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Review: Sam and Max: The Devil's Playhouse: Episode 1: The Penal Zone

Justin McElroy

Seriously, can you believe that's how long the title is? It's really, really that long.

As the name would imply, Sam and Max: The Devil's Playhouse: Episode 1: The Penal Zone isn't the first game in the series. In fact, it's either the third, fifth or 14th, depending on how you're counting. Whether you've been keeping up with the ongoing series or if you're (like myself) a lapsed player, you'll be glad to hear that the freelance police are still at the top of their game.

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

The fundamentals of the series, the oddball humor, unconventional puzzles and memorable characters have remained constant. Sam and Max's quest to stop a super-intelligent monkey named Skunk'ape feels right at home in their canon, and there are just enough returning guest stars (like the monotone Secret Service agent Superball) to make you instantly comfortable in the world. I knew that having entirely skipped the second "season" of the game, I was probably missing out on a few in-jokes, but it was never distracting.

I like this world, but I'm the sort who's always found the Sam and Max style more amusing than uproariously funny. If it tickles your ribs, this is more of the same, and you should expect nothing less than yukcellence. If you're more like me though, don't expect this third Telltale iteration to massage your chuckle gland any more furiously.

So, what is different? Most notable (and probably the most touted by developer Telltale) is the bump in visual quality. Character animations are much improved, especially faces, meaning jokes can now be sold by a scowl or eye roll rather than a creepy, lifeless death mask. There's also a Mass Effect-esque film grain throughout, a fitting compliment to the B-movie vibe permeating the episode.

Controls are all new too, with Sam's movement being manipulated through a mouse-as-thumbstick setup (instituted by Telltale's Tales of Monkey Island) or straightforward arrow keys. I often found myself pining for the previous games' "click where you want to go" method, but I guess constantly giving Sam direction helped to keep me invested in the game more actively, in a way.

Also new this episode: The ability to step inside the demented not-a-bunny sidekick, Max, who's developed a slew of plot-relevant psychic powers. Each area of The Penal Zone is predictably twisted when seen through the eyes of Max, whether that means floating wrenches turning every nut in a room or inappropriately placed cows. Max's powers also allow him to see into the future of certain objects, which frequently provides clues without making you feel like you're cheating.

Perhaps for that reason, I found this Sam and Max game easier than any of the Season One episodes I played. They may, in fact, be a little too direct for longtime fans, but for me, they required just enough concentration and experimentation to remain enjoyable. Are Max's visions just that helpful? Are the puzzles easier? Am I just smarter than I was a few years ago? It's impossible to say, but I'm ... leaning toward that last one.

Considering the frequency at which Telltale games launch when a season is "airing," I can completely understand how you'd get burnt out. I know it happened to me. But if you've cooled off enough that you're ready to take another journey to the corner of Straight and Narrow, I think you'll find that Sam and Max are even better than you remember.

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