Sam & Max: Episode 202 - Moai Better Blues review
"You could've at least had the courtesy to be impaled on spikes!"
If there is one specific attribute that the beloved Sam & Max Hit the Road exemplified for adventure gaming, it's pure lunacy. Every plot element, every character, every bizarre situation sparkled with the sort of extreme creativity that can only be attributed to brilliant design (or recreational drugs). The rebirth of the franchise in Season One, although gorgeous, well-written, and undeniably fun, experienced stretches where the broad framework of the storyline did not nearly stretch the bounds of pure madness, but settled for just slightly wacky. That has not been the case so far this season: the first episode of Season Two, Ice Station Santa, exploded with poor taste and inappropriate holiday humor, and now Sam & Max: Episode 202 - Moai Better Blues hits a new series high with a myriad of extraordinarily strange and peculiar concepts and situations as the foundation for another fantastic episode--although one that has some noticeable struggles.
The level of out-of-the-box thinking becomes immediately apparent when the game begins with Sybil (who is still dating the disembodied stone head of Abraham Lincoln) is chased around the neighborhood by a voraciously hungry Bermuda Triangle. Saving her is the primary goal in the prologue, but soon our heroes discover that the triangle is a portal that leads to Easter Island--where, by the way, many famously disappeared celebrites have ended up (albeit in a much different form) as well as a few other famously lost items. Oh, and the Moai elemental-powered rock head people are here to manipulate the elements and complain about ancient prophecies. There's a job to do here, though--the local volcano is mere moments away from destroying Easter Island in a hot, fiery death and once you can dispose of Jimmy Hoffa, you'll need to fulfill a trio of sea monkey's tasks and save the world! Oh, and the puzzles involve copious amounts of Banang.
If that doesn't sound like the framework for a game you'd like to play through, don't say that you weren't warned. Moai Better Blues is so strange, so twisted, so bizarre that it is really delightful just to experience on a conceptual level, and this serves to carry the game for the most part--along with the continued superiority in the visuals and another wonderful soundtrack that, as with Ice Station Santa, serves to really complement the game environments in a direct way, rather than just serving as a subtle background. Despite the usual technical brilliance, however, this episode springs a couple leaks.
One issue comes from the inevitable fact that when you throw this much outlandish material at the wall, it's not all going to stick. The episode introduces many supporting characters, some of whom are entertaining, all of whom are hilarious on a conceptual level--but some of whom really have nothing funny to say. I'll be the first to admit that I've been waiting my whole life to have the opportunity to talk to D.B. Cooper in an adventure game--and it's a completely underwhelming experience, a total waste of a really fantastic idea. Similar complaints can be made about much of the actual writing, which has a decidedly more hit-and-miss feel than previous episodes. Some of the humor really hits the mark the way it has at the highest points of the series, but a significant amount of it will leave the player with eyebrows raised and a distinct sensation of "Shouldn't this interaction have been funnier?" This is not a constant problem, but it is a surprising one after the rapid-fire hilarity of Ice Station Santa.
"Ancient prophecies can only mean two things: tedious backstories and work we don't get paid for."
This episode also seems to have a slightly more difficult time balancing on the seesaw of puzzle difficulty. Ever since the startling ease of the early Season One episodes, there have been progressive attempts to involve more complicated traditional adventure puzzles into the mix, and while the balance in Ice Station Santa was nearly perfect, the puzzles are becoming complex enough that it actually can block progress in a frustrating manner. There is a hint system in-game, which works well at times (and has a very helpful hint-frequency setting), but in a couple situations I still found myself stuck for long enough that the game's comic momentum was lost. In a full-length game (such as the original Hit the Road) it's understandable to have complicated puzzles necessary for progress, but in this episodic format where playing time is so compressed, this reviewer feels that the balance must shift back to comfortable story progression for the games to be as effective as possible.
It's still important to note, though, that there seems to be a lot more confidence in the ideas behind this new season of episodes. Regardless of how these loose threads may be tied together by the end of the season, it appears that Telltale--at least for these first two installments--is content to avoid the forced serialized elements of last year and allow these individual servings of insanity to be enjoyable independent of other episodes, while at the same time continuing some of the more amusing plotlines (Max's presidency, Abe & Sybil's relationship, etc.)
Despite whatever criticisms may exist, the pattern of the series continues: the complaints are overwhelmed by frequent belly laughs and blasts of bizarre, chaotic fun. Moai Better Blues is a gorgeous game to look at and listen to and a unique, enjoyable experience as a whole. However, all the compliments that the game is worthy of come with a slight caution that the balances between brilliant ideas and actual humorous execution, and between story progression and puzzle challenge, are tenous ones that must continue to be attended to. Don't let such cautions from a grouchy, cyncical reviewer turn you away from what is still a wonderfully fun game.
There are criticisms, to be sure, but ultimately they feel like small nitpicks on what is an intelligent and wildly creative episodic adventure that continues the series with the requisite lunacy.