It has been an interesting and mostly enjoyable ride through the first nine episodes of the new generation of Sam & Max. In writing the reviews for those episodes, I've had to repeatedly revisit the same superlatives, point out the same admirations, while carefully considering the flaws--and to be sure, every episode to this point has been flawed to some extent. Sam & Max: Episode 204 - Chariots of the Dogs is the long-awaited episode that learns from the missteps of its predecessors while assimilating their best attributes, and from the dust comes the best single adventure gaming experience this writer has had in twelve years--one that can only be described as flawless.
From the very first moments of the episode it becomes abundantly clear that the standard Sam & Max conventions have been thrown out, and you're now playing through an idea that has been seemingly rebuilt from scratch. All those standard formulas, all those dependable recurrences--don't count on seeing any of them here. There are major supporting characters who make no appearance, and there are minor supporting characters who play a bigger role than you could have imagined. And really, I wish I could explain a bit more, but so much of the story is rooted in layers of comedic surprises, there's almost nothing I could reference or quote that wouldn't spoil at least some part of the experience--and I could never forgive myself for even partially spoiling an experience this enjoyable. You'll feel immediately how much the fun factor improves when you have absolutely no sense of what's coming next, and this is a fairly unique attribute to this series.
There's very little sense in reiterating to you all the technical areas at which this game excels because the pattern has already been established quite clearly. The graphics and animation are top-notch, the soundtrack establishing new levels of cleverness with each episode (there's a fantastic variation on the standard office theme that fits the setting perfectly when you reach that point). But these elements on their own could never provide a five-star experience.
Instead, the truly impressive turn of events is this episode's perfect balance in the area of difficulty. This episode is definitely less difficult than the preceding two episodes, but still contains two of the smartest puzzles of this season. The puzzles require actual attention and deduction, rather than relying on inventory-hunting mechanics or guesswork, and as a result the constant comic momentum is sustained for the entire three hours with quite a few challenges, but always avoiding the artificial frustrations that come with miscalculated puzzles. If you're having trouble with the puzzles, the customizable hint system is in fine form, having dispensed with some of the apparent logic bugs that were present in Night of the Raving Dead. When the puzzles are solved, they are always paid off by a hilarious animation or dialogue exchange or something else to make you feel sincerely rewarded.
It's not as though visual gags or belly-busting laughter is in short supply; this is, by quite a bit, the most spectacularly funny episode of Sam & Max to date. Humor is injected into every element of the game: in the writing, in the art, in the animation, in the very timing and presence of certain characters, and in the core creativity that gives the game its foundational story. I very likely laughed out loud more during this episode than I have in the last four episodes combined, and when I was not laughing, I was always smiling, always enjoying every second of playing. Every single tiny element of this game is bursting with joyous creative energy, and it is completely infectious. When I took a necessary break from the game, I found myself genuinely eager to get back to the game and keep going, found my mind wandering toward what I would need to do next. That is an extremely rare quality in any type of game--in any form of entertainment, for that matter. That's how compelling an experience this episode is.
Those who have played through the first season will really appreciate that Telltale has now fully embraced the fact that it's okay to not have episodes be self-contained; Chariots of the Dogs picks up exactly where last month's cliffhanger left off and then conjures up an extraordinary cliffhanger of its own to take us to next month (and, for good measure, the most perfect post-credit cutscene ever created). There are many elements throughout that will be so much more meaningful (and funny) if you have been following along since the days of Culture Shock. As someone who has made that journey, I love the decision to take a Lost-style approach and devote your creative energy to rewarding the loyal fans. If you haven't joined the party yet, I must recommend playing the episodes that lead up to this one first--it is worth every minute and you will be glad you did.
This game, quite simply, sets new standards--with the diabolically hilarious script and numerous perfectly-scripted visual gags, with the fantastically balanced puzzle design, with the incredibly bizarre array of clever ideas that build on each other to form this demented plot, with its willingness to trounce on expectations and be an original adventure in a cookie-cutter setting, and with its perfect connections to the episodes before and after, Chariots of the Dogs has hit a grand slam for episodic adventures. It is now the standard, the singular perfect model for everything that a comedic episodic adventure should be. It is so much fun, you will want to play it again immediately and then you will want to go back and replay its predecessors. It feels like the game that Telltale Games has been making for four years.
I guess the strongest sentiment I can make is this: I've been an adventure gaming journalist for more than ten years now. At some point along the line, playing adventure games became largely a job, a responsibility, a duty. Even through the first season and a half of Sam & Max, a series that should cut through the stone hearts of even the most jaded, I have mostly played with detached critical admiration. Chariots of the Dogs sucked me in and completely immersed me with the joy that comes from playing a special adventure game. With this series, it took a few tries and there were a few wrinkles to be ironed out along the way, but it has all led up to this three-hour jewel you'll find here--a flawless adventure gaming experience that will be treasured by all. The only negative to be discussed is really the ultimate cliffhanger--how exactly is Telltale supposed to follow this up?