"We'll need some cocktail peanuts, an iron maiden, and a box of handkerchiefs--this is going to be emotional."
When I raved about the fantastic surprise that was Sam & Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die! last month, I used up my entire vocabulary of synonyms and superlatives, and for good reason--it seemed pretty certain at the time that Episode 4 was the season's peak, the point at which all elements came together perfectly, and thus a letdown would be nearly guaranteed. I most definitely was not expecting that I'd be here a month later saying what I'm here to say: Episode 5: Reality 2.0 is actually a better game.
Throughout the three hours of playing time, Reality 2.0 continuously crackles with the sharpness of a gaming series that has picked up a whirlwind of comic momentum. Whereas the prior episode took most of the series' established conventions and used them better, this time around the entire concept is done differently and the end result is a deliriously wonderful experience the likes of which adventure gaming hasn't seen in a very, very long time.
With the shorter half of our anti-hero team still firmly entrenched in the political glory he rose to in the last episode, the nation's highest office has been moved to the familiar confines of Sam & Max's building--complete with the national seal now emblazoned on the office floor. Still, the villainous criminals responsible for the recent acts of hypnotism aren't about to change their ways just because Max runs the country, and so our latest story opens with our heroes sent to dispatch a computer-gone-mad problem right in their own neighborhood--which is where the remainder of the game takes place.
"I think we stumbled into the warehouse where Steve Wozniak makes erotic movies."
Surely the idea of a local setting causes some trepidation, as the endless recycling of locales and lack of originality was becoming a common complaint before the last episode. Could it be that with all the clever ideas out of the way in Abe Lincoln Must Die!, it's back to plodding around the same old backgrounds listening to the same old look-at dialogues? Don't even think about it; instead, Telltale has taken the foundation that they've previously built, and thrown it into a warped blender to create a completely new set of environments that is at once totally familiar and yet perfectly original. In order to solve this computer crisis, our heroes must enter a new world--the titular world of Reality 2.0!
It's a world where the height and width of all sprites, as well as the physics of gravity and annoying advertising, are all controlled by a collection of despotic obsolete computer equipment. They range from friendly to insane (of course the old-school arcade game is the true maniac of the bunch) and are prone to break into song at any given moment. I would encourage you to read those two sentences again and then take into account that I've barely scratched the surface of the true weirdness of Reality 2.0. Those who still treasure familiarity need not fear--our friends Bosco, Sybil, and Jimmy are all present in both versions of reality and, as usual, all play essential roles in the puzzle-solving. The final twist on Bosco's role is truly a stroke of demented humor that only a Sam & Max game could convey with a straight face.
I'm happier with the graphics and music here than I've been yet in the series (which is saying something), and it's for a simple reason: the playing field is completely new. Yes, there has been plenty of color and imagination and technical excellence in all episodes thus far, but here we have something totally different. The Reality 2.0 world is not a beautiful, brilliant-looking festival of color--it's a dark, robotic, oddly disjointed place. I'm fairly certain that if William Gibson did a lot of drugs and then created a children's picture book, it would look like this world. The music is the most brilliant stroke of all--an ominous symphony of true 8-bit nostalgia. If you close your eyes while it's playing you'll have no problems instantly picturing your ten favorite NES games in your mind. There is one particular scene in the game that I won't spoil, but it is a spectacular tribute to the origin of console RPGs, and the background music for this scene is so perfect and appropriate that you will think for certain it is a direct sample. Jared Emerson-Johnson has completely outdone himself.
"Come along quietly and we'll only use excessive force, instead of medieval!"
The playing time is similar to the previous episode, perhaps a hair longer. However, it's important to note that the game length here may vary more across the spectrum of adventure gamers than that of the previous episodes, as there is more puzzle complexity infused into this installment. The franchise has clearly established that it's not going to provide a Discworld level of infuriating inventory combination puzzles, but if your expectations are tempered by the ease of earlier episodes, you may be pleasantly surprised that it will take some time and thought to solve a couple of these puzzles--and as in Episode 4, even the easy puzzles are still a great deal of fun.
The overriding characteristic of the game is a sense of love and admiration for the technology of yesterday, which all comes together in the final ten minutes, a brilliant and awesome sequence that is without question my favorite part of the series to date--and then, just in case you forgot there's been an actual consistent plot thread running through the season, you'll get a nice semi-cliffhanger to remind you that the loose ends are ready to be tied up next month.
I almost regret the endless string of praise I gave to Abe Lincoln Must Die!--which is not to say that it wasn't a remarkably excellent game; it surely was. However, Reality 2.0 is not only a better game, but an even more pleasant surprise, because I had all but ruled out the idea that Telltale could pull off a feat like this in two consecutive four-week development cycles. The uniform excellence, attention to detail, wealth of originality, and evident passion for humor and gaming, continue to underscore the fact that the Sam & Max franchise is in the right hands--and should make us all that much more excited for the upcoming finale.