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PlayStation Network Review: Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse

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Telltale Games has become the foremost developer of modern Point-and-Click Adventure titles, even eclipsing the fine work of The Adventure Company. Yet as good as their games are on the PC, they’ve been equally bad on consoles. Sure Tales of Monkey Island is alright as its pointer-based Wii controls easily substituted for a mouse, but the hardware just isn’t up to the task of running the game. Xbox 360 releases of Sam & Max fare better as the hardware is more capable, but ultimately has fallen victim to a sadistic control scheme that tries to emulate mouse movement with an analog stick. Either way you cut it, you are in for a bad time.

Now Telltale is back and has brought the latest Sam & Max season to the PlayStation Network. Is it a repeat of the mistakes of old or did they learn some new tricks? The answer is a little more complicated than a mere yes or no.

On the controls front, which one could argue that is the most important aspect, Telltale has a winner. Completely ditching the old analog-cursor scheme, they’ve instead gone for a mixture of regular fixed-camera movement and selectable hotspots; not unlike the Xbox versions of Syberia and Still Life. Using the left analog stick you can freely move Sam around the environment looking for clues. When you approach an object that you can interact with it’s highlighted and you may choose to either use it by pressing Cross or use an item by pressing Square. To prevent unnecessary pixel hunting Sam is almost always focused on at least one object and you can switch between the different hot spots using the right analog stick. It’s not completely original, but it is very intuitive and works infinitely better than the old way.

Graphically, The Devil’s Playhouse falls a bit short of expectations. Being on a powerful system like the PS3 one would expect that the game would perform as well as its PC counterpart, yet alas this is not the case. Slow-down, pop-in textures, and stutter constantly plague the earlier episodes and while there are notable signs of improvement as the season progresses, it still feels like it has been released before the engine was ready. When the game does run smoothly, it looks very crisp and clean with very fluid animations. If nothing else, it’s a sign that good things are possible if Telltale can iron out the bugs.

While continuing Telltale’s well established episodic style of storytelling, The Devil’s Playhouse is not nearly as pickup-and-play friendly as past seasons. By creating an epic plot and tying each episode together with the psychic Toys of Power, they’ve essentially made it impossible to just jump in mid-season and know what’s going on. It’s kind of a difficult trade off as on the one hand it creates a much stronger and more involving plot, but it also makes purchasing the entire season mandatory.

One major flaw of past Telltale seasons has been content stagnation due to repeatedly using the same characters and locations throughout a season without introducing many new ones. This is almost completely avoided in The Devil’s Playhouse as very few locations are recycled and new characters are introduced each episode. To further stifle stagnation, the developers have based each episode around a particular film motif forcing certain stylistic changes. The second episode for example is based around classic tomb-raiding adventure serials and sees the Sam & Max’s ancestors travel to Egypt in search of the Devil’s Toybox. This has forced not only the creation of several new locations, but also required that classic locations like Straight & Narrow be adapted to look like 1910s’ New York. Sam, Max, Kris Kringle, Jurgen, and Harry all had to be remodeled to fit with the times and as such look, feel, and act quite different. While other episodes aren’t nearly this extreme, similar changes are made to keep things fresh.

Although there are some lulls, overall this is the most consistent console port Telltale has released to date. Yes the engine could have been significantly more stable, but the smooth control scheme, gripping plot, and massive amount of new content more than make up for it. If you’re a Sam & Max fan who doesn’t have a PC capable of playing this season, then pick it up on PSN. You shan’t be disappointed.

Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse Episodes 1,3-5 are rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Alcohol Reference, Comic Mischief, Language, Mild Cartoon Violence and Mild Suggestive Themes. Episode 2 is rated T (Teen) for Comic Mischief, Drug Reference, Mild Blood, Mild Language and Mild Suggestive Themes. This game can also be found on PC and Mac.

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