Review: Sam and Max: The Penal Zone (PC)

Sam and Max Episode 1: The Penal Zone
Genre: Point and Click
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Release Date: 4/15/2010

I love Sam and Max. I played all their games and even read “Surfin’ The Highway” (still haven’t watched the cartoon though). So it may seem strange that the first Sam and Max game I played was the very first episodic game Culture Shock. The very first point and click game that I played was Curse of Monkey Island and I immediately went off in search of more Lucasarts classic point and click adventure games (including some Broken Sword and Beneath a Steel Sky as well) that I had missed because I was a console peasant and not a superior PC gamer.

Of all those wonderful characters, Sam and Max stick out as my personal favorites for reasons I can’t explain and I dove through both Season 1 and Season 2 and enjoyed both of them.

Now after Strong Bad and Wallace and Gromit, Telltale returns to its flagship crime fighting duo; does The Penal Zone start off the third season with a bang?

1. Story/Modes

You’re thrust into the story from the get go, with Sam and Max captured by the main villain who’s just in the process of destroying the Earth. This little section serves as an introduction to Max’s newfound psychic powers and by the end of the short 10-15 minute tutorial section you beat the final boss.

But no worries! It just turns out that Max was seeing into the future with the aid of his psychic View master toy! And right on cue, the main villain shows up in his spaceship and claims to be an innocent and peaceful alien but our heroes know better due to their vision and set off to dispense justice: Freelance Police style!

Telltale has implemented the ability to see the future perfectly within the storyline as well as into the humor and gameplay. The climax of the game even has a great twist that I didn’t see coming.

But we all know that the storyline in Sam and Max games is only one side of the coin and it doesn’t matter how good the story is if the end result isn’t funny. Well, I’m glad to report that The Penal Zone is one of Telltale’s funniest offerings yet with far less groan- worthy one liners than before and more humorous idiot savant sayings from Max.

So, great storyline and great humor: Perfect score you might suggest? Well no…there are a few problems with the storyline.

First off, the game does require you to know what happened in previous Freelance Police adventures to get some of the jokes and the characters (like what Bosco did with all that money you gave him in Seasons one and two and how Grandpa Stinky has a granddaughter). If this is your very first Sam and Max adventure, you’ll still find plenty to chuckle about but you won’t get 100% of enjoyment from this game.

The second problem is the lack of new environments to visit. In the first two seasons you always managed to visit some weird locations like a TV studio, The North Pole, Transylvania, The White House and even the moon (for the 2nd time in their history actually) but The Penal Zone only takes place in New York City and there are only two totally new locations: Skunkape’s spaceship and Boscotech Labs. The only other locations (Stinky’s Diner, The subway below Sam and Max’s office and their home street) are rehashes from older games. Sure there are some new shops like “Meesta Pizza” and the “Hard Luck Pawn Shop” (which sells chess pawns as well as pawned items) but you can’t enter them, click on the door and our heroes go in, get the item they want and that’s it; you don’t even get to see what’s inside. You can’t even explore Sam and Max’s office, Bosco’s convenience store or even Sybil’s ever changing shop. It just feels less populated than previous outings.

Other than those two flaws, The Penal Zone is my second favorite Sam and Max adventure, second only to the original Hit the Road.

Story/Modes rating: Great

2. Graphics

I’m a diehard 2D gaming nerd so I was disappointed when most adventure games nowadays use 3D graphics. Sure animating 2D sprites is more expensive than 3D models but seven dudes from the Czech Republic managed to make a beautiful 2D adventure game (Machinarium) with pretty much their own savings. Now I know that Telltale games are an independent studio but they are obviously much better off than Amanita Design. Yet, they continue to stick to their basic 3D engine in use since the Bone games came out.

In Telltale’s defense though, they’ve tried to up the capabilities of the engine with additions like real time lighting and bump mapping so even though it’s in 3D, The Penal Zone is Sam and Max’s best looking 3D adventure.

In addition, all the characters in the game have more animations so there’s less repetition in their movement and Telltale has included a lot more dynamic camera angles in an effort to make the presentation more cinematic as well.

