When a game makes you laugh heartily with its first line of dialogue, you know you're in for something special, and such is the case with The Penal Zone, the opening episode in the third round of monthly Sam & Max adventures. The new five-part season, The Devil’s Playhouse, begins with a 1950s-style B-movie narrator (standing by a desk helpfully labelled "Narrator") building up the delightfully schlocky premise: Max, the anarchic, anthropomorphic rabbit, has been given psychic powers courtesy of supernatural toys. Along with Sam, a six-foot-tall dog who forms the other half of the Freelance Police (private detectives with low regard for any law but their own), Max will have to use all of his newfound abilities to avert disaster. In this episode, the crisis comes in the form of General Skunkape (pronounced skun-cah-pay, he insists), an alien gorilla with an insatiable thirst for psychic power.
Pretty bizarre stuff, but that’s exactly what fans have come to expect from the comedic duo. The Penal Zone (and no, the game is not above making groin jokes, repeatedly) opens in the thick of the action, as players are instructed by the narrator to help Sam & Max escape Skunkape's destructive flagship and send the problematic primate back to the title zone – a transdimensional holding cell for the galaxy's most notorious criminals. When control is first acquired, franchise veterans will notice a few important changes to how this title plays. With the increased focus on Max, you can now control his actions as well as Sam's, toggled easily between the two with a quick keystroke or clicking an onscreen icon. While controlling Max is limited to the use of his powers, I found this addition highly welcome. Rather than playing solely as Sam, with Max strictly an ever-present sidekick, this title plays as a Sam and Max game for the first time.
In Sam mode, the episode is a traditional Telltale adventure, with third-person exploration between plenty of inventory puzzles and chatting to entertaining characters. Max mode, however, is presented in a fixed (if visually distorted) first-person view. The arrow keys or mouse can swivel his head around, and Max can use one of his available powers on any applicable environmental hotspots he sees. In the case of his teleportation power, you instead choose telephone numbers to use as a warp destination. Using Max's powers forms a good chunk of the puzzling – even to the extent that a crack is made about Sam being Max's sidekick this time around, though the majority of the actual gameplay is still spent controlling Sam.
After you escape the initial predicament, designed more to introduce Max’s role than Sam’s, returning players will notice some radical changes to the standard movement controls for the canine shamus. Like other recent Telltale efforts, while interaction is still point-and-click – hotspots and inventory items are selected with simple mouse clicks – Sam is now guided either via the keyboard or by click-dragging the mouse to "pull" him in the desired direction (or steered with a thumbstick, as gamepads are fully supported as an alternative). While using a keyboard in one hand and a mouse in the other suits me just fine, players who prefer mouse-only controls will find the new method awkward. Telltale claim it’s not possible to combine the more cinematic style with point-and-click navigation, but their compromise doesn’t work particularly well, and this season seems to be made with consoles (the game is also available on PlayStation 3) in mind. Indeed, when moving Sam around with the mouse, a thumbstick graphic pops up to show you which way he's pointed. The dialogue system has also been changed here from a list of options to a Mass Effect -style wheel. This isn’t a problem or a benefit, as the unusual shape is really just a cosmetic difference.
Once you begin moving around, you won't stay on Skunkape's ship for long. The introductory section ends with the revelation that the whole thing was nothing more than a glimpse of the future unlocked via a 3D viewer, the first of the psychic powers Max permanently unlocks. Indeed, the sky-bound prologue serves more as an action-packed tutorial than part of the game proper. Back in real time, Skunkape’s ship promptly arrives, the General claiming he comes in peace even as he and his gorilla goons seek out the supertoys for his own nefarious purposes, leaving Sam and Max alone to unmask him for a fraud and discover the toys first.
Throughout the early portion of the game, it was nice to see the efforts Telltale made to bring new and old players up to speed on the fly: the narrator-led tutorial is smoothly done, and as each character is introduced, a freeze-frame summary pops up with pertinent details. Even so, by now the ins-and-outs of the recurring cast of characters (one of which used to be a demonic cake recipe) are so surreal and convoluted that I can imagine newcomers being rather bemused at first. Bemused… but likely amused as well. The irreverent, witty writing is as strong as it’s ever been in this series, and the new characters introduced here, Skunkape and a helpful disembodied brain, are as humourous as returning favourites like Superball and Harry Moleman. And they're all voiced effectively once again: David Nowlin and William Kasten return as the crimefighting duo, as does the supporting cast of key characters.Continued on the next page...