stand out.
However, these things don’t make the world less believable, in fact, the world of Sam & Max is more believable then ever. Telltale has fleshed out and expanded the world by focusing more on the Sam and Max's home city this time; which is now stated to be New York. While the number of locations in the game stays small, the amount of detail packed into each spot really brings everything to life. This is helped even further by the improvements to the game engine such as more lighting, dynamic shadows, and close up focused camera angles that provide more detail.
My only real Issue with the game was the interface and control. The movement is the same as Telltale’s last game, Tales of Monkey Island, were you click and drag the mouse to move the character. I find this way of control awkward as times, even more so when the camera angle changes on you suddenly. The other is when you take control of Max. You click and drag the mouse to move the camera, but because it’s in a first person view, If feels bad and clunky and I never got use to it. Other changes, such as a mass effect style dialogue wheel, while not bad, don't seem like they were designed with the PC in mind. It wasn't until I plugged in an Xbox 360 controller (which it offers full support), that I realized these changes are for the console users. All previous issues I had immediately went away, with everything acting super smooth. While focusing on the console crowd isn't a bad thing, the majority of Telltale’s games are still brought for the PC, and not giving them the care and attention each version should have isn't the best way to treat your PC fans.
Control Issues aside, Sam & Max: The Penal Zone is a great start to a new season. Its clever humor, interesting gameplay mechanics, and quirky style have me looking forward to next month with eager anticipation.