"The story is completely ludicrous, but that's exactly why it's so much fun."
Telltale Games have been on a roll in recent years. Monkey Island, Back to the Future, and The Walking Dead are all excellent adventure games released by them in episodic format. It's almost believable the genre might even be getting a bit of a revival! Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse is the latest entry in the saga of the Freelance Police and, dare I say it, possibly the best one yet.
The plot revolves around the Devil's Toybox: an ancient casket containing the psychic toys of power. Episode 1 (The Penal Zone) begins with an intergalactic space gorilla, named Skun-ka'pe, arriving on Earth in search of one of the toys; a 3D viewfinder known as the Eyes of Yog Soggoth. As it turns out, "hyperkinetic rabbity thing" Max possesses The Gift to use the psychic toys. He and partner anthropomorphic dog Sam start collecting the toys in order to lock Skun-ka'pe away in the Penal Zone and save the world!
That, of course, is really just the beginning. Episode 2 (The Tomb of Sammun-Mak) follows Sam and Max's ancestors (Sameth and Maximus) and their discovery of the toybox in a tomb in Egypt. Episode 3 (They Stole Max's Brain!) is a comedic take on a gritty noir thriller as Sam sets out to, you guessed it, recover Max's stolen psychic brain with the help of a child pharaoh. Episode 4 (Beyond the Alley of the Dolls) sees Sam and Max fight off an invading army of mysterious Sam doppelgangers (or Samulacra, if you prefer) and a deranged ventriloquist toy. Finally, Episode 5 (The City That Dares Not Sleep) wraps the whole story up with an attempt to destroy the toys, put a stop to a rampaging elder god, and save the world. The story is completely ludicrous, but that's exactly why it's so much fun.
It's no exaggeration when I say some of the best writing in the industry is on show in this game. The script and dialogue is tight, well-written, and continually hilarious. I spent a good portion of my 15-20 hour playtime (3-4 hours per episode) laughing at the genuinely funny jokes, and even going out of my way to examine useless objects for further amusement. A number of fantastic new characters are introduced too, such as elder god-loving sorcerer Paiperwaite, the mysterious Dr. Norrington, and psychotic child pharaoh Sammun-Mak; well, his brain, anyway. Others are less inspired such as an economical and evil version of Santa named Nicholas St. Kringle, and, most bizarrely, a baby version of Amelia Earheart who, even for this series, seems out of place. There are few returning characters until Episode 5, but the plethora of them in the finale should delight series veterans.
As much as I hate to say it, the plot does have some problems. Episode 1 starts out at a fast pace aboard Skun-ka'pe's ship, but leaves you feeling out of your depth. Episode 4 feels awkward and forced and, until the final scene, irrelevant to the overall plot. It's definitely the weakest of the lot, especially compared to how outstanding the other episodes are. Luckily, the stellar script is sure to keep you pushing forward regardless.
In many ways, The Devil's Playhouse is an evolution of the point and click adventure genre. No longer do you click to move, but, instead, control Sam via the WASD keys. In this aspect, the PC version feels like a port of the console releases. Hitting A or S sometimes sends you off diagonally, depending on the camera angle, and a traditional list of text dialogue options are replaced by a Mass Effect-style wheel. The PC controls feel clumsy and awkward, but navigation aside, The Devil's Playhouse is true to its roots. In each episode you explore a number of different small locations to gather items, question NPCs for clues, and solve puzzles to progress through the story.
What sets this entry in the series apart gameplay-wise is Max's psychic toys. Each episode provides different powers to play with, such as teleportation through phones, transformation, mind-reading, ventriloquism, and even a laser-firing robot. By switching control to Max, you can use these powers to gather information and solve puzzles in ingenious ways. For example, if you're stuck, using future vision on certain people or objects might provide a necessary hint. Their implementation is particularly clever during segments when Sam and Max are separated. During these times it is often necessary to switch back and forth and use the toys when appropriate to help Sam from afar.
I found The Devil's Playhouse to be a fair bit easier than past games, but also less frustrating. Puzzles are generally sensible in their execution, but a few too many near the end of Episode 4 rely on pure trial and error. Episode 2 is a real delight as the entire game is played like a movie. You can literally swap film reels whenever you like to gather clues in the future or past that can help you in the present. In short, the gameplay is diverse and satisfying.
The graphics are solid, but often lacking in detail. The cartoony style suits the comedy well, but some character models are a little rough compared to other modern games. Environments sport greater detail and are a joy to explore; the highlight being an Ancient Egyptian version of New York. The Devil's Playhouse uses the same graphics engine as other recent Telltale Games (such as Tales of Monkey Island), so you'll know what to expect if you've played any of those.
It always astounds me how good the voice acting is in Telltale's games, and The Devil's Playhouse is no exception. Sam (David Nowlin) and Max (William Kasten) are voiced superbly with perfect comedic timing. Other secondary characters are equally impressive, though six-foot tall cockroach Sal is perhaps the best among them. I am always highly critical of voice acting in games, so my glowing review of the work here should indicate just how good it is. The soundtrack is not as noteworthy, but there are some great noir-style pieces throughout the episodes. The sound is only let down by effects that are often underwhelming or, in some cases, missing entirely.
In all honesty, I was blown away by The Devil's Playhouse. I've always enjoyed Sam & Max games, but I had an incredible amount of fun with this one. The psychic toys and updated features keep the gameplay fresh through all five episodes, and the script and voice acting couldn't be any better. The graphics are a little weak, and Episode 4 is somewhat disappointing, but, otherwise, Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse should not be missed by any adventure fan, and it is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.