Review: Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse – They Stole Max’s Brain! (PC)
by Mel Ngai on July 2, 2010

Sam & MaxSam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse – They Stole Max’s Brain!
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Genre: Point-and-Click
Release Date: 6/22/2010

The third episode of Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse is here, and it gives us a clear premise right in the title. How far will you go to save your best friend’s brain? A mix of detective film noir and the series’ usual hijinks guide Sam – and us – as he shows us just how he goes about answering that question.

But for us, the players, the question is more simple: how well does this game play, and does it improve upon any of the flaws from the previous episodes?

Story

The story begins with Sam’s discovering that Max’s brain has been stolen, and so the former goes on an investigation to find out who committed the theft, where the felon has gone, and why. The clues he uncovers lead him to the Museum of Mostly Natural History, where he stumbles across Skun-ka’pe and Papierwaite, along with their nefarious plot that requires the use of Max’s psychically powered brain and a not-so-innocent toy box. Said brain is still more than capable of speech, so the Freelance Police must use a two-part plan to foil the flimsy alliance between their enemies. Sam reanimates Max’s body by using a kid’s brain he finds in one of the exhibits, and it just happens to share the same psychic powers as Max’s; it comes with a bratty personality to boot. Things don’t go quite as planned, but to say anymore would make this more spoileriffic than it already is.

Plenty of laughs await, especially if you’re familiar with film noir clichés and whatnot. Even if you aren’t, some of the clever solutions you must use to progress through to the end of the episode may leave you laughing as much as going, “Ah! That’s the solution! Of course!” As with any comedy, though, the humour can be hit-and-miss.

Sam’s unexpected ally in the museum section–to whom I’ll refer only as the kid to avoid spoiling anything–is perhaps the most prime example of this. The kid is smarmy and impulsive, so you’ll either find him to be funny in his own right, as I did, or an annoying little twerp. My advice, especially if you’re not as familiar with Sam & Max, is to go into this with an open mind. No pun intended, given the plot of this particular episode.

Rating: Good

Graphics

The graphical style still seems to be the same from the previous episode, but then, I don’t think anyone was expecting anything else. The characters blend right into the background and its realistic lighting, and the camera angles add to the cinematic feel of the game. The animation of the characters is smooth and clean, and several characters have some great facial expressions. However, you may be left wondering how someone who left the scene before is suddenly back. I’ll talk more about this in another section as the problem runs a bit deeper than this.

All in all, the graphics are pleasing. I really like the visuals of this game, and I hope Telltale Games continues to use it through to the last episode. This is a case where consistency is a great boon to have.

On a final note, I’m quite amused by how the psychic toys look like those old Fisher Price products. Where was that teleportation phone when I was little?

Rating: Great

Sound

This game has many good sounds, but I must make a special note about the voice cast because the actors do an incredible job. They’re clearly the best part about the audio. The only ding here is that the kid is male but voiced by a woman, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t obvious. This is pretty minor, though, since the actress performs the kid’s part perfectly.

The sound effects themselves come out clearly enough for you to hear them, but are quiet enough as to not be distracting. The music, in contrast to both the sound effects and the voice work, is so underplayed that I can’t even remember if there is music throughout the episode. About the few tracks I do recall are the main and credits themes, and these didn’t really stick with me.

In short, the audio component is awesome. That’s all that really needs to be said.

Rating: Very Good

Control / Gameplay

The control scheme is simple, given that this is a point-and-click style adventure game. Sam and Max host different abilities, both of which you need to use in order to progress through the episode. To sum up, Sam is the navigator while Max is the toolbox. More on this in a bit.

The first portion of this one comprises of just the point-and-click as you guide where Sam drives by clicking on a location on the map and what he says during his film noir-esque interrogations. You have only so much time to respond to what the witnesses say, but don’t worry; you can continue to repeat the conversations until you time the appropriate responses correctly.

Once you reach the Museum, the usual Sam & Max gameplay returns. You control Sam with the W-A-S-D keys on the keyboard, similar to a first-person shooter; the mouse’s point-and-click does the rest. The camera follows Sam while you have him run around and talk with people or inspect various objects in the vicinity. As Sam, you have access to the notebook, which records what you’ve done and what you should be doing; the box, which holds different key items you’ll pick up along the way; and the police badge icon, which allows you to switch between Sam and Max. You can tell which one you’ll switch to since the other guy’s portrait will be in the badge (e.g. if you’re currently Sam, the badge will show Max’s face).

When controlling Max–or, during the first half, the kid in Max’s body–you’re brought into a first-person perspective wherein you can pan around and use three psychic toys to aid you: the teleportation phone, the rhinoplasty, and the future vision goggles. The extent in which you can pan around changes as you progress, but it’s nothing drastic. Sparkles tell you what objects you can use the psychic toys on. If the camera ever wobbles on its own, you may find yourself struggling to, say, use the rhinoplasty on that zeppelin picture already. You may have to go closer to the target object to minimize the number of times you run into an admittedly minor issue. You’ll be using the three aforementioned toys a lot in order to solve all the puzzles, but I think the rhinoplasty takes the cake for Most Valuable Toy in this episode.

Previous reviews regarding this aspect weren’t so kind, but I found the controls to be simple and intuitive. A few of the puzzles had me scratching my head for a while, but that was more so because I’d forgotten a detail or didn’t realize what the solution was right away. Most of the other puzzles were easier. Every single puzzle’s solution is at least hinted at, though, so you’ll find the answers you’re looking for soon enough.