Even little things like Sam’s suit now has wrinkles and looks like it’s made of fabric, Max now has more expressions and Stinky’s Diner looks even more low class with the new real time lighting system.

I’ve heard that all these new graphical upgrades have come at the cost of stability and many players, even those with high end systems, have had frame rate drops and input lag. I haven’t had any of these problems while playing the game with full graphics using a mid level system (ATI HD 4850, 2.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo,3 GB RAM). So, make of that what you will.

Graphics rating: Very Good

3. Sound

Telltale’s strongest area is always its sound department. They always manage to get both the music and voice acting spot on and The Penal Zone is no exception.

Everyone from the Rod Serling style narrator to the Scottish Grandpa Stinky is excellently voiced and deliver their lines in a perfect conjunction with the humorous dialogue, top notch all round.

The music is good and does its best to sound as much as the “Twilight Zone” as possible and I really enjoyed that shout out to that classic show. My only gripe with the music is that at many times in the game there was nothing but utter silence or the music did it’s best to stay out of the way when I wanted it to add to the ambiance of an area.

Sound rating: Great

4. Control/Gameplay

The very first part of the game you don’t really need to move, so, I didn’t notice anything as I solved the first couple of puzzles. When it came time to move I clicked on the floor in order to get Sam to move there… nothing happened. I clicked again with no result… I checked the back of my computer to see if my mouse is still plugged in correctly since It’s been on the fritz lately but everything seemed kosher (otherwise I wouldn’t be able to move the cursor around).

Only after checking the controls in the option menu did I come to a horrifying realization: You move with the WASD keys.

What is this?! A point and click adventure where pointing and clicking is relegated to be a second class citizen?

The last Telltale game adventure series I completed was Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People and it seems with Wallace and Gromit and Tales of Monkey Island the good folk at Telltale games added in keyboard controls a la Grim Fandango

Why? Why make the controls shittier? If you want to use the mouse alone you have to hold the left mouse button and drag to get Sam to move. Even the inventory is not saved from this monstrosity of controls: If you open your inventory and mouse over your items, they will highlight and show a series of icons that make Sam describe, use and activate said item. However, if you describe an item it will stay highlighted, you can no longer select another item because they won’t highlight! You need to close your entire inventory and bring it back up if you wanted to select any other item. How did this get past bug testing?

You know? I have an answer to all that: Sam and Max: The Penal Zone is not a PC game. It’s designed with the Xbox360, PS3 and iPad foremost and the PC gets the leftover refuse.

How do I know this? Because the controls using a wired Xbox360 controller were much better than using a mouse, the game even switches all the icons to represent Xbox360 buttons.

‘Tis a sad, sad day when playing point and click adventure games with a controller is better than a mouse. The worst part is that playing with a controller, while better than a mouse, is not even as good as older point and click adventure games.

Moving around is confusing because the camera changes angles abruptly while you’re running around (for cinematic effect, which I endorse) causing you to run into walls and such and you have to stop completely to interact with objects. Why’s that a problem? Many times a bunch of objects are clustered together so you move towards them to highlight object you want but if you let go of the control stick, that jerk will cause Sam to shift ever so slightly and highlight another item! Thankfully, the left bumper (or R1 on PS3 I guess) toggles through all interactable objects. This would help more if each room didn’t have dozens of objects to interact with.

The game is also quite short, maybe just under 2 hours long which is one of the shortest Sam and Max episodes yet and one of the main reason why I hate episodic gaming: they’re just a series of appetizers with no main course like maybe Hit the Road 2 or something.

Well, I spent about 600 words raging on how much I hate the controls but The Penal Zone does have some positives.

You get a taste of four of Max’s psychic powers but lose two of them and have access only to Teleportation and Future Vision for the rest of the game. If you couple that fact with the realization that there are very few items in the game and most of the puzzles involve only Future Vision and Teleportation powers, you might be dismayed and fear that the puzzles are repetitive.

