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Impressions: Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse - The Penal Zone (PS3)


You wouldn't expect to find "We've tightened up the graphics on Episode Three" among the usual list of noted improvements between Telltale's episodic releases. After all, with endearing, demented characters like Sam and Max taking up quite a bit of the screen, who cares how many polygons are left for that potted plant in the corner?

"We wanted to bump everything up presentation-wise for this season," said designer Chuck Jordan, drawing attention to the Telltale engine's impressive -- nay, tight -- visual enhancements. The Penal Zone, the first of five monthly episodes comprising Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse, features noticeably improved lighting, real-time shadows and more expressive facial animation. As Jordan pointed out, "an expression can sell a joke for the first time."

Based on the demo I saw at the Game Developers Conference, it's also apparent that the improved graphics do make a difference to that potted plant. Because you transform into one. "When you finally get to control Max," Jordan said, "it's really weird." Like, really really weird.

Gallery: Sam & Max: Devil's Playhouse | 14 Photos

One of Max's newly acquired psychic abilities (accessed from a bizarre first-person viewpoint) allows him to transform into any physical object -- provided he's seen it in the form of a picture or a painting somewhere in the environment (obviously). It's an interesting puzzle-solving device that introduces an ability-driven approach and complements the traditional reliance on inventory items ... and since it lets Max turn into stuff like plants and bazookas, it's also super funny.

More psychic abilities will be unlocked as the season continues -- can they really get stranger than pictorial transformation or telephonic teleportation? -- but the first few already show that Telltale is cognizant of the formulaic fallbacks in a few of its games. Inventory manipulation has also been inverted, prompting you to select an object in the environment first and then pick an item to use from a redesigned interface. Those changes especially seem to benefit the PlayStation 3 version of The Devil's Playhouse, which also abandons the point-and-click interface in favor of direct control over the demented duo on the left analogue stick.

Of course, it's also worth pointing out that Telltale's excellent, unhinged humor still plays a crucial role in Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse. I don't think fans will be disappointed by the delightful B-movie trappings, not when there's a talking brain, a megalomaniacal ape and a host of unanswered mysteries right from the start. Only an enigmatic narrator (Criswell's cousin?) hints at an explanation, but it's clear that the inevitably absurd answers will gradually be exposed as the season continues from its potent opener.

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse will launch on PSN, PC and Mac on April 15th. The full season (five episodes) will cost $34.95 and will offer some pre-order bonuses, depending on your platform.

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