One month and three days after the release of the first episode of Sam and Max in The Devil’s Playhouse comes Episode 2 “The Tomb of Sammun-Mak” that picks off right where the first episode left off.
I gave The Penal Zone a generally positive review, with my main gripe being the control scheme for PC users was horrible, while praising the storyline and voice acting, so has Episode 2 rectified those errors, or like Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, has it actually declined in quality?
Episode 2 picks off right at the finale of The Penal Zone: Sam and Max have just defeated General Skun’kape using the power of the Devil’s Toybox when suddenly a wall in their basement collapses and reveals two decaying skeletons which appear to look exactly like our intrepid crime fighting duo.
But it’s alright! Sam reveals that these are actually the skeletons of their long lost great grandparents Sameth and Maximus (who for all intents and purposes are exactly the same as Sam and Max in personality, while only marginally different in appearance). Sam then discovers a pile of old film reels that show the story of how their forefathers managed to get the Devil’s Toybox to the Freelance Police’s basement, and in a scuffle not unlike the one that regularly happens over the phone back in the office, Sam manages to touch the film projector that just happened to also be conveniently located in their basement (with a white screen as well), revealing the projector is one of the special toys that give Max psychic powers. This one gives him the powers of Astral Projection, which means he and Sam can control the actions of their grandparents to figure out the mystery of the Devil’s Toybox.
There are 4 reels of film that depict different parts of Sameth and Maximus’ journey through New York, train trips and Egyptian tombs to retrieve the Devil’s Toybox on the behalf of one Monsieur Paperwaite. Like the Future Vision ability in The Penal Zone, Astral Projection is used in surprising and intelligent ways in the gameplay, storyline and humor. For example, you might get stuck on a puzzle in an early reel, so you can jump into a later reel, and when Sameth and Maximus are asked how they solved that particular puzzle they try to recall how to solve it… without success.
I’m actually quite pleased with how Telltale yet again used the In Media Res storytelling technique to good effect, as well as keeping the humor levels more or less intact from the well written first episode.
There are a couple of problems though. Two characters from earlier games show up in Sameth and Maximus’ journey. One of them is superbly written with funny jokes, and he fits in perfectly in 1901 (the year the little movie takes place) and actually fills in some of his backstory. The other character… makes no sense in the context of the storyline, is more annoying than funny, and feels slotted in simply to pad out some puzzles.
I also think it’s marginally less funny than Episode 1, but there’s still plenty of laughs to be had here.
Story/Modes rating: Very Good
My favorite part takes place in “The Disorient Express” (the aforementioned train) when the dim lights of the train show off the engine’s new dynamic lighting system with some nice shadows being cast around (this is most notable around Maximus’ ears).
In my previous review I also forgot to mention that the entire game is run through a film grain filter, not unlike the Mass Effect series of games. This lends Sam and Max’s latest adventures that extra “cinematic” touch to go along with the more varied camera angles and other cinematic techniques.
Also, I commend Telltale games for adding more custom animations to the engine. I doubt some of these will be used ever again, but it’s still a step in the right direction.
Graphics rating: Very Good
As always, Telltale games puts together an excellent cast to bring their characters to life, and The Tomb of Sammun-Mak continues that proud tradition.
The new character Monsieur Paperwaite, for example, is hilariously ambiguous in both looks and accent. He speaks something like Italian or French but wears a Fez for some reason, and he is a joy to listen to, as is the rest of the cast of returning characters.
However, the music is somewhat muted in the background and is rarely brought to the forefront, and to be honest with you, I can’t really remember any of the music at all, or remember listening to music at all other than Ride of the Valkyries (which is essential to solving a puzzle). The lack of a strong musical score is Telltale’s only weakness in the sound department.
Sound rating: Great
I railed against The Penal Zone’s poor choice of controls, essentially making the mouse one of the worst ways to play one of the PC’s most celebrated genres, the point and click adventure game. Well, the wretched control system returns with no changes whatsoever, and it’s still a pain to use, especially in the actual Tomb of Sammun-Mak. The tomb itself is a large open area, but the camera angle changes abruptly when moving around. This is most notable at the stairs near the tomb’s entrance, because the camera angle changes not once, but twice, while climbing it and because the there are two flights of stairs requiring you to U-turn to reach the top, it actually took me a few tries to get up a damn flight of stairs, of all things. When the player has trouble negotiating a simple thing like a flight of stairs, then you know your control scheme has problems.
Another problem is the game’s length, as it feels even shorter than the already short first episode. This is a disappointment and is still one of the reasons I dislike episodic gaming. If Sam and Max are now like a sitcom, then can we have a full feature film adaptation soon?
