"Diplomacy's not working, Sam. I'll get the brass knuckles."
There is no need to sugarcoat it: I was starting to get a little worried. The first three episodes of Sam & Max: Season One demonstrated an impressive attention to detail and occasional flashes of writing brilliance, but also displayed the inherent weaknesses of an episodic format with such a brief development cycle. And I really thought the series might have been just too ambitious, and sacrificed true quality for quick turnaround. Consider all such fears officially allayed; Sam & Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die! is an extraordinary game, the best so far in the series by such a wide margin that it almost feels like the formative chapter of an entirely new series.
It is no coincidence that Abe Lincoln Must Die! is not only a truly great game, but also the first Season One game developed after feedback from the first episode was able to fully circulate. In the meantime, the two successive episodes felt smaller and smaller in many ways and the overall excitement of the series seemed to be slowly evaporating. Episode 4 is like a gigantic lightswitch that got flipped on somewhere in the Telltale offices, and everyone just stood up at once and said "Hey! Let's go make a real @#$*ing Sam & Max game!"
The result is a game that towers over its predecessors in nearly every conceivable area, a hilarious romp through some of the most strange and illogical scenarios ever imagined in the world of the canine shamus and rabbity thing--in the world of adventure games, period, for that matter. It is occasionally offensive, often bizarre, and consistently razor-sharp. And critics of the length of previous episodes can also rejoice because this game is significantly longer than any episode to date.
"Demonic possession is the gift that keeps on giving!"
Stop me if you've heard this one before: the President has gone crazy! He's instituting all these mad policies that restrict the rights of dogs and rabbits to run over innocent bystanders, among other essential civil liberties, and Sam & Max certainly won't stand for that. So, we're off to the White House to put a stop to the madness. Trust me, there's much more to the plot, the key points of which Telltale has requested that reviewers not give away. Let me just say that the title Abe Lincoln Must Die!, while blissfully inappropriate and disrespectful on its face, is actually very relevant to the story and I doubt that you could begin to imagine why. There's something horrible and wonderful at the same time about a Sam & Max game that opens with these two on the steps of a deformed White House--complete with Jimmy Two-Teeth sunbathing in the front swimming pool--after a totally gut-busting introduction sequence that caused me to laugh out loud three separate times (which is more than I laughed during the entire third episode). Instantly, you'll understand that this game strives for much greater heights of lunacy than the previous settings of a television studio or a casino.
Political satire is very much en vogue in the era we live in, certainly due in no small part to the divisive nature of the current American President, who has left a legacy open for all manner of easy and cheap jokes. I expected a lot of cracks about surveillance, some veiled references to the Iraq war, basically the same type of material that other "clever" satirists/designers have used ad nauseum in recent years. Abe Lincoln Must Die! does not settle for the easy joke, but instead finds its satire material in the most revered and respected of historical and Presidential figures, and in doing so promises to deeply offend those who hold American history near and dear to their heart. I would imagine that scholars of Abraham Lincoln's life and legacy may find themselves ill at multiple points in the game.
Beyond those elements, the writing across the board is extremely strong; the humor rebounds mightily from a couple fairly bland and safe episodes. The recurring characters of Sybil and Bosco, just at the time when I was afraid they had reached the end of their useful life, are put to great use with a couple clever twists during the game. I complained last month about the continued re-use of look-at descriptions, and that complaint isn't any less valid now, but the issue is much easier to swallow because there is so much more depth to this episode.
I'm quickly running out of compliments for the technical aspects, so at this point I believe it's fair to shrug my shoulders and say "What do you expect, it's Sam & Max." The design of the White House, both interior and exterior, shows a particular creativity and attention to detail that there was little opportunity to display in the previous episode. The supporting actor voices continue to improve--notably, the sitting President at the beginning of the episode seems to truly revel in his own insanity and is hilarious to listen to. I still find the Soda Poppers to be annoying and overused, but here they serve their purpose in the overall plot without being too obnoxious.
"I thought I smelled that joke coming down the turnpike, burning oil and dragging its muffler."
The one weakness that continues to persist is the lack of difficulty. Don't get me wrong, I'm generally terrible at adventure games so I'm fine with the absence of difficult puzzles, and the puzzles that do exist are much more fun to solve than before (there is a particularly brilliant and hilarious puzzle involving a calendar that just may be the coolest puzzle in Sam & Max gaming history). But occasionally the game feels like it's going about increasing difficulty the wrong way--i.e. stashing important inventory items where you wouldn't normally expect to find one, or making a hotspot extremely difficult to visually locate. I thought that Episode 3 indicated a shift towards more thought-provoking inventory puzzles, but clearly that train was abandoned in this episode. Still, even with the ease of puzzles I believe it's likely most gamers will take three hours, maybe a bit more, to complete this episode--certainly it's at least an hour longer than the last episode.
And it's just more fun, the way that Sam & Max was always supposed to be. The time spent playing this game is simply more enjoyable. Whether it's the dialogue, the wicked mockery of American history, the gorgeous detail in the new environments, or the complete and total farcical nature of the plot, this is a game that will remind you why you love playing this type of adventure games.
Abe Lincoln Must Die!, interestingly enough, feels much more like a game that has been in development for years than Culture Shock, the actual first episode, did. It is expansive, it is brash, it is fearless, it is totally and completely devoid of any sort of moral compass or political correctness, and it is almost twice as long as its predecessor. Plus, it's still a Telltale Sam & Max game so it's gorgeous to look at and comes with another fantastic jazzy soundtrack from Jared Emerson-Johnson. For the first time in this series, it feels like the episodic format for Sam & Max has found its potential and hit one out of the park--and while I'm waiting to see if they can do it again in a month, I will have no problems playing through this delightful adventure once more.