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PSN Review: Sam & Max: The Devils Playhouse — Episode 1: The Penal Zone

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Playing Telltale games on a PC is a wonderful and magical experience, but playing them on anything else can be at best frustrating. Be it poor control schemes or worse frame rates, Telltale's record on home consoles has not been the best and unfortunately Sam & Max does not show a major sense of improvement. But before we get into what went wrong, I want to talk about the things Telltale got right because for all its technical failures The Penal Zone is still a great Sam & Max adventure.

Like the previous titles, The Devil's Playhouse features a season-long story arc driven by the Toys of Power, a series of classic children's toys that imbue Max with new abilities. Thought most of these toys serve as little more than keys to a puzzle a few prove to be invaluable aids. The Eyes of Yog-Sogoth for example grant Max the ability to see into the future, and serve as a subtle hint system. Though at times they can give away a little too much information, most of the time they give you just enough to get going. Max will also spend a lot of time utilizing the teleportation toy that allows him to instantly move to any telephone for which he has memorized the number.

The toys also serve as a means to drive the plot and in this particular episode attract the attention of Space Gorilla/Alien Invader, General Skun Ka'pe (also known as Skunkape). The story begins with Sam & Max trapped upon the Skunkape's ship as he rains down death upon the the city. Following a series of events involving a telepathic space brain and Max morphing into a Bazooka, Sam manages to trap Skunkape in the Penal Zone, a Phantom Zone-like, inter-dimensional prison. Unfortunately for them once the credits roll it becomes clear this was all just a vision seen through the Eyes of Yog-Sogoth. While pondering just what this vision could mean, Skunkape's ship arrives and lands next to Bosco's Inconvenience Store. He claims to come in peace, but Sam & Max know better and set about proving his evil intentions and stopping his quest for the Toys of Power. It's weird, at times nonsensical and everything you could possibly want after the long three-year drought Telltale forced us to endure.

Taking a hint from Wallace and Gromit, the point and click interface of the previous Sam & Max console ports has been dumped in favour of direct character control. Sam is easily piloted around the area to examine points of interest, but players can also scroll through the selectable areas on screen using the right analog stick. It's incredibly straightforward and intuitive.

From a strictly story and gameplay point of view The Penal Zone is the best season opener Telltale has pulled of in years, easily topping Tales of Monkey Island and Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People. If you're playing it on a PC or Mac, you're in for a real treat, but unfortunately if all you have is a PS3, you're going to be disappointed with the technical short comings that plague the experience.

From the moment you first load The Penal Zone you'll notice something is off. The main menu is curiously devoid of music and can take 10-15 seconds just to load the saved games list. This wouldn't be so bad if there was some kind of status indicator, but since Telltale opted to not use the PlayStation's API save screen, it just looks like the game has crashed. Things don't get any better when you actually try to load your saved game as it takes eight seconds to transition to the loading screen, and a further 17 to load the save. These may not seem like huge load times, but the way it's presented feels very sloppy and causes the perception of time to be far longer than it actually is.

The problems don't stop once the game is loaded either. For the entire first act you're in stutter city where frames seem to be dropped more often than they are actually rendered. Character speech and lip sync gets completely out of whack because you're missing frames of speech animation and if you try running the game becomes a slide show. The worst offender is when you pick up the Max bazooka and the game completely locks up for more than five seconds while it loads the next cutscene. There is absolutely no good reason why this scene runs so poorly because when you return to this area later in the game, it runs just fine. No dropped frames, the lip sync is on and nothing looks out of place. As far as I can tell nothing is being rendered any differently.

If you can make it past the first act performance dramatically improves, but there are still several noticeable errors. Running on Straight and Narrow for example can trigger a slide show affect and the number of frames dropped can cause entire animations to be missed. The other areas of the game seem to run very smoothly and only occasionally stutter when you try to run. I'm completely stumped as to why performance seems to be so random, but it's something I hope Telltale can correct in their next game.

The Devils Playhouse was supposed to mark Telltale's long awaited venture into the world of the PS3, but after experiencing what's offered in The Penal Zone it's a venture that could have waited a little longer. This is clearly an experience meant to be had on the PC and if you have the option I strongly encourage you to take it because you won't be disappointed. If like me however, your only option is the PS3 I strongly suggest you give the trial a serious playthrough before deciding whether or not to make your purchase.

Sam and Max: The Devil's Playhouse is rated E10+ (Everyone 10+) by the ESRB for Alcohol Reference, Cartoon Violence, Comic Mischief, Mild Language and Suggestive Themes. This game can also be found on: PC, Mac and the iPad.

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