Sam & Max: Episode 205 - What's New, Beelzebub? is a ridiculous game. It is an off-the-wall menagerie of goofy and absurd ideas, all of which have been smashed together to form something resembling an interactive story. It offends much more often than it makes actual sense. In other words, it's a completely appropriate finale for the bizarre spectacle that has been Season Two.
The current incarnation of Sam & Max has evolved (or devolved, some might say) so far in the last year and a half, it is nearly unrecognizable from the early episodes. Crashing a reality television show? Stopping an evil toy mafia? It all feels like Mixed-Up Mother Goose compared to the atrocities taking place this season, and not only is the ante raised, but all the chips are pushed into the table for this episode. Looking for a unique and moderately offensive setting? How about hell--or Hell, LLC to be more precise. Want a bigger, better bad guy? How does Satan himself strike your fancy?
The second season finale does much more than simply push the boundaries for setting and characters (and good taste) yet again, though--it reaches far, far back into the annals of the entire two seasons, bringing back long-forgotten characters, little-used plot points, and even a modicum of closure to some unresolved story threads. It is a game that is full of constant surprises, to say the least. And that applies even if you've been playing the whole season and are expecting the unexpected at this point.
The ultimate surprise comes in the final third of the episode. I can't give any spoilers... and there are plenty to give... but it probably would surprise no one that there is a bit more to the story than simply traveling to hell and defeating Satan. Many loyal fans of the series will find the surprise to be a rewarding one. Personally, I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed with the payoff but it will prove to be a matter of personal preference, and there is definitely credit to be given for the surprise element.
The puzzles, again following the pattern of the entire season, continue a sharp incline on the difficulty curve, and do become frustrating at times. There are more misses here than previous episodes; one particular puzzle near the middle of the game has an especially violent solution that completely misses the dark humor it aims for. The hint system relies a great deal on veiled statements telling you what location you're supposed to be at, but often the actual goal is another matter. The game is also quite long, which is partially driven by the difficulty and number of puzzles, but primarily by the sheer willpower of the game to continue packing in different characters and ideas. The energy is undoubtedly infectious but the tenuous threads that hold the game, and by extension the entire season, together seem ready to violently unwind throughout the final series of sequences as the game rushes toward the conclusion.
Seeing many former locations (and hearing the matching musical themes) is a reminder of how consistently wondeful the graphics and music of the entire first two seasons has been. The abundance of characters in this game also reminds that the voice acting has steadily improved and can now be assessed as one of the game's strengths. There is very little I can find to say about the technical aspects of the series that has not been consistently rehashed, but I am proud that this is the current standard-bearer of the genre to mainstream gaming media--it looks and sounds just like a game at the forefront of its niche.
Ultimately, What's New Beelzebub? is an overwhelmingly ambitious game that never stops for a breath, and by the end of the strange journey it nearly collapses under its own comedic weight and the strain of throwing every bizarre scenario and creative re-use of supporting characters at the wall. Still, it is admirable how much of it actually sticks and the ending sequence is as rewarding as any to date. These games are so much fun to play, a certain willingness to dive in headfirst is an assumed prerequisite and overthinking can only dampen the fun factor. As a standalone game this would certainly not be my favorite in the series, but as a conclusion and a reward for loyalty it truly shines, and is (not surprisingly at all) a must-play for every fan of the series and a waiting treat for those who are just now wading into the waters.
Telltale Games should be extremely proud of the insanity they've accomplished with this season. Normally a kitchen-sink approach to gaming like this tends to fall flat or lose all momentum prematurely, but the writing has been so sharp and the energy level so high, that the season has been an unmatched success, a technical marvel as well as a riotously enjoyable adventure gaming experience. News has arrived recently that Telltale is working on at least two other episodic adventure series; it is this writer's hope, now seeing how perilously close this season came to gleefully driving itself off a cliff, that Sam & Max will be given a chance to breathe rather than rushed out to a third season in less than a year's time. This is a series that needs a chance to catch up to its own hyper-frenetic pace--and besides, we could all use a break to replay this fantastic season a few more times.