Not so, just like how Telltale weaved these powers seamlessly into the storyline and humor, they’ve weaved it excellently into the puzzles. There are really some ingenious uses of teleportation and future sight and it required some awesome out of the box thinking to move people around using teleportation to get them to move to certain locations. Future Vision not only provides hilarious insight into the minds of Sam and Max but also offers subtle clues on how to solve puzzles you wouldn’t figure out otherwise.

The puzzles are top notch so if this game was longer (like say in the 7-10 hour range) and had classic POINT AND CLICK controls it would be my favorite adventure game of all time but apparently Telltale decided we can’t have nice things.

Control/Gameplay rating: Below Average

5. Replayability

Like most adventure game titles, The Penal Zone offers little incentive to go through the game again other than to listen to the jokes in case you forgot them but I always wondered why Telltale didn’t include the postgame activities of the Strong Bad series into later titles. Sure, they weren’t amazing or anything like that but gave you something to do while you wait for next month’s episode to come out.

Replayability rating: Dreadful

6. Balance

Between using the Future Vision and the in-game hint system, you should be able to make your way through the game well enough and most puzzles are reasonable enough in difficulty (which means you won’t rip your hair out trying to solve them) but they might be too easy for veterans of the genre.

The only problem that I see is that the hint system sometimes gives you a hint for the second step of the solution rather than the first step and this can be confusing because most gamers are still getting used to the idea of using Max himself as an item (Anyone remember “Use Max with Fuse Box” from Hit the Road?).

Balance rating: Above Average

7. Originality

This is Sam and Max’s third season and their fourth game overall so in terms of setting and characters there is nothing new or surprising here. The humor and general storyline is also classic Sam and Max style one liners. That’s not a bad thing and should be welcome news to fans of the franchise but it doesn’t really do much for originality.

Telltale have tried to spice up the puzzles with Max’s psychic powers which leads to some really cool results but this is still the same style of gaming we’ve had since Maniac Mansion.

Originality rating: Bad

8. Addictiveness

The Penal Zone is short and sweet so it should keep you occupied for the two or so hours it takes you to beat the game and the desire to see how the future pans out differently from Max’s visions is always something that kept me going through the game.

The game’s poor controls and occasionally misleading hint system however might frustrate some players into exiting the game to write flame posts on Telltale’s forums calling them “PC Judases” … no else did that?

Addictiveness rating: Above Average

9. Appeal Factor

Telltale games have almost singlehandedly revived the entire point and click adventure genre and in doing so has built a loyal and dedicated fanbase consisting of both hardened adventure veterans and newbie point and clickers.

Even so, the adventure gaming genre is still quite niche so Telltale don’t have much competition other than from smaller independent studios and Sam and Max themselves are a favorite for all fans of the genre.

But after all, a niche is a niche, if the entire season as a whole (not individually) manages to sell over a million copies I’d be surprised.

Appeal factor rating: Above Average

10. Miscellaneous

The very day The Penal Zone was released, it was announced that everyone who bought the game would receive three very cool items for use in Valve’s Team Fortress 2. They are Max’s Severed Head (any character can wear as a hat), The Lugermorph (Max’s Luger) and The Big Kill (Sam’s Revolver).

This is great: I love Sam and Max and I love Team Fortress 2. This is a great piece of cross promotion by Telltale and whoever came up with the idea should be given a medal.

However, you have to buy it within one week of the game’s release to get the items. Oh, there’s no option to buy a single episode to get the items; you have to buy the whole season to get the items which means tough luck to those who are broke that particular week or just happened to have no disposable income.

Miscellaneous rating: Decent

The Scores

Story/modes: Great
Graphics: Very Good
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Below Average
Replayability: Dreadful
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Decent

FINAL SCORE: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

The Penal Zone is a game of contrasts: the storyline, humor and voice acting is some of the best to come out of Telltale studios since their formation and fans that have been with the Freelance Police for a long time will be quite satisfied. This is all hampered by a completely broken control scheme designed foremost for consoles with no consideration given to the PC user at all. So if you can, I recommend buying The Penal Zone on Xbox360 or PS3 (I feel so dirty saying that).



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2 responses to “Review: Sam and Max: The Penal Zone (PC)”

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