"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.Continued on the next page...