"Fame is a distressingly exact mistress."
I suppose it would be rather rhetorical to say that expectations for Sam & Max: Episode 2 - Situation: Comedy are in a pretty different area than the emotions that greeted Episode 1 - Culture Shock. The very existence of that game was a revelation, an early Christmas miracle, a breath of sweet fresh air for long-suffering adventure fans. I, along with many of my peers, was counting down months before that release date.
And that was all well and good in October. When the review copy for Situation: Comedy arrived, my first thought was "Wow, is it really time for another Sam & Max game already?" All that gratitude and glorious disbelief two months ago has now morphed into What have you done for me lately? And now Telltale Games is really going to be held up to the spotlight as we learn whether it's possible to produce such a stream of quality titles that gamers will be interested in another one so quickly.
The verdict so far is positive: Annoyingly heavy-handed title aside, Situation: Comedy takes the baton and runs with it admirably, avoiding a significant step back--while at the same time falling short of any real steps forward.
"Don't think of it as a bullet wound! Think of it as a transfusion opportunity!"
Since Telltale didn't exactly set out to reinvent the wheel with this game, I suppose I should do the same with this review. Take everything I said about Culture Shock regarding the visuals and cut and paste where appropriate. This is again a beautiful, vibrant game with fantastic art direction and flawless animation. The audio aspects of the second episode actually surpass the first, especially in the area of supporting character voices, which are much stronger than the first episode. There is a new voice actor for Max but the difference is nearly indistinguishable and has no negative impact. The soundtrack is the same happily demented smooth jazz from Jared Emerson-Johnson and one of the game's best features.
But we're all in agreement that the most technically proficient Sam & Max game without razor-sharp writing is a whole lot of empty calories, and unfortunately the writing is one of the few areas that takes a step back. It's a slight step to be sure, and this will not be a universal opinion, but for me there were fewer truly memorable one-liners and cutting jokes this time around. There are more humorously bizarre touches in the areas of dialogue trees and supporting characters, and the nature of the plot as a whole allows for much more delirious absurdity than the first game did. Yet the actual jokes lack the sort of biting shock value that was so prevalent in Sam & Max Hit the Road. Remember the solution to the choking cat puzzle in HtR? This episode accelerates the direction of Culture Shock towards what can only be described as "safer" humor--it's still very funny, very intelligent, but it's often missing a true sharp edge.
The plot features our canine shamus and hyperkinetic rabbity thing being called to the scene of a local TV station that produces quite a dazzling array of terrible, derivative programming. In order to gain access to a live studio audience being held captive, Sam & Max need to prove themselves worthy of their fifteen minutes of fame. It is a more compelling plot than Culture Shock, and builds a promising overall story arc that's punctuated by an ending that teases with more still to come. Over the course of the adventure, Sam & Max will star in no less than five different genres of parody shows, including the climactic confrontation with a certain obnoxious, overbearing female talk show host (a masterful parody, containing some of the game's best writing).
"Sam! I think my hypersensitive ego may need stroking!"
And then the game ends. Rather quickly, in fact. I clocked my playing time through the game at two hours and twenty minutes, and it's fairly well documented that I am really not good at adventure games. This included quite a bit of time spent just casually meandering through all possible dialogue tree options for no good reason, and while that sort of time is quality playing time due to the consistently funny nature of the dialogue (and many of the TV shows are fun to play through multiple times before they're actually "solved") this is still going to probably be a shorter playing experience for most than its predecessor. There's little difficulty or puzzle challenge to speak of.
Sound familiar? Almost like you read the same review two months ago? Some aspects get just a little better, some get just a little weaker. But don't let the criticisms cloud the fact that this is continuing to be a highly entertaining series, and it's very easy to forget the shortcomings in the midst of playing.
It was probably going to be an insurmountable task for Situation: Comedy to be anything other than a letdown. After all, we waited thirteen years, through numerous emotional peaks and valleys, to get the Sam & Max we dreamed of--and now we get it again two months later. Don't expect the same sparkle you likely felt during Culture Shock. On its own merits, though, Situation: Comedy is a great-looking, great-sounding game that is a fun two-hour diversion. The next episode is only a month away, though, and that will really be the acid test for how well this episodic experiment can maintain interest while still taking steps forward with each episode.