Adventure Gamers Awards
Wait a second… Sam doesn't have a moustache! And Max never wears clothes!
Looking at the screenshots, you might be forgiven for thinking that Telltale's efforts to shake up the Sam & Max series in the second episode of The Devil’s Playhouse has gone a bit far. But that's not Sam & Max in the pics. Or, well – it is and it isn't. In The Tomb of Sammun-Mak, the Freelance Police are transposed through a supernatural movie projector into the past as Sameth and Maximus, the dog and rabbit duo's great-grandfathers. This framing device lets players flip back and forth between four reels detailing Sameth and Maximus' journey to Egypt on a quest to recover the stolen Devil's Toybox, the MacGuffin storage unit at the heart of this season's mystery. For all intents and purposes, then, apart from the stache and threads, the protagonists act and play exactly the same as their “future” descendants, but in at the early 1900s instead. That means that they – and the episode – are just as funny and outlandish as ever.
In fact, this is certainly one of the most rich, creative and boundary-pushing Sam & Max episodes yet, with plenty of new locations like a disreputable theatre, an Egyptian tomb, and an Orient Express-style train. The latter two are quite large and packed with characters to interact with and puzzles to solve, clearly proving that this season is intent on doing away with the hoary old Sam-&-Max's-street-plus-one-new-location template that made previous seasons a tad predictable. The only time we even see the pair's New York neighbourhood is in a wintry, heavily remodelled turn-of-last-century version of itself. The dated film-reel scenario suits this series' new grimed-up graphical edge perfectly, as the noise filter evokes the grainy texture of a silent movie, and the crumbling stone and dark wood are more organic, old-fashioned materials than we've seen before. This allowed the artists to work in a lot more fine detail, making this the most visually appealing episode in Sam & Max's catalogue.
No one plays Sam & Max to look at the pretty pictures, however – it's more about the laughs, and the jokes in The Tomb of Sammun-Mak once again come thick and fast. And it’s not just the dialogue itself: the colour-coded train cars are exactly that (while in the “green car”, the whole screen is tinted green), and the comedic timing is crucial in making certain lines laugh-out-loud funny. There is even a perfectly executed nod to the point-and-click adventure genre itself. This is the kind of fourth wall-smashing humour that grates when lesser practitioners try it, but Sam & Max manage to pull it off without a hitch. You'll also be given a crash course in Egyptian-moleman humour, a joke revisited in callbacks throughout the course of the game to great comic effect. If you typically like Telltale's comic writing, you'll definitely be satisfied here.
You might be a little disappointed, on the other hand, with Max – sorry, Maximus' – psychic powers in this episode. The first installment relied on teleportation and seeing the future, two powers with plenty of possibilities, so even the "wrong" interaction still provided a chuckle. Here, it's generally more obvious when to bust out your ventriloquism and disappearing powers to advance the story, and although the optional ventriloquist lines can be (and often are) funny, I felt there were a few opportunities missed that could have capitalized on its full potential.
The psychic powers might not be a strength this time, but there are a few other gimmicks to compensate, making the gameplay design of this episode just as interesting as the first. The best is the fact that you can switch film reels at any time, which not only provides an element of non-linearity, it also makes puzzle solutions more complex, as information you discover in one reel is often the key to sorting out a problem in the next. The films are chronological, and each starts you off with different abilities and items according to its place in the story, and juggling four separate timelines out of sequence is great fun. There are plenty of "ah!" moments as you piece together plot and puzzles using the different reels. Then there's the molepeople in the game, who can each perform a unique (temporary) hex on your characters. Sometimes, getting "cursed" with their magic is the only way to proceed, and the way it’s used is pretty clever.
Puzzles are generally of a consistently high standard, with less traditional inventory-based stuff than usual, instead preferring a more abstract inventory of knowledge (finding out what secret quiets an unruly infant, for example) and altering circumstances using supernatural powers. There's even a delightful "2D" section which should bring a smile to your face. The Tomb of Sammun-Mak is not a particularly hard game, but neither is it a cakewalk to fit all the scattered pieces together, though there’s always the optional hint system to nudge you along. All this film-hopping adds up to an episode of decent length, and if the voice acting and music haven't got a mention so far, that’s only because they're once again of the same stellar quality Telltale fans should expect by now. The voicework of the headgear-wearing teenage molegirl is particularly notable among the new additions.
Finding things that don’t work in this episode is once again the greater challenge, but there are a few other weaknesses, if only in comparison to the higher benchmarks set by the rest of the game. Despite the introduction of several new characters (including a total of four "new" molepeople), there aren't any new character designs apart from the perfectly functional but unmemorable fez-wearing impresario Monsieur Papierwaite. There are also quite a few old faces returning from previous seasons, from a certain white-bearded toymaker to a baby with a fondness for biplanes. Whilst it's great to see some old favourites, including another whose fate is cleverly linked to your actions this time around, there's an inescapable feeling that some were roped in for reasons more concerned with stretching mileage out of resources than being vital to the story. This isn't something that's likely to go away – and I wouldn't even want to see most of these characters leave for good – but the reliance on it could be toned down a bit.
There was also some disappointment for me in the ending – as in the very, very ending. After the dramatic events of the finale played out, it would have been nice to see a short reaction back in modern times, but it's glossed over in favour of a cliffhanger that sets up the next episode instead. Without that last touch, the explanation given for the shocking discovery Sam & Max unearth at the beginning of this episode feels rather anti-climactic. Even so, it doesn’t overshadow what is otherwise another great addition to the Freelance Police line-up. The Tomb of Sammun-Mak may not quite hit the heights it could have reached, but it’s fun, it’s creative, and it thoroughly entertains. While other Telltale series have suffered a bit of a letdown after a promising start, The Devil’s Playhouse is shaping up to be a consistently entertaining season, any way you slice the cucumber.