Sam & Max: The Devilís Playhouse - The Penal Zone Review

As The Penal Zone opens, our heroes Sam and Max are trapped in a cage on the bridge of a starship bombarding their city.  At the ship's control is the gorilla-like alien General Skunkape (pronounced Skun-ka-pay), who cackles with glee as each salvo is released, while his bride Stinky sits nearby trying to alleviate her boredom with an impromptu manicure.  Can Max use his psychic powers to save the day?  Wait a minute ... what? 

Sam and Max are on the case!

The third season does start out like you've walked into a theater in the middle of a movie, and at first I was beginning to wonder if I missed a season of Sam & Max somewhere along the way.  However, before long you'll learn that it's all part of the game's goofy madness.  Or is that genius?  Sometimes it's hard to tell the two apart.  Anyway, this has got to be the only game that I've played in which you start at the end and the final battle is used as the tutorial.  It's all vaguely Twilight Zone-ish, a feeling reinforced by the Rod Serling inspired narrator who makes an appearance after the prolog to explain what's going on.

What's going on is that the series has been given an overhaul, with a new interface, controls, and the addition of Max's psychic powers (I'll leave you to ponder their origins, or you can play the game to find out).  The changes seem to be driven by a change of focus from the PC to consoles, though.  The stalwart standard of clicking on the spot that you'd like your character to move to is gone, replaced by a mechanic that has you holding down a mouse button and pushing the mouse in the direction that you want to move.  If you had any doubt that this is done to emulate moving a control stick, a little control stick graphic appears on screen while you're moving to remove all doubt.  I'm not a big fan of the change, especially due to the loss of the double-click to run option which was invaluable when revisiting some of the same locations umpteen times.  Your possible responses during a conversation are now laid out on a wheel, again for ease of navigation with a videogame controller.  In this case, though, the change works well enough and didn't have me pining for a return to the old.

Max's powers are a great addition to the game, and the fact that there are many open spots on the wheel used to select the power to use is an indication that his powers will continue to grow as this season progresses.  Powerful psychic powers and the President of the US?   That's one lucky rabbity-like thing.  Anyway, the power that's front and center in this episode allows Max to see into the future.  This is a clever mechanic to provide you with clues, present new puzzles, and drive the story along. although the downside is that you'll see some sequences repeated several times with the Futurevision power and the eventual actual playing out of the event.  I feel that the developers are just getting warmed up when it comes to power-related puzzles, and I'm excited to see what they come up with as this season unfolds.

Storywise, it certainly helps if you've played the Sam & Max games in the past as there are plenty of returning characters and references to prior games abound.  You can certainly start your Sam & Max career with this game, but you'll miss out on the full experience.  If you're a returning veteran you'll be happy to hear that all of that great trademark Sam & Max humor is here in (sam) spades.  Overall, The Penal Zone's story does have the feel of an opening chapter, delivering more setup than self-contained story.  But that's OK because I like where things are going, and look forward to seeing how this season plays out.  Hey Max, what's your Futurevision showing you...?

In The End, This Game Hath Been Rated: 87%. You're traveling through another season, a season of different sights and sounds.  That's the signpost up ahead - your next stop, The Penal Zone.


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