At least the puzzle quality is still excellent. The use of Astral Projection is implemented just as well as Future Vision from The Penal Zone and has you jumping around between different parts of the timeline to decipher puzzles.
I actually think that the three main powers in The Tomb of Sammun-Mak are better than the two in The Penal Zone. While Teleportation and Future Vision were fun and unique, they were also somewhat difficult to wrap your head around. The three powers in this episode (Astral Projection, Ventriloquism and a Can o’ Nuts you can shrink into) are easier to understand: Astral Projection is used to move around the timeline, Ventriloquism is used to get NPCs to say things you want (with hilarious effects if used randomly) and the Can O’ Nuts is used for hiding or squishing through small areas, with no need to strategically place cell phones here.
Overall, if these episodes were longer and had better controls, they could be classics, but they’re weighted down by these two main choices that Telltale made to appease the console crowd.
Control/Gameplay rating: Mediocre
The first episode lacked any sort of reason to go back and play it again other than to refresh your memory about some plot points, and it’s sad that The Tomb of Sammun-Mak doesn’t really do anything to improve in that regard.
I always considered the multiple post game activities of the Strong Bad games to be a nice little addition to bolster the package, and wonder why Telltale left these out of Sam and Max’s games. Hell, even that rat bashing minigame from Episode 1 is better than nothing!
Replayability rating: Dreadful
With the psychic powers being more easily digested this time around, due to both the player losing his psychic virginity as well as the three new powers being more easily understood, that frees up the game designers to make some more complex puzzles that don’t completely center around using Maximus’ weird toys.
The hint system is also cleaned up, with better and more accurate advice rather than the somewhat confusing hints given in Episode 1.
Both these factors, however, might rub experienced adventurers the wrong way, as I felt that Sammun-Mak was an easier game in comparison to The Penal Zone.
Balance rating: Enjoyable
We’ve been with Sam and Max on many adventures over the years, and while Sammun-Mak is another fun ride with our favorite private investigators, it’s also nothing new for them. They’ve been in temples (including Egyptian ones) and retrieved artifacts before, so you’re not going to be blown away by anything here.
Even if most of the game’s action takes place in 1901 with Sameth and Maximus, both of those two are nothing more than clones of their great grandchildren (or is it the other way around?). Sameth is Sam with slightly different clothing and a moustache, and Maximus is Max with clothes and NOTHING else. Many of the supporting characters are also simply 1901 versions of current day characters, which is a shame.
Originality rating: Very Bad
Episode 1 had some small problems with its hint system giving somewhat erratic advice to some the game’s more frustrating puzzles, and I noted and penalized this in my review of that game. Thankfully, this episode manages to clear that issue up as both the hint system and the puzzle solutions are clearer and more precise.
I wish I could say that about the “other” issue I penalized in my review of The Penal Zone, namely the poor control system. It gets even more annoying in this edition of the game, simply due to the more frequent camera angle shifts present this time around. Sort it out Telltale!
Addictiveness rating: Above Average
9. Appeal Factor
I’ve been over how point and click adventure games are a niche industry, despite how popular Sam and Max are. You can’t even get the third episode from retail stores, as it is a download only title for the time being, though I suspect a Wii version will be released on disc.
Episode 2’s appeal is inherently tied to the season opener, because as far as I know, it’s impossible to buy the episodes separately on the PC. You probably bought the season because you knew what you were getting into from the first episode.
Appeal Factor rating: Above Average
The Tomb of Sammun-Mak had a chance to create a lot of new and interesting characters using the whole “We’re controlling Sam and Max’s ancestors!” mechanic, but in the end, Monsieur Paperwaite is the only new character of any significance, which is a damn shame.
On the plus side, one of the returning characters is incredibly well done, and it’s nice to see someone who had very little backstory in the first season be given one that makes sense and is humorous at the same time. This is somewhat tempered by the “other” returning character, who is annoying and makes completely no sense whatsoever, and receives a massive retcon on top of it.
Oh! And the writers wrote a dig at Twilight. Anyone who does do is fine by my book.
Miscellaneous rating: Decent
Story/modes: Very Good
Graphics: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Mediocre
Originality: Very Bad
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: Above Average Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
The Tomb of Sammun-Mak is an excellent follow up to The Penal Zone, with good writing, humor and gameplay, but it’s just that: a follow up. It does little to shake off the weaknesses of its predecessor, namely the poor console-centric control system and overall short length. In the end though, it’ll please longtime fans and continues the third season of Sam and Max on a positive note.