Sam & Max Season 3: The Devil’s Playhouse Episode 1: The Penal Zone PS3 Review

The Devil’s Playhouse is now available on the PlayStation Store as a five episode bundle (priced at the very appealing sum of £19.99), with a new episode released each month.

Through Xbox Live Arcade I quickly grew fond of the suit wearing dog and the naked, hyperactive rabbity thing, better known to the world as Sam & Max respectively. The previous two seasons were made up by crazy situations and characters, with such a silly level of humour that, at times, I found it difficult to keep a straight face. I was therefore delighted when Telltale Games announced this third season.

The first episode of The Devil’s Playhouse (the suggestively titled Penal Zone may bring about a smile if you have that kind of dirty mind) is a typically silly outing for the comedy detective duo that is Sam & Max. The game begins with the double act attempting to thwart the plans of General Skun-ka’pe: an evil alien who resembles a monkey, but doesn’t eat bananas – to imply such a thing would be just racist. Soon enough, we’re put back into the events that came before this, with Skun-ka’pe’s arrival on earth – he’s not here to look for bananas though, but seeking something entirely different instead. It’s all highly amusing with its smart and witty dialogue once again pouring in character, charm and lots of laughs. It has to be said that some of the humour will only make sense to those who have played through and completed the previous two seasons, although it’s standalone enough to not make this wholly necessary for brand new players, which is all good for the PS3 faithful who perhaps wasn’t able to play any of the past episodes.

The Penal Zone is the first Sam & Max to grant you the full freedom to move around. Those who have played previous episodes in the past two seasons will remember that Sam could only be controlled by pointing in the direction you wanted him to move in, now you move around properly, meaning it’s less awkward and more pleasurable to play. This time you also get to control the violence loving, crazy bunny.

Well, sort of.

Max finds himself bestowed with various powers: teleportation, reading the future, transformation and mind reading amongst them. Pressing the triangle button will then switch to Max, in which you can then make use of his abilities through a first person view. Certainly, teleportation (involving a lot of touching between the two leads in order for it to work) and reading the future are powers that you can call upon in many of the crazy situations, the latter of which will reveal many of these coming crazy events. There’s a feeling that Telltale are holding some of the powers back for later episodes, as some of Max’s abilities have limited use, although in no way is this a complaint as it’ll mean that new episodes will have something unique about them, something to call their own perhaps.

Max’s powers cleverly factor into many of the puzzles, particularly the teleportation that allows you to quickly travel to the location of a specified phone. Future vision is an action that will help you out when the solution to a task isn’t popping into your head – a pair of magical goggles will show you events that’ll happen later on, some of which are mere, vague hints, while other visions may as well have Skun-ka’pe holding you by the hand and dragging you forcibly to the solution. This works alongside the already installed hints system (its frequency can once again be altered) to assure that The Penal Zone isn’t too difficult if you don’t want it to be.

In fact, the premiere episode of Season 3 isn’t difficult full stop. Many of the puzzles are simplistic if you use your basic level of logic, and not once was it necessary for me to hunt down a walkthrough to get me past any of the more difficult mindbenders. Admittedly, I did make use of hints from both the built-in system and Max’s Future Vision technique to further the case, and thus my three or four hours with The Penal Zone wasn’t exactly a time that I was able to flaunt my clever intellect. Perhaps that’s because it just isn’t there.

When item use is necessary, the inventory proves to have been made more appealing and user friendly, and instead of selecting the items and then choosing what to use them on, you’ll actually select the object or character beforehand. This item hoarding and chatting to characters is typical of such an adventure game, and that’s what Sam & Max remains: an adventure game. And the very noble reason why Telltale exists is to make sure that this genre is alive and well.

Visually, The Penal Zone is the best looking Sam & Max game yet. There’s a noticeable increase in the detail of the characters, although, whilst the framerate is mostly stable, there’s some bizarre drops here and there. On an aural level, the voice acting is once again of the highest calibre, and when the vocal work is this good it really adds to the comedy aspect of the game.

The first episode of The Devil’s Playhouse is a triumphant one, a truly delightful mixture of humour and puzzle solving. Max’s new powers certainly add something to the game, and whilst many of the puzzles aren’t too difficult, for those exhausted with the use of walkthroughs in similar games, The Penal Zone’s easier solutions will likely be most welcome. I’m certainly yearning for more from the detective duo, and thus the first episode of Sam & Max Season 3 is one that has its many successes.