As adventure gaming's leading purveyors of pop culture, it was only a matter of time before Sam & Max embraced the issue of clones, and sure enough, Beyond the Alley of the Dolls commences with an army of shuffling, mindless, scantily clad Sams. These mind-controlled clones act more like lumbering zombies, mind you, and the fourth episode of The Devil’s Playhouse slips a bit of George Romero homage into the opening moments, when our (real) dog and bunny duo dive into Stinky's diner, barricade the entrances and hold out against a canine siege.
Eventually escaping the restaurant, the rest of the episode focuses on unmasking the identity of the mysterious "clone master", the villain responsible for releasing the hounds. Unfortunately, while the big reveal is worth it in the end, the journey is decidedly less impressive. In an almost total reversal of last month's They Stole Max's Brain!, this installment starts off fairly uninspired but finishes in a great conclusion. Along the way, the duo will have to summon spirits, acquire an inter-dimensional weapon and investigate Girl Stinky's rather icky relationship with the strange "Mr. S."
The main weakness of this episode lies in some enormously underwhelming settings. You'll be jumping about between Stinky's Diner, Mamma Bosco's HQ, and a tiny area of last episode's museum locale. Up until the climax, the only new locations are (yet another) generic street in New York and an underground lab. The game is set entirely at night, mostly indoors, and although this needn't make a game visually dull, the settings used here make this episode one of Sam & Max's least colourful and vibrant outings.
The script is also partly to blame. There's nothing wrong with it per se; it's just not as full of memorable gags as previous episodes. One of the chapter's great lines – a dispute between the protagonists about whether to refer to the clones as "Samulacra" or "Dogglegangers" – is repeated at least half a dozen times throughout, killing what amusement a decent brace of puns held with constant repetition. There are also some odd allusions to Sam & Max being part of the "human race". Strange for a series that never misses an opportunity to call Max a lagomorph and Sam a canine. Maybe all us Earth-dwellers look alike to anyone not from around here.
Fortunately, there is an upside to the writing. This time it's focused less on pure comedy and more towards driving the plot forward than ever, and the story in episode four is always engaging, sometimes even gripping. A lot of the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired mythology scattered throughout the season is fleshed out nicely here, the origin of the mysterious toybox from which Max's psychic powers spring is finally revealed, and the central mystery – the cloning culprit – is resolved in a genuinely clever and surprising fashion.
Another strong aspect is that Max finally has a full selection of psychic powers, including a very special weapon making its first appearance, though this new power is hardly inspired. While none of the puzzles are as outstanding as the highlights from past episodes, the access to almost every power from earlier in the season does allow a far greater range of puzzles than in last month's slightly repetitive adventure. Heaven knows what happened to the shrinking power from the second episode, though. Combine these powers with a few old-fashioned inventory obstacles, some dialogue puzzles (including a quick one referencing last episode's excellent interrogation scenes), and a complex dimension-hopping, machinery-based sequence to solve, and there's an impressive variety of challenges offered. It's just a slight pity that none of them are real stand-outs in comparison to the innovation seen earlier in the season.
When Telltale fails to meet its own highest standards, it’s easy to forget the stuff that their games always do well, but these still far outclass the majority of modern adventures. The voice acting is as spot-on as ever, with nice new additions in the form of the previously shadowy Dr. Norrington and a delightfully shrieking, self-absorbed vaudeville act. The music is just as impressive, and the control system intuitive and unobtrusive. The settings may suffer in comparison to previous entries, but the other graphical elements they share are still as comical and detailed as always, especially in motion.
And what an ending! Without giving too much away, it takes place at – and on – one of the world's most famous landmarks. A real sense of scale is something that's often missing from adventures, and this finale raises the stakes in this respect. It's also well worth experiencing to enjoy the interplay of the new characters in this episode, and the end-game puzzles, swapping between a helpless Sam and a fully powered Max, are pretty fun to boot. Better yet, there's a truly tantalising teaser for the final episode in the dying seconds that left me keen to get my hands on it immediately.
Until the last ten minutes, however, Beyond the Alley of the Dolls still feels like part of the (relative) mid-season slump introduced last month. It's fairly long without being overly compelling, wordy without being especially funny. If I had to make a choice, I'd always rather a game that picks up in the latter stages than drop off after a good beginning, and the exciting ending almost compensates for the comparative dullness of the earlier stages. But not quite. It's still worth playing, with its usual stellar production values and increasingly bizarre storyline, but this episode again feels like it's primarily laying the groundwork for a spectacular finale. Whether this season of Sam & Max will be remembered as outstanding now hinges entirely on what Telltale can pull out of the hat for next month's conclusion, but one thing’s for sure: anyone who sees this episode through to the end will be right there to find out.