The number three, being quite unimpressive on its own, is generally not associated with the concepts of success or industry progress. Coming third place in a race will net you a thoroughly unspectacular bronze medal. Off the track, we're constantly reminded that three's a crowd and that death comes in threes. The latter often follows the ill-advised consumption of a three-bean salad.
With the release of Sam & Max's latest 66 megabyte-sized adventure, however, the time has come to toss all those clichés and phrases. Telltale's episodic endeavor is the first to even reach its third episode, easily exceeding Valve's trickling of Half-Life 2 games and similar efforts by Ritual Entertainment, just recently absolved from SiN. It would be an empty victory if the three episodes were trivial wastes of time, but thankfully, the opposite holds true. This victory is filled to the brim with sharp writing, engaging gameplay and a level of charm that is quite simply, inescapable.
Those three qualities absolutely permeate The Mole, the Mob and the Meatball, though they're occasionally joined by some minor issues. Having now reached the halfway mark of this season, we're given some perspective as to what exactly those are.
Halfway to the danger zone
This episode is remarkably short. It can be completed in roughly 90 minutes, which is about half the time we spent playing the first episode, Culture Shock. It isn't strictly a problem in the sense of receiving value for money -- those are 90 hilarious minutes, after all -- it's a problem that serves to highlight some gameplay inadequacies in this particular episode.
Despite being rife with parody and paradox, the single new location featured in The Mole, the Mob and the Meatball somewhat curtails the scope of the adventure, making it feel like someone stuffed a big script into a tiny closet. The events and conversations that transpire within Ted. E. Bear's Mafia-Free Casino (which, of course, is utterly beset by mobs of ... mobsters) make the episode well worth playing, but being limited to a single new and relatively small environment leaves things feeling somewhat compressed.
Less time playing also means less time laughing. The quality of the writing here is as impressive as it's ever been, but it seems almost obvious to point out that we would have liked to experience some more of it. In a potentially futile attempt to gauge how funny each episode is in relation to the last, I write down every line that makes me laugh out loud (LOLZ, if you prefer) on a tiny piece of paper. If, by the end of the game, the paper is a chaotic mess of scribbles and attempts to squeeze in just one more line (see: the first two episodes), I can instantly see if an adventure was roughly on par with the last. With the third episode, I had quite a bit of empty space, right above "You look more like a Boris Crinkle."
Just you and me and Ted. E. Bear
These criticisms are really intended for you and me -- fans already playing the Sam & Max games. Really, the only reason we've gotten to this point in the review is because The Mole, the Mob and the Meatball is going up against its siblings who, at some point, collectively heaved the bar to an obscene height. As an adventure game it succeeds admirably, presenting entertaining puzzles and a superb cast of characters.
The other issue with this episode is actually tied to the puzzles, or rather, the way in which they're structured. There's a very clear formula at work here, one that leaves our deranged duo facing a central obstacle that can only be dissolved by accomplishing three (there's that number again) related tasks. On the one hand, this makes your objectives very clear, but on the other, slightly gnarled hand, it makes the game a little predictable. There's a need for some consistency across the episodes, but the next three episodes should look to shake up the puzzle layout a bit.
Third time's the charm
While Sam & Max: The Mole, the Mob and the Meatball might not surpass previous episodes, it's important to note that it's still a solid example of just what makes the series so wonderful in the first place. The brilliant writing and off-kilter characters easily overpower the aforementioned problems, especially if you happen to be a Sam & Max fan. Laughter really does make the pain go away.
Sam & Max: The Mole, the Mob and the Meatball is available now on the Gametap subscription service and on Telltale Games' official website. $8.95 will net you a single episode, with $34.95 giving you the entire season (six episodes in total).
Overall score: 7 / 10
Check back on Friday for our review of Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die!