The third season of Sam & Max from Telltale has been chugging right along with two rather enjoyable chapters. Max has psychic powers, the duo have learned a bit about their ancestry and dealt with some of the most interesting characters the series has offered to date.
The third episode released last week and it really surprised me. Somehow Telltale has managed to make a game that is, at the same time, both startlingly different and mired in a rut.
Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse episode 32: They Stole Max's Brain! (PC [reviewed], Mac, PSN, iPad )
At the conclusion to the previous episode, we found Sam discovering the empty cranium of his little buddy. This launches him into a despair-filled rampage through the city to find out who stole Max's grey matter. Filled with rage, we see a side of Sam that's completely new as he ruthlessly interrogates local lowlifes for information.
This introductory section of the game is all wrapped up in a dialog tree puzzle. At points in conversations, the player is given an opportunity to interject and change the course of discussion. Options include pressing for more information on a specific topic, physical violence and "noir."
That last one launches Sam into a monologue that betrays the comic bleakness of his soul without his partner by his side. If that isn't enough to encourage you to make this the first thing you select in every possible scenario, you're going to miss out on the very best part of this episode and quite likely some of the most amusing writing in the series to date.
While novel where Sam & Max is concerned, this form of gameplay simply wouldn't be sustainable for an entire episode. Fortunately, right about the time the player is realizing this, the sequence draws to a close rather quickly. The downside of this is that you'll never feel as though you're seeing something nearly as new or interesting for the rest of the episode.
In fact, once the game moves back to its more traditional mechanics, Telltale's old enemy of repetition rears its ugly head once again and with a vengeance. They Stole Max's Brain! suffers terribly in this department with pretty much every puzzle coming down to performing the same tasks with very little variety.
Part of the reason for this is that the psychic powers which are the primary tools for solving puzzles are exactly the same ones featured in the first episode of the season. Future Vision, teleportation and rhinoplasty (an ability which allows Max to transform into objects transferred onto Silly Putty) all return without any new powers added.
The plot is actually fairly interesting, as it brings together elements from the first two episodes ably and ups the ante in the villain department when General Skunkapé and Paperwaite team up to use the Devil's Toybox in galactic conquest. Sam teams up with the brain of a forgotten Pharoah to free Max, only to have everyone become double-crossed.
The problem here is that much of the series' entertainment value comes from Sam & Max having a clearly defined relationship, but they're never together in a way that's familiar throughout the episode. The second act of the game features Max's body running around with a the wrong brain who and, while the conversations are frequently amusing, never meshes with Sam's dry delivery in the same way.
Likewise, the third act has Sam very much not himself and Max is a disembodied brain strapped to his back. Conversations between the two of them now wind up lacking much of the punch a fully-present Sam would likely have provided. Plus, with Max unable to move on his own, the opportunity for falling back on physical comedy is reduced to nil.
As if sticking true to the concept of games presented in a structure derived from television in all possible respects, The episode has all the hallmarks of a mid-season slump. The game always feels like it's holding itself back, saving the really novel stuff for subsequent episodes. Surprising introductory puzzle aside, it does nothing to innovate and barely feels like its moving the plot along. Much as I enjoy this particular series, They Stole Max's Brain! -- nothing personal, Sam -- is for the dogs.
Score: 4 -- Below Average (4s have some high points, but they soon give way to glaring faults. Not the worst games, but are difficult to recommend.)