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Review: Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse - The Penal Zone


The comedy crime fighting duo Sam & Max are back for their third season called "The Devil's Playhouse." Episode one is titled The Penal Zone, and if you think that's an obvious setup for a bit of juvenile humor, then you definitely understand what Sam & Max are all about. The humor is familiar, and many of the characters introduced previously make a return, but this is clearly a new and improved version of the Freelance Police. Not only are the graphics sharper than ever, the user interface has been modified with a notepad so players can keep up with the plot and get clues as where to go next. Small touches like these go a long way towards making the game feel more like a detective adventure. However, the most prominent addition is the ability to use Max and a number of different psychic powers.

Download Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse Episode One Demo (436 MB)
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Yes, Max (the hyperkinetic violent rabbitty thing) - in addition to being the president of the United States - picks up some superpowered toys that tap into his deep well of his mind to access psychic powers. At the same time, a gorilla-like alien named Skun-ka'pe invades Earth in search of these artifacts so that he can gain these powers for himself. Just another adventure in the lives of the Freelance Police. What makes this season particularly daring is the first toy, which are glasses that allow players to see into the future. Some puzzles require the glasses to discover information, but they otherwise act as a sort of secondary hint system. Whenever players are stuck trying to figure out what to do next, they can look around for quick peeks into what might soon happen, then get to work shaping the future. These bits of insight are brief, so there's still some figuring out to do. Additionally, some futures look like they come from episodes later in the series, so players will have to sort that out for themselves. But we have to say that future-vision is a welcome feature, since it sets up a nice pace for the game, and there were only a few occasions where we were stuck trying to figure out what to do next.

There are more dialogue clues and the aforementioned notepad to drive the plot forward. For example, when Sam picks up an item, he might make a recommendation on how to use it. The notepad is also great for becoming reacquainted with the characters and some of what's happened in previous seasons. That's good, because there isn't a great deal of exposition. Unless you've played through seasons 1 & 2, you'll pretty much have to guess on your own how Max became president, why the street has been practically demolished, and why there happens to be a giant sculpture of Abraham Lincoln's head made of pudding in the sewers leading to hell.

Although the game has plenty of fantastic jokes and one liners, there are a few issues that kept us from completely enjoying it. The first is the movement system, which generally works fine until the camera starts moving to different angles and suddenly changes whether the character should be moving left or right. There are certain areas where using the mouse to move will cause Sam go around in circles or get stuck on objects. Additionally, despite the game's generous hint system, we still got stuck at certain points. In one instance, a character we thought we were done with returned without our knowledge, and he was the key to moving forward in the story. This made for some needless jumping around from place-to-place trying to figure out what to do next. The built-in hints, where a character will make brief mention of where to go next, didn't help because it recycled an old line of dialogue, which made it sound like it was repeating the solution to a puzzle we already solved.

Apart from those quips, the new season of Sam & Max is starting out strong. However, we would have liked some more psychic powers to toy around with. The opening sequence teases us with four different abilities, including one that transforms Max into different objects like a bazooka, but players only end up only using two powers for the rest of the game. The future vision glasses get the most action, but we appreciate the many creative uses for the teleporter. There's no doubt that Max will be adding to his arsenal of abilities in future episodes, so we can hardly wait to see what comes next. The Sam & Max experience is generally short and sweet, and we've left The Penal Zone eagerly awaiting the next chapter.

Final Verdict

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