"Let's go get some grade-A payback, and incidentally save the world in the process."
Sam & Max: Episode Six -- Bright Side of the Moon marks the end of a great experiment in adventure gaming. By virtue of actually reaching its natural conclusion, rather than being abruptly cancelled or abandoned, the first season stands alone as a tremendous episodic achievement. That the season finale wraps up what has been a delightful, uniformly enjoyable season of adventuring makes it truly remarkable. As a standalone individual episode, on the hand, it stops at "pretty good."
Perhaps it is doing Sam & Max: Season One a disservice to call it an "experiment" and reduce it to some type of scientific novelty. But there was indisputably some risk associated with the idea of an episodic adventure--the dichotomy of sustaining both game quality and fan interest to carry momentum through the final end credits. The concept had never been successfully accomplished, but finally it found the right developer, the right franchise, and the right funding partner, and all elements came together to create what has really been quite an accomplishment. Season One has not gotten everything exactly right, as is more clear now that we have the entire season to consider, but there are so many successes to talk about in so many varying areas that a separate article really is required to hold those thoughts.
For now, let's just consider the final bite-sized piece of the puzzle: Bright Side of the Moon, a game that is far from perfect but which finds the right ways to emphasize its strengths, and in doing so serves as an accurate microcosm of the entire season.
"It's like circumcision, except double the laughs!"
The sixth episode does not start out on the strongest of notes--the opening cinematic is a bit convoluted and makes a very abrupt and hurried attempt to tie the loose threads of the season together, exposing the dastardly villain behind the recent mind-control episodes and thrusting our heroes straight to the moon to clean things up. The hypnotic mastermind has created some sort of bizarre retreat for Season One supporting characters to go contribute one final time to the story--some are always welcome (I'll never get enough of the angry arcade machine) but in some instances, the involvement comes across a bit forced. I understand the desire to get as much mileage as possible out of all those good ideas, but there are just some characters who didn't really need to come back.
Along with the parade of past characters, Telltale also has clearly shown a much more deliberate focus on loading up the final episode with puzzles. A noble attempt, considering the valid criticisms of lack of difficulty up to this point, but the scale tips so far the other direction with Bright Side of the Moon--at a time when the desire to reach the end of the story should be peaking--that there is sure to be some frustration. There is one specific puzzle that is wholly reliant on having caught a throwaway line of early dialogue, or else you'll be turning to silly guesswork (or a walkthrough). I don't mind this type of puzzle as a rule (a small clue is better than no clue) but it seems a bit unfair for the season to suddenly adjust the rules of difficulty that it has already firmly established. There are other puzzles that seem a bit curious in the design--including the final challenge, which is high on skillful drama but will almost certainly require a lucky guess or much trial-and-error to solve. In general, the puzzles are more numerous and less rewarding than either of the previous two episodes.
The graphics are fantastic in every way, though there is less chance for the cleverness of the graphics to shine in this setting than in Reality 2.0. The music is a step down--the soundtrack of the moon sequences takes an odd turn to a spooky, minimalist 2001-esque ambience that seems overly serious and occasionally inconsistent with the tone of the content. And the writing, though still at a much higher level than the first three episodes, lacks the total disrespect for good taste of Episode 4 or the extra sharp satirical bite of Episode 5, satisfied instead with just being very funny.
That seems like a fairly significant laundry list of negatives. It may then seem odd for you to hear me say that I loved this game, just as I have loved every game in this series. There is still so much more life and energy onscreen than 99% of games of any genre that are available in this era that the entire three-hour playing time is never dull. I think that the real problem here is simply the game collapsing a bit under the weight of two truly fantastic episodes that immediately preceded it. It would have been against all odds for Bright Side of the Moon to succeed at that level, so it is not a surprise to simply see it fall back a bit to the "pretty good" level.
"Thankfully my short-term memory makes me impervious to nostalgia!"
There are still many positives to note here, of course. I was amazed that, for the sixth time, the recurring characters of Sybil and Bosco are used successfully. Yes, Sybil has a new job. Yes, Bosco has a new identity (and Sam's initial reaction is absolutely hilarious). Yes, Bosco has a new major item for sale for an even more ridiculous price. Yes, you will actually have to figure out a way to buy that item. These formulas have played out in so many ways, and so recently, and yet there is not a bit of mold growing on the ideas. All stops are pulled out and every concept that is recycled is done so in the most absurd way imaginable. Bosco, particularly, is in rare form; this is by far my favorite incarnation of him to date--all the way to the delightful final shot of the closing credits. I wouldn't recommend that these characters be leaned on heavily when Season Two comes, but high congratulations to Telltale for making them work so well for so long with no real gaps.
While the ultimate archnemesis may be fairly predictable for those who have followed the season, the climactic showdown, seven months in the making, is still a relief to finally see play out. Putting aside the quarrel with the final puzzle, the confrontation itself is masterfully scripted, with a series of deviant puzzles involving a rogue trio of cloned hyperkinetic rabbity things celebrating their colorful brand of a few of the seven deadly sins, all leading up to a sincerely compelling sequence facing the bad guy himself and saving the world. The character of the villain is well-conceived, well-written, and extremely well-voiced—every note of psychosis, delusion, and outright absurdity rings true, making it the best individual voice performance of the season.
The final sequence is both set up and executed so well, assuming you don't spend half an hour trying to solve the last puzzle, that it's unfortunate the ending cartoon is not a bit lengthier--it is cut from the same cloth as the opening cartoon, a bit too abrupt of an attempt to tie things together before moving on. However, Telltale does provide a real treat in the form of the musical ending credits, set to a hilarious original showtune and giving us some final violent memories of our anti-heroes. At the end of the sequence, when the entire experience had finally reached its close, there was nothing in my heart but laughter and joy--and gratitude to whatever adventure game gods made sure that Sam & Max didn't die forever in 2004.
That was the true strength of Season One--the ability of the charm, the giddy foolishness, and the strikingly gorgeous technical aspects to totally overwhelm the occasional design weakness and ensure that the players would treasure the experience and remember the positive elements long after forgetting the negatives that crept up. The same is as true as ever here, in an episode that does welcome a few negative comparisons to the spectacular level of episodes four and five. But after walking away, I remembered having fun and laughing and being continuously delighted at the energy being displayed before me. Bright Side of the Moon is not a perfect game, and not the strongest episode of the season, but its positives are so dominant and its foundation so consistent, it is still a four-star adventure in itself and a more-than-adequate wrap-up for a series that has been an honor and joy for me to review. Go ahead and take a few months off, Sam & Max, but don't think your work here is done. Telltale has proved irrefutably that there is boundless life in this franchise and many more absurd stories still to be told.