PC Games Reviews
PC Review: Sam & Max: Season One (Episodes 1-3)
By Derek Boiko-Weyrauch Jan 25, 2007, 20:51 GMT
The first three episodes of the comic detective serial prove that reports of the adventure genre\'s death are greatly exaggerated.
It's been the favorite hobby of critics everywhere for the past ten years or so: proclaiming the death of the adventure genre. You would think it had a terminal disease or something, with the number of different columns that have been written about how it is stammering and shuddering, shambling to a well-deserved grave on quivering legs. Certainly good news has been few and far between for adventure games these days, as faster, flashier games have outpaced them and they have moved from being one of the mainstays of the PC gaming world to being a niche.
But something has happened in the past year or so. The advent of episodic content has given adventure games something new: the ability to tell a story in easily-digestible (and more importantly, more affordable) segments. Instead of one long plot with Byzantine puzzles, gamers can get bite-sized installments that eventually amount to an overarching storyline. Perfect for the attention spans of today's youth!
Sam & Max: Season One is a game naturally suited to this episodic format. Following the adventures of the titular freelance police, the game is equal parts 30's detective story, 90's offbeat cartoon series, and old-school adventure game. Sam is a large and laid-back dog decked out in the duds of a hard-bitten detective, while Max is an oversized rabbit-like creature with a cheerfully-savage streak and an affinity for playing the bad cop during interrogations. Together they form a most unlikely duo that unravels mysteries most foul and does battle with characters most unsavory.
The World, Story, and Characters
The first three episodes of the series – "Culture Shock", "Situation: Comedy", and "The Mole, the Mob, and the Meatball" – introduce the characters of Sam and Max, and the strange and wacky world which they inhabit. Each game begins with the protagonists waiting in their office for a new case, and ends with another mystery solved. But as each mystery comes to a close, a different and more insidious mystery rears its pimpled head, drawing the player deeper into the game and making them want more. It really is a clever marketing idea on Telltale's part; even though each episode is individually downloadable, the deepening mystery draws you further in so that you feel like you've missed a lot if you skip a single episode. Each of the episodes is around 2-4 hours of gameplay – less if you choose to speed through the entire episode, and more if you opt to slow down and smell the swiss cheese.
Each episode mocks a different facet of popular culture: episode one digs at ageing child stars, episode two takes pot shots at talk shows and sitcoms, and episode three jokes on the mafia and the toy industry. While these may not be the edgiest targets for parody, they still provide a good amount of laughs. But overshadowing the subject matter of each episode is the game world itself. Telltale has done a great job of creating a rich world with a high level of interactivity. Not only that, but the reoccurring characters - such as Sybil the tattoo artist/psychotherapist/tabloid publisher/professional witness, Bosco the paranoid convenience store owner, and Jimmy Two-Teeth the gangster rat who lives in Sam and Max's office - provide a barometer of sorts for each episode; you can check up on them to see how they're doing and what they've been up to since last episode. The episode format means the game world can change without the player's direct input, which really brings it to life and makes it seem more dynamic than an ordinary adventure world.
The Gameplay and Puzzles
The game's interface will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played classic adventure games such as Monkey Island or King's Quest, and will be picked up easily even without prior adventure game experience. You point and click and Sam – the only playable member of the duo, unfortunately – goes where you want him to or interacts with what you click on. He can also pick up and use items, talk to the different characters that inhabit the game world, and interact with some of the objects in the game in order to solve puzzles.
Hardcore adventure purists may scoff at the puzzles in Sam & Max, but they would be missing the point of the game: its characters and humor. The puzzles are meant to take a back seat to the game world, and do a very good job of breaking up the action while still not causing the mind-bending frustration instilled by many earlier adventure games. And best of all, they make sense. One of the major shortfalls of the adventure games of yesteryear came with their puzzles, which demanded more time than was reasonable and seemed to have little in the way of logic behind them ("Wait, you want me to combine what with what, attach it to what, then flip what switch so that it does what to who?"), and could turn even the best game into a frustrating chore if you got stuck for too long.
While the puzzles in Sam & Max can be a little too easy at times, they still don't detract too much from the overall enjoyment of the game. In fact, the simplicity of the puzzles does make a few parts of the game more bearable – especially with puzzles involving the Soda Poppers, three obnoxious former child stars who keep showing up. The short length of the puzzles prevented serious damage to my monitor on more than one occasion when the speaker-grating high-pitched voices of the three man-children raked across my eardrums.
The first three episodes show that Sam & Max: Season One is a game whose time has come. The adventure game genre has lacked love in recent years, and monsters and critics everywhere have perennially proclaimed the genre's death. So it is refreshing to see a series like Sam & Max come about, tackling head-on many of the problems that made adventure games unpopular but still holding on to the aspects that endeared them to their loyalists. With any luck, the next three episodes will live up to the standards set by the first three, and this method of publishing adventure games will catch on and finally put an end to all of the premature proclamations of adventure's death.
Individual episodes of Sam & Max: Season One are available from Telltale's site for $8.95 each - cheaper than a movie, and will last you twice as long. Or you could pre-order the entire set of six for $34.95. Or you could get a subscription to GameTap, as subscribers get first crack at downloading the games. However you get your fuzzy white butterfingers on the series, it is certainly not one to let pass you by like a cruising Desoto helmed by a psychopathic bunny.
- Original world and characters
- Puzzles that make sense
- Excellent attention to detail
- Creative distribution mechanism
- Puzzles may be too easy for adventure veterans
- Max is not playable
- Some annoying side characters (but hey, what's an adventure game without those?)