The one thing Culture Shock doesn't do is turn the adventure genre upside-down. In fact, it mostly takes a hands-off approach, leaving our precious point-and-click customs entirely intact. Though it may sound like a dubious compliment, the best adventure games only use puzzles, inventory management and other gameplay mechanics as a means to an end, the end being an engrossing story or in this case, a dose of unquestionable hilarity. There are times when it really doesn't matter that you're examining objects or rummaging through dialogue options. You're listening to outlandish remarks, deranged dialogue and, if you're even vaguely human, laughing loudly so as to attract unwarranted attention. No really, we're fine thanks. It's just this funny game we're playing.
And it is funny. The banter between the dynamic duo fluctuates wildly between unreasonably witty to unnervingly strange within a second and remarks about the most mundane environmental objects often lead into unexpectedly amusing territory. The game subtly tickles your funny bone with a feather or pulverizes it with a more direct sledgehammer -- often simultaneously and in defiance of most physical laws. The efficiency at which it moves from deranged non sequitur exchanges to self-referential mockery is frightening at times.
"I'd like to patronize your store, and by that I mean I'd like to buy something."
"I know what it means! Don't patronize me."
"I see 20 nuns with machine guns."
The top-notch writing is brought to life by a truly excellent cast, a statement that may seem contrary to initial internet buzz. Though the shift from Sam & Max Hit the Road (has it really been 13 years?) or even the underrated animated series may take a bit of getting used to, it doesn't take long before you realize how well the new voice actors embrace their characters. Sam's noir-ish observations and deadpan responses to even the most ludicrous situations is hilarious in its own right, providing the perfect antithesis to Max's disturbing outbursts. The rest of the characters encountered by the freelance police as they attempt to thwart an evil campaign of mass hypnosis are all memorable, unique and most importantly, fundamentally unhinged.
Visually, the characters might as well have leapt from a Purcell page. In fact, the graphics engine proves surprisingly adept at rendering a world teetering on the edge of madness. A mere stroll through Sam & Max's neighborhood, complete with crooked buildings, psychologically deep street signs and an inconvenience store proves as much. And just about everyone has a gigantic head. There's something really charming about that.
Given the fact that this episode is a mere 71 megabytes in size, you might not expect there to be much content available to you. Strictly speaking, the game does have a fairly limited number of locations to explore, at least compared to other games of this ilk. However, Culture Shock is far more thrifty than most and makes creative use of each location, where return visits (sometimes preceded by a diversionary and unobtrusive car chase) often feel like brand new adventures altogether. In the space of the three (or so) hours it takes to complete the episode, even Sam and Max's chaotic wasteland of an office becomes home to three hysterical set pieces.
The puzzles encountered there and in the rest of the game have the unique quality of being entirely absurd (there's that word again) and completely logical at the same time. Adventure games often struggle to maintain a balance between creativity and obscurity, with less successful bouts often ending up in a situation where you're expected to use the ethereal frying pan on the underwater locomotive. Most of Culture Shock's puzzles wouldn't make the slightest bit sense on their own, but the humorous context provided will more often than not compel you to seek out unusual solutions and violently abuse dairy products. There's also a great "good cop / bad cop" dynamic which has you controlling both characters and attempting to extract information out of a kleptomaniac -- hopefully we'll see more of that in future episodes.
Tune in next time
As if being an excellent adventure wasn't enough, Sam & Max: Culture Shock is arguably the first game to give us a real glimpse at the ideal of episodic gaming (sorry, Bone). The doggy detective and his rabid, rabbity sidekick are fortunate enough to be in a line of work that lends itself very well to monthly, self-contained capers. If Telltale Games can keep up this level of quality and maintain their release schedule (apologies, Half-Life 2) throughout Sam & Max's season, they'll have an extremely convincing argument for digital distribution and byte-sized adventures. They're off to a great start, in case you didn't pick that up from our embarrassingly gushing review.
Sam & Max: Culture Shock is available today from Telltale Games' official website for $8.95 (that's less than a movie ticket) or $34.95 for the entire forthcoming season (six episodes). The game is also available on the Gametap subscription service.
Overall score: 8 / 10