Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse - Episode 5: The City That Dares Not Sleep review

Sam & Max: Devil’s Playhouse 5
Sam & Max: Devil’s Playhouse 5
The Good:
  • Great premise with an epic feel
  • Superb musical score
  • Funny dialogue mixed with emotional story moments
  • Excellent visual presentation.
The Bad:
  • Sometimes the plot gets too tangled for its own good
  • Lack of psychic powers is strange and a little disappointing.
Our Verdict: There are a few kinks in the conclusion to this strange Sam & Max tale, but the final Devil's Playhouse episode has a renewed energy that concludes the season wonderfully.
Note: Beware spoilers for the ending of Episode 4 in the following review.

If you've been following the dramatic – and increasingly convoluted – events in The Devil’s Playhouse to this point, you'll know that at the end of the last episode, rabbity crimestopper Max has been turned into a Godzilla-style monster rampaging through New York due to a strange energy from another dimension. In the season finale, The City That Dares Not Sleep, it's a week later and the crisis shows no sign of abating. In fact, everyone in the city is desperately trying to stay awake with government-issue coffee beans, as the giant creature feeds on the psychic power of dreams. In a last-ditch attempt to cut the beast down to size and save his little buddy before Agent Superball-turned-Acting-President deploys a nuke, Sam volunteers to lead a surprisingly diverse “crack team" inside Max himself. This expedition is a rocky road to travel at times, but there are plenty of little treats in store to entice you to the thrilling finale.

The major change in this episode over the rest of the season is that you won't be using any of Max's psychic powers this time. You will control Max in a most unusual way at one point, but most of the episode is spent directing Sam as he tries to take control of the Max monster and return his friend back to normal. Along the way, there are some good puzzles to be found, such as the wonderfully bizarre recipe to turn the DeSoto into a giant corn-dog, but the complete absence of the series' strongest gameplay gimmick is a little strange. Instead, the game reverts back largely to the tried-and-tested Sam & Max formula of inventory puzzles of one sort or another, resulting in gameplay that is solid but not spectacular, and perhaps a little easier and shorter than previous episodes. There are a couple of puzzles involving dialogue (an easy but amusing example involves a giant game of Twister) and some "situational"-type obstacles, such as when Sam is transformed into different objects and must use his new shapes to his advantage, but most of the challenges fall into the inventory mould. They're well constructed, just not the most exciting challenges we've seen this season.

In other aspects, however, The City That Dares Not Sleep is a season finale that ups the ante. The monster rampage aspect gives it an impressive sense of scale that is often absent from Sam & Max's adventures: the creature dwarfs buildings as it lumbers through the city streets, and is battled by a whole fleet of flying Maimtron robots (upgraded with slightly more recent song references) and the once-again fully statuesque Abe Lincoln. Appropriately, the episode's score is even more bombastic than usual, with a mixture of epic John Williams-ish pieces and some retro cop show funk thrown in for added humour.

All the most important characters from the season make welcome reappearances, including Doctor Norrington and the villainous Skunkape. Also returning for cameos are a few surprise guests from previous seasons, and there’s a significant role for series stalwart Sybil Pandemik, now showing obvious visible signs of what she’s been up to since we last saw her. There's even an honest-to-god proper mystery going on involving the treacherous activities of a major character, with a plot-twist about two-thirds of the way through that smashes through the fourth-wall and brings in a fresh antagonist. This particular revelation might not be entirely unexpected, given some heavily dropped hints at the start of the episode, but it's cleverly handled.

Other elements of the story are not so neat: my least favourite aspect is the Giant Max-produced "spores", which are simply flaming, floating Max heads. The plot justification is that these are the means by which the creature feeds on dreams, but really they're just a transparent excuse to have a character around that can behave like Max by adding sassy lines to Sam's observations. As good as the duo's chemistry is, Telltale shouldn’t be so reliant on this style of writing that they feel the need to crowbar some form of Max in where it doesn’t belong. Another bit of "too far" convolution comes when the episode tries to ret-con female Stinky's origins. Previously we were told that she's a demonic cake that came to life. The new explanation actually makes a lot more sense, but why did the whole cake business (from a prior season) even exist? Could the whole issue not just have been quietly dropped?

While narrative might be more important to The Devil’s Playhouse than earlier Sam & Max seasons, that doesn’t mean humour has taken a back seat, and the laughs are still here in this episode. Highlights include, as ever, the Narrator's overblown Rod Serling-style introduction ("You might think this is yet another predictable story of a giant monster attacking Manhattan."), a slightly niche but very funny dig at the Tribeca film festival, and a marvellous bit of "censorship" when Sybil starts to describe her wedding night with Lincoln's statue. The gags generally come as thick and fast as ever, though there are some points in the story that are more deeply emotional, even touching, providing a good balance between comedy and (relative) earnestness.

Location choice and variety is also good. Old haunts like the Bosco-Tech labs and last episode's cloning chamber make reappearances, but the episode also introduces a large set of new areas inside of Max, which bizarrely take the form of interior rooms – a gym, a kitchen, a ‘70s-era lounge, and so forth. But one of the most interesting new locales is the city of New York itself, which you can stomp around briefly after gaining physical control over Macro-Max. You won’t be nipping all over the place or visiting familiar sights, however, as the section is confined to a limited grid of high rise-lined streets. The visuals are right on par with the rest of the season, with great character models and animation, and a grimier look than past seasons. The technology is not particularly impressive, but the design and presentation are top-notch. A visual highlight of this episode is the split-screen effect used when Sam makes radio contact with other members of his team from inside the monster.

Despite the odd rough story edge and puzzling design choice, The City That Dares Not Sleep is a refreshing, triumphant end to The Devil's Playhouse. There's something lively, even celebratory about this season's final episode. Perhaps it's the fact that it flirts with the self-referential but rarely becomes self-indulgent (at one point, you enter Max's inventory, which features old props from all over previous Telltale games, and even LucasArts' classic Hit the Road); or maybe it's the action-packed and fast-paced plot that never gets dull. Whatever the specific reasons, blended together they create a definite sense of scale and fun, with an unpredictable story and a few revelations that have real stakes for the characters you care about. Even the final cutscene features a little bit of mystery that makes a fourth season a very welcome prospect and reminds you just how much fun these characters are. By the time that point rolls around, I'm sure most players will feel both satisfied at a season successfully concluded and already eager for more.

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