Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Season Finale Review

28 Aug 2010  by   Paul Younger
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After being reintroduced to the world of Sam & Max, I’ve found myself really appreciating the weirdness. Within moments of starting The City That Dares Not Sleep (the fifth and final episode in this season,) you’ll be talking to a prestigious stage presence who just happens to be a chicken and attempting to turn a vehicle into a giant corn dog with the help of Satan and his fey, Germanic vampire pal. Best of all, those actions actually make some sense.

I mean, no, of course they don’t make sense. But in the context of the game, presented in Sam and Max’s universe, the activities are not at all out of place. The strangeness is laid out in such a convincing fashion that it quickly ceases to seem so bizarre. A small part of your brain may still be flashing messages like “wait … what?” but will inevitably be overruled by the part engaged in figuring out how to assemble a crack team of adventurers for a journey inside the body of a gigantic eldritch lagomorph that’s threatening New York with floating, burning spores (as well as its massive arms and teeth.) It just seems the natural thing to be doing.
There’s a place on the market for military FPS titles like Call of Honour: Bravery Courage Squadron XIV (if it can use its elbows to squeeze into it) and Another Release With A Bald Space Marine As The Main Character. People still love those games, and that’s fine. Nonetheless it’s a little bit thrilling to play a title that’s so unashamedly off-the-wall, so packed with weirdness and so confident in its creative direction that it’ll allow itself to throw almost anything into the narrative mix.

If you’ve played through Episode 4: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (and if you haven’t done that yet, what the hell are you doing reading this? I’m going to start directly spoiling things any time now,) you’ll know that Max’s latent psychic energies have transformed the poor guy into a green, bulbous behemoth that is doing its level best to reduce property rates in the neighbourhood. Being the public-spirited freelance policeman that he is, Sam vows to return his partner to (relative) normality. Granted, this decision may also have something to do with President Agent Superball referring darkly to “alternative” solutions for dealing with the threat.

Without spoiling too much more (all of the above you learn in the first thirty seconds or so, don’t worry,) this leads to a journey inside Mega-Max and sets in motion a series of events that uncover the true mastermind behind this entire case and wrap up the majority of loose plot ends in classic finale fashion.

But wait, you may be thinking, if much of the episode takes place inside Max, doesn’t this remove one of the game’s major characters for large portions of time? Wouldn’t this reduce the entertainment value considerably? Why, why in god’s name would they do this? All reasonable questions, albeit expressed somewhat hysterically. Now if you’ll just control yourself for a second, I’ll explain how Telltale has neatly sidestepped this potential pitfall.

Max is indeed ‘missing’ for pretty much the entire episode. Sure, he’s technically there, but he’s a massive, incomprehensible monster and you’re messing about in his innards. Not a combination that makes for particularly snappy dialogue. However, Giganto-Max releases multiple ‘spores’ that urge people to sleep so that their host can feed upon the psychic energy generated by dreams or (preferably) nightmares. Handily enough, these spores are represented by floating, burning Max heads which act almost entirely like the Max we all know and love.

By including one of these floating heads in the vast majority of scenes, Telltale manages to include substantial amounts of Max-interaction, even when he’s out of the picture. This works very well, and also gives a few other characters slightly more chance to shine.
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Sybil Pandemik fans, your time is now. Again, I’m going to have to spoil something here to make my point. It’s relatively minor in the sense that you’ll discover it within minutes of playing the episode, but if you don’t want to read it then skip ahead to where I’ve written SPOILERS HAVE ENDED in bold letters. Have you skipped yet? Ok, good.

So yes, Sybil. She and the statue of Abraham Lincoln have had what Sam describes as “an eventful honeymoon.” As a result, Sybil is in the latter stages of a highly unusual pregnancy, which provides multiple opportunities for entertaining dialogue and hijinks. Sybil is excellent throughout this episode and prompted me to wonder how many other videogames have successfully portrayed a heavily pregnant woman (ok, so she’s carrying a freakish statue-baby hybrid, but it’s still, overall, a success.) Try as I might, I couldn’t think of any. Telltale Games: breaking boundaries yet again. The only curious decision here is that the child’s birth is left as a loose plot strand that appears as if it will be tied up by the episode, but never is.

**SPOILERS HAVE ENDED** Look at that, I used some pretty stars for you and everything.

There are a couple of other problems here which prevented me from enjoying this episode quite as much as the fourth. Understandably, there’s a need to bring everything to its conclusion. In order to do so the pace is set relatively high and there are a few points at which you’ll find yourself whisked to a new location in order to wrap up a bit more narrative. That’s not inherantly a misstep, but at the points where this happens the puzzles tend to take a back seat.

There’s an extended confrontation towards the close of the episode which is crucial to the plot. It’s fairly lengthy and full of great lines, but features roughly one and a half simple puzzles (I say half, because it just involves following a dialogue tree long enough.) Another, earlier ‘puzzle’ is just a case of visiting a few locations on a map and then selecting the right one. The sections inside Max provide by far the most rewarding mind-benders because they’re combined with the splendid jokes, rapid narrative and the all-round impressive cast, rather than left aside while the plot dashes forwards.

While we’re dwelling on solving things, it seems as though the hint system has gone slightly rogue in this episode. Despite having it on the lowest possible setting (aside from ‘off,’ that is) the hints seemed far too eager to trigger and persisted in making Sam repeat clue-based lines of dialogue. After this occurred once too often, I switched the hints off completely and this seemed to cure the issue.

Those are fairly minor inconveniences, it should be stressed. Overall, The City That Dares Not Sleep is a fine finale for what has turned out to be a superb Sam & Max season. This episode is as sharp and smart as ever (when was the last time a game talked authoritatively and wittily about dendrites?) with another impressive gag-success ratio. There’s even a wry callback to Sam & Max: Hit The Road, which is bound to delight the older adventurers in the audience.

The only remaining question is this: will we be seeing another Sam & Max season from Telltale? All I can say on the subject is that Episode 5 leaves the door wide, wide open for more adventures. Based on the strength of what’s just come, they would be more than welcome.

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