I was as happy as anyone to have Sam and Max back after such an extended vacation, but it is true that the first episode (#301, if you’re counting), The Penal Zone, while commendably wacky, did feel a bit on the well-trodden-path side. I mean, General Skunk-Ape’s ilk has been seen darkening our heroes’ door before. And yeah, sure, there was indeed some new stuff, like Max’s “Psi” powers in the form of the Toys of Power. Some people got excited that you can now “control” Max. Well, you can spin him around and point the selected Toy at a hotspot, but that’s about it. Still, you could tell that the game designers were itching to try some new moves. The 3D View-Master which allowed Max to look into the future to see the fate of whomever or whatever he chose was fun, though it also felt like a cleverly disguised help feature.
Now comes Episode 2: The Tomb of Sammun-Mak and the game designers’ inner imps have busted loose. First off, Sam and Max make only cameo appearances in this installment, because they, like you, spend the entire time watching an old not-so-silent movie starring none other than their great-granddads — Sameth and Maximus. S&M’s forebears find themselves caught up in an onstage challenge from a mysterious fezzed fellow from the East to solve the mystery of Sammun-Mak. Ere long, our heroes’ ancestors are entraining themselves to an Egyptian tomb and an even greater challenge. This story device allows the designers to do two things. One, to backtrack a century to show the discovery of the sinister Devil’s Toybox, and, two, to indulge their Indiana Jones and other classic Hollywood Egyptian flick fantasies.
I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that at the close of The Penal Zone, with Skunk-Ape safely dispatched, our two heroes made a most grisly discovery in what was left of their office building basement. Now, as Episode Two begins, the dynamic duo discover four ancient film reels and a conveniently set up projector. But the four reels are in no particular order and it is up to you to unscramble the screwy actions being portrayed. In the Penal Zone, the View-Master allowed you to peek into the future to figure out what to do in the present, but in Sammun-Mak, you load and unload the four film reels, solving the century-old mystery onscreen in disjointed, back-and-forth fashion. In Reel Three you will have inventory items and Toys of Power which you don’t have in Reels One or Two, but you are able to take knowledge you glean from any reel to any other reel. In Reel Four, everything is wrapped up tighter than a mