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Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse: Episode 1, The Penal Zone

Score: 90%
ESRB: Not Rated
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Adventure

Graphics & Sound:

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse: Episode 1, The Penal Zone kicks off the third season in one of the best examples of episodic content to hit the market to date. This time, Sam & his "hyperkinetic rabbity thing" of a partner will find themselves in five stranger-than-normal adventures that involves, scarily enough, Max getting psychic powers.

While the general look and feel of the game has stayed the same (though there is a noticeable bump in the graphics quality), the UI has been given a bit of an overhaul for this latest season. For one, there's a HUD that gives you quick access to your inventory (the classic cardboard box image from old-school Sam & Max), the ability to switch to Max (more on that later) and a notepad to review things like the characters you've met, Max's powers and the story so far. Another aspect of the game's UI that has been given a retooling is the dialogue system. Now, the game takes a Mass Effect-like rotary selection option with Sam sticking his head out of the center of the wheel and looking at the different options you can choose from as you move from one statement to the next. While the increase in visual fidelity is the most noticible upgrade the game's presentation, the UI changes also do a lot to make the game feel more user-friendly.

As much attention as the game's graphics have received, the audio side hasn't changed all that much, which is perfectly fine since both the voice acting and the sound effects have been pretty much perfect since the series' start. As always, the voice talent's execution of superb dialogue really helps to sell this series' Sam & Max feel, and if anything, I would say the writing this time is even better as the characters' various witty statements seemed to make me laugh more this time around than previously.


When we last left our heroes, they were prisoners of the evil alien ape General Skun-ka'pe as he and his diabolical ship were hurtling to Earth in order to destroy it. What? You said you played all the way through the previous season of Sam & Max and beat it's season finale, What's New Beelzebub?, and you don't remember that? Trust me, I had the same thought go through my head when I booted up the first installment in Sam and Max's latest series of adventures, The Devil's Playhouse.

When Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse: Episode 1, The Penal Zone kicks off, our heroes are trapped in a cage, in a space ship, controlled by a giant talking gorilla bent on destroying Earth. What we don't realize until we get past this initial series of puzzles, is that we are actually getting a glimpse into the future since Max has just discovered a "Power Toy" that gives him the psychic ability of Future Sight. We return to the present just in time for the evil creature, General Skun-ka'pe (yup, that's right Skunk Ape) to land on Earth and declare that he is a peaceful visitor. Thankfully, Sam's quick thinking allows the duo to not reveal that they know Skun-ka'pe's true purpose, and Max's status as the President of the USA means they can just waltz into Skun-ka'pe's ship and try and stop him before the alien General can complete his mission. Armed with Sam's deductive abilities and Max's new found (and growing) psychic ones, you will have to revisit most of your old haunts, like Stinky's Bar, as well as a few new ones, like Bosco's Mom's new lab.

As I alluded to above, with Max's new powers, he is no longer relegated to being a walk-along sidekick character. There are many times in this adventure where you will have to take over Max and activate his various abilities in order to get past the game's many puzzles. At first, Max has only the Future Sight ability, which comes in pretty handy actually, since you can see the outcome of puzzles, and you just need to know how to solve them. Other Power Toy abilities include a phone that lets the pair teleport to the cell phone of anyone they know and a putty that lets Max change into anything he can stick the goop onto. Each time you want to use one of Max's abilities, you simply click on his icon in the corner of the screen, choose the toy you want to use and then activate it. While this is a rather unusual and new mechanic to the series, it doesn't take long to get used to and you will find yourself having to use them quite a bit more than the normal items in your inventory.


While I really enjoyed Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse: Episode 1, The Penal Zone, I found it to be one of the easiest episodes yet. Everything is pretty much laid out for you so you can take down pretty much any challenge the game throws at you almost immediately. Of course, there is always the possibility that you didn't go through all of the dialogue choices, or that you missed an item to pick up, but most well-versed adventure gamers won't fall into these traps and will be able to sail through The Penal Zone in a few hours (it took me about four). There is the occasional puzzle that might slow down most followers of the series, but if you go by the old adventure-adage of trying everything on everything, you won't be stuck for very long. Even in those cases though, a little extra thought should get you through the situation before you get to that point, and the result always makes sense (at least in a Sam & Max sort of way).

Game Mechanics:

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse: Episode 1, The Penal Zone's use of Max's new powers, and especially the Future Sight ability, really puts an unusual twist on the game. There are quite a few times when activating the ability will let you see how the world should look when you get past a puzzle, and even a few where you get a glimpse of someone flat out telling you what was needed to solve the current predicament. In those cases, part of the puzzle involves realizing that you should use Future Sight, and the other part is getting the items together that are mentioned in the vision so you can do what you said... will say... you need to do. Of course, getting those pieces together always ends up being a bit of a challenge in and of itself.

As the start of a new season, The Penal Zone definitely gets things going right out of the gate. While people just entering the series now might think they have missed something pivotal, they really haven't and even little bits of knowledge you might need from the previous games are quickly recapped when appropriate. So while I would definitely recommend going back and playing the previous two seasons of Sam & Max, it isn't necessary for starting off The Devil's Playhouse. This promises to be a fun and interesting season. I can't wait to see what The Tomb of Sammun-Muk will bring.

-J.R. Nip, GameVortex Communications
AKA Chris Meyer

Minimum System Requirements:

Windows XP/Vista/Windows 7, 2.0 GHz + Processor, 1GB RAM, DirectX 8.1 Sound Device, 128MB DirectX 8.1-Compliant Video Card, DirectX 9.0c

Test System:

Windows 7 Ultimate, AMD Phenom 9500 Quad-Core 2.20 GHz, 4 GB Ram, Radeon HD 5870 Graphics Card, DirectX 9.0c

Related Links:

Windows A Kingdom for Keflings Microsoft Xbox 360 MotoGP 09/10

Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated