Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse - Episode 3: They Stole Max’s Brain! review
They Stole Max's Brain!, and Sam isn't happy about it. Starting directly where The Tomb of Sammun-Mak left off, the third Devil's Playhouse episode sees doggy sleuth Sam embark on a noirish rampage, shaking down suspects and busting chops to get his little rabbit buddy's grey matter back. It's a great way to start what proves to be another solid, imaginative outing, though the rest of the episode isn't quite as inspired as its promising introduction.
The bombastic solo opening takes the form of an extended dialogue puzzle in which the order and timing of your interrogative options are paramount. It's also a very funny film noir parody, with Sam driving his trademark DeSoto from suspect to suspect down foggy streets at night while montages of neon signs (including one which just says "NEON SIGN") float by. Sam's linguistic gymnastics fit the P.I. spoof perfectly, with voice actor David Nowlin growling out lines like "You say a light went out? That light was joy, and it's getting snuffed out all over the city." Naturally, this provides a perfect opportunity for Jared Emerson-Johnson's ever-delightful compositions to shine with a moody, sax-heavy jazz score.
The only downside to this sequence is that it isn't very long, feeling more like a preview of a new gameplay mechanic that never ultimately returns. Sam locates Max's brain pretty soon, and the rest of the episode drops the noir homage. It's not exactly business as usual just yet – Sam still has to retrieve the organ in question with the help of another psychic partner – but without spoiling the key plot twists, let’s just say you'll have access to Max's powers for the most of the game, and the Freelance Police are soon reunited in one sense or another.
Along with the welcome return of Future Vision and Teleportation, this episode focuses heavily on the Rhinoplasty psychic power, which lets its user transform into any inanimate object lifted from pictures in the environment. In fact, with the standard inventory rarely used, Rhinoplasty is the main way of solving puzzles in this game. Consequently, They Stole Max’s Brain! just might just be a bit too easy for some, as the solutions to multiple puzzles end up being very similar. This puts total play time a little on the short side compared to its predecessors, feeling more like a functional bridging chapter rather than a highlight in its own right. The consistently inventive dialogue puzzles throughout and the excellent cinematic opening were enough to tide me over, but I have a fondness for both conversation-based gameplay and the hardboiled mystery genre. Other adventure fans may be less forgiving of the brief length and rather straightforward puzzling found here.
The good news is that the plot and writing are still funny, and the over-arching structure of this series really seems to be "going somewhere", building towards a crescendo in a more satisfying and dramatic fashion than previous seasons. The final act of the episode goes off in a genuinely unexpected alternate-reality tangent, reversing the main character dynamic, leaving Max as the (relatively) sensible, responsible half of the duo for a change – an amusing turnabout for a change of pace.
General Skunkape and Monsieur Papierwaite return from previous episodes, and a new baddy is introduced to the "B-list league of Supervillains" (as Sam dubs them). The new antagonist manages to remodel the world in his own image, but he’s fickle and petulant, making him an altogether different style of villain so far, and entertaining in his own right. Along with the usual barrage of familiar faces like the neighbourhood rats, the C.O.P.S computers and the mole-people, there are also a couple of other new characters – most notably Sal, a long-suffering, not-too-bright security guard who has the dubious distinction of being one of the most lovable cockroaches in fiction.
The appearance of the game remains largely unchanged from previous episodes: pleasant cartoon graphics with a textured, distressed look and lots of subtle detail. You'll explore another generous swath of locations, including The Museum of Mostly Natural History, a museum and planetarium full of bizarre exhibits and funny text ("Pluto: Real Planet or Big Fat Faker?" reads one sign). You'll also cruise around a heavily-revamped, Egyptian-themed version of New York full of sandy streets, golden idols, and palm trees. As ever, the voice acting, sound effects, and the overall presentation of the game are top quality. If you can stand the fact that mouse-only controls are not as smoothly implemented as gamepad or mouse-and-keyboard input, you'll find no functional nuts-and-bolts issues that should put you off.
Even so, They Stole Max's Brain! isn't an inspired leap forward for the series that the two prior Devil's Playhouse episodes have been. It's a smooth chunk of comic entertainment that will satisfy series fans, and it’s not a major disappointment by any means. It just doesn't quite live up to the promise of its own exciting introduction, relying a little too much on overly similar puzzles that aren’t nearly as inventive as its storyline. But that doesn’t make it any less funny or enjoyably absurd, and it ends with a fun two-part showdown puzzle and yet another unpredictable cliffhanger, so the last few minutes finish the episode on a high note that once again ratchets up anticipation for what’s ahead.