So this game is easy to pick up and play, and the puzzles are pretty clever, though you may find yourself wondering what to do next for various lengths of time.

Rating: Enjoyable

Replayability

Since this game relies heavily on its story, linearity is inevitable. Thus, the replay value isn’t so strong here; you won’t discover anything new by playing again. This seems to be a trend for each of the episodes, especially since we’re only on number three of five. I guess my question here is, how could it be anything but linear?

The best you could possibly get out of replaying this episode again is in seeing how fast you can do it, but that’s a self-imposed challenge, and it may not even be a good one. This is in contrast to finding different ways to solve the game’s puzzles, if I were to toss around an example. As things stand, you have only one place in this episode to solve three puzzles in almost any order you want, but each of them has only one solution.

The long and short of this is, the replay value isn’t high. That’s to be expected, I guess, but nonetheless disappointing.

Rating: Mediocre

Balance

The balance regarding the difficulty of the puzzles is good. There’s a difference between seeing a solution and going, “Oh, that’s what it was! Huh!” as opposed to, “That’s what it was? How was I supposed to know that?” Here, you’ll be saying the former phrase as the solutions aren’t too obscure even with hints. The hints themselves are pretty helpful; the challenge lies on your figuring out the how after you know the what, and this isn’t always as obvious. The key, of course, lies in how well you pay attention to the events that transpire around the Freelance Police and to what people say.

I ran into two trouble spots and figured out the rest in short order. This, combined with how you have no true way to fail, makes for an easy game. That in itself isn’t bad, but if you’re looking for a serious puzzle challenge, I’m not sure this title is up to the task.

Rating: Mediocre

Originality

As noted in the review of Episode 2, Sam and Max have run into all kinds of weird adventures before, up to and including trouble with Egyptian artifacts. Nothing is really new here, particularly for long-time Sam & Max fans; saying that not much has changed inevitably brings mixed reactions. Even the kid is nothing special since the arrogant-eccentric-child-type has been seen and done before in cartoons. At least this time we don’t have to see identical ancestors.

Those who aren’t as familiar with Sam & Max may still find something into which to sink their teeth, be it the humour or the puzzles. Amusing and enjoyable as I found Episode 3 to be, though, I couldn’t help but feel as though this was just another day for the Freelance Police. Brain shenanigans? No problem; stuff like this happens all the time.

Rating: Below Average

Addictiveness

The game’s humour, visual style, and film noir-esque opening drew me into the wacky adventure and kept me there even as I hit my head against a wall to figure out what in the world I was supposed to do next (not literally, of course, but you get the idea). Once I started, I didn’t stop until I reached the ending.

But since the game’s replay value isn’t so great, I didn’t feel the need to go back to it once I was done. It’s fun and it’s pretty short, so it’s great if you’re just trying to sample it. You can easily view Episode 3 as a stand-alone story, if you’re worried that starting in the middle of events might throw you off.

Rating: Enjoyable

Appeal Factor

If you’re a fan of point-and-click adventure games and you like the Sam & Max series, you’ll like this game, even if you don’t find too much original with it. If you’re not big on adventure games, though, this won’t change your mind.

The fact that this game is being distributed in pieces is also a hit-or-miss factor. It’s convenient if you want to sample it on either the PC or a console, but if you’ve already seen enough to know you want the whole game, then you’d be better off looking out for it once all the episodes have appeared online.

Rating: Decent

Miscellaneous

Earlier, I mentioned something a little screwy regarding how someone might leave a scene and then come back. This isn’t a graphical glitch; it’s a bug. The scenario went something like this: At some point, Sam and Max work together to have a guy taken away. Afterwards, I was given the second of three different items I needed to complete a fetch quest. When I moved Sam over to the door of the nearby store, the guy came out as if he’d never left, and I proceeded to repeat the scene all over again. I even obtained the item again–and then the characters proceeded to tell me that they had all three items. I went to obtain the third item and saw the we’ve got all three dialogue again.

Thankfully, the game proceeded as normal after that, but the fact of the matter is, I ran into a serious bug. At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, that’s not good, because now I have to give another ding to an otherwise good game.

The only other hiccup in the game may lie in the film noir-esque parody that starts Episode 3 because it doesn’t follow the usual Sam & Max mechanics. That said, the difference is marginal. In regards to how it fits in with the rest of The Devil’s Playhouse, this is either a welcome little break or a needless and unsubstantial disruption, but at least the transitions help you ease into things all right. Even so, I felt the film noir-esque part to be a bit too short-lived.

Everything else about the game flows well enough, but hopefully, a patch comes along to fix that bug.

Rating: Decent

The Scores

Story: Good
Graphics: Great
Sound: Very Good
Control/Gameplay: Enjoyable
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Below Average
Addictiveness: Enjoyable
Appeal Factor: Decent
Miscellaneous: Decent
Final Rating: Above Average Game

Short-Attention Span Summary

They Stole Max’s Brain! continues The Devil’s Playhouse saga of Sam & Max with as much fun, parody, and puzzle-busting here as in the last installment. The controls are simple and the game flows all right, but be aware that there’s a bug in the latter portion that, as of this writing, has yet to be fixed. Aside from that, this is is a good follow-up to the previous two episodes. Fans of Sam & Max should definitely pick this up.



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