Sam & Max: Episode 1 - Culture Shock review
"Great gouts of steaming magma on a beeline for the orphanage!"
It's quite a remarkable series of events that has brought us to the unveiling of Sam & Max: Season 1. The 1993 classic Sam & Max Hit the Road introduced the canine shamus and hyperkinetic rabbity thing to the adventure gaming community and brought Steve Purcell's comic genius before a much larger audience. The franchise lay semi-dormant for a few years, with a Fox Kids cartoon show launched in 1997 but not destined for a long life.
More recently came the bitter string of disasters that we all remember so well. First an Xbox space-themed action-adventure game, Sam & Max Plunge Through Space, cancelled in 2002 before it was ever officially announced. Then the announcement of Sam & Max: Freelance Police and the subsequent hype and excitement, all crushed in one March day in 2004 when LucasArts pulled the plug. And just to rub a bit of salt into the open wound, an apparent last-minute agreement to revive the game that fell through.
Right around the time these events were unfolding, a group of ex-LucasArts employees were forming their own studio with some unique ideas about the future of adventure gaming. They envisioned an episodic format, with bite-sized games accordingly priced, and released much more frequently. Telltale Games cut their teeth on the first two Bone games before revealing what everyone had prayed to hear: the dog and rabbit were coming back, and the result would be the culmination of the episodic format Telltale founders Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner had envisioned.
So here, thirteen years later, we have finally been given the long-awaited Culture Shock, the first episode in the six-part Sam & Max season. It is, as promised, a comparatively short and unassuming, but inexpensive and manageable, third-person point-and-click cartoon adventure. None of that is particularly important to many gamers; the operative question with our canine/lagomorph duo is always: is the game fun? And the answer so far is a decisive yes.
"Patience is a sharp razor to swallow, little buddy."
In case you're not intimately familiar with Sam & Max and think the entire concept seems a bit absurd, you couldn't be more correct. Sam & Max is a franchise that revels in constant, complete absurdity. Only when you apply the rules of reality to the Freelance Police does your enjoyment begin to slow down. The well-dressed, calm and collected player-character dog and his sociopathic naked rabbit partner travel around in their stylish 1960 DeSoto Adventurer solving crimes, defeating evil-doers, and inflicting gleeful harm on those who stand in their way.
In their current adventure, the Freelance Police must track down and defeat an evil master of hypnosis and bad organ playing named Brady Culture. To find him, they must first liberate his current victims, the Soda Poppers--a quasi-cute, quasi-obnoxious trio of former child stars trained to do Culture's bidding. In this episode we are introduced to Sam & Max's office, as well as Sybil's Psychotherapy parlor and Bosco's Inconvenience store, two of the upstanding businesses in the neighborhood. This is not an especially large world, but each location is re-used in creative ways more than once, and thankfully this created world is never, ever boring to look at. Every background is loaded with color and detail and the animation is flawless throughout. The panning and scrolling effects while walking through the city are particularly impressive. Art director David Bogan, who did animation for Grim Fandango and the last two Monkey Island games as well as art direction for Bone: The Great Cow Race, should be very proud of the visual appeal of Culture Shock. Part of this can also be attributed to the Telltale engine's multi-camera functionality; depending on which building you exit, you'll see the city block from a completely different angle as you walk around.
The game is also pleasing to the ears, as Jared Emerson-Johnson's soundtrack is a brilliant collection of unhinged jazz tunes that provide the perfectly demented audio framework for what's taking place. However, in a design decision that won't be universally embraced, the soundtrack plays constantly through all scenes, and may become an annoyance after a while to those who find such continual music to be intrusive. Personally, as someone who generally keeps music on 24 hours a day, I never found the soundtrack's presence to be unwelcome, but at least there's a separate volume control for the music if you're so inclined.
"Let me pry open his skull and search for a conscience, Sam!"
With characters as beloved as Sam & Max, the casting of voice actors is sure to be a controversial decision, and I'm happy to report that Telltale at least appears to have nailed Max's squealing psychosis. The casting of Sam is slightly more questionable--or more specifically the direction of the voice acting; Sam seems a bit more sedated and unmoved than he should be given the circumstances, although the nature of his voice is properly deep and fatherly. Still, after the ear-maiming experiences of other recent adventure games, it's great to see that the heroes are the strongest voices in the game. The supporting character voices are hit and miss; the Soda Poppers are more annoying than cute and the rest are really not much to note either way--with the ugly exception of Brady Culture, a villain possessing much less personality than the bent parking meter on the office block. His complete inability to convey any sort of villainous urgency does a fair bit to undermine the ending sequence. To put it another way, it's a bit jarring when the arch-villain sounds like the most normal, well-adjusted character in an entire game. Good riddance to this entirely underwhelming bad guy.
The writing, which is indisputably the most important part of a Sam & Max adventure, is in the very capable hands of Dave Grossman (Day of the Tentacle) and Brendan Q. Ferguson (who worked on the cancelled Freelance Police), with a heavy contribution from Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell. There are really no jokes that fail completely, and quite a few very loud laughs to be found (usually complemented by the fantastic character facial animations). Of course, that being said, there aren't many jokes that really go for broke and risk complete failure; the humor is standard Sam & Max insanity, but for the most part is fairly safe. This is also a comment on the game as a whole--every element of the game is extremely well-produced, but ultimately the scope is not exactly an epic one. Most of the game takes place on one city block, and if you're expecting to quickly find another Ball of Twine or similar absurd location, you may be let down. This commment should of course be tempered by the realization that this is just part one of a six-part series, so there's obviously some groundwork to be laid. Yet I couldn't help but wish that there could have been one or two more really ridiculous locations.
Ultimately, though, with proper expectations Sam & Max: Culture Shock is an absolute, complete blast to play. It's a riot to look at, to listen to, and to play through. And it's obvious that all involved with the project had a lot of fun making it. This is evident in the little visual elements (I particularly enjoyed all the posters in the inconvenience store window), the offbeat side animations (sometimes you may just want to stop walking and watch Max be crazy for a minute), and all the extra stuff to do in the game; Culture Shock boasts one of the strongest levels of interaction density I've seen in an adventure since--well, since the era of Sam & Max Hit the Road. There are so many unrelated items to look at, so many completely unnecessary conversations to have with Max, and a great deal of replay value in a couple particular puzzle sequences. I especially had far too much fun with the driving sequence, which is vintage Sam & Max nuttiness (and sure to be mislabeled as an "action sequence" by some less scrupulous writers) and the ultimate in cathartic adventure destruction. There was not a single moment of this game where I was not having a great deal of fun.
"One of us needs to take a couple dozen elephant tranquilizers and call it a day."
Culture Shock continues the Telltale trend of games on the easier side. The puzzles are more intelligent than Great Cow Race but still not difficult to figure out. There is one puzzle that is identically repeated at a key point in the game, which certainly is unfortunate in such a brief game. I doubt anyone will zip straight through the game without much thought, a la Out from Boneville or Full Throttle, but ultimately a walkthrough should not be necessary. With consideration of the fact that you'll probably want to take your time and enjoy your surroundings quite a bit (and if you're like me, you'll take a good 15 to 20 minutes running over patio furniture and crashing into other cars in the driving sequence), the game should take around 3.5 to 4 hours to complete, and the sheer fun factor does allow for some replay value.
Not bad at all for the value: in addition to appearing on the subscription-based GameTap entertainment network, Culture Shock along with the five remaining episodes will be sold (via download only) for $8.95 USD each, or a download pass for the entire six-episode season for $34.95 (with an option at the end to receive a full season CD for the cost of shipping). If the episode length remains consistent, you'll be getting close to 25 hours of quality playing time for a price lower than that of most lengthy new games. It's so refreshing to have a developer who is actually cognizant of the proper value of their games, and I applaud Telltale for shunning the opportunity to use a proven license to overcharge an audience that would likely be willing to overpay.
I suppose the highest compliment I could pay Culture Shock is this: I played Sam & Max Hit the Road through again before completing this game, and I felt like what I played here was a proper sequel. Then I watched the 2004 trailer for Freelance Police, and I felt like the hope that was taken away two years ago had been properly restored and finally rewarded. Culture Shock is as pure and true to its legacy as you could ask for, and a proud bearer of the new standard for cartoon adventure games. There are minor quarrels to be had with some technical aspects, the ease and fairly limited scope of the game, and the general lack of anything truly spectactular, but I challenge you to play this game for any length of time and deny the fact that it is a dose of pure, righteous, unmitigated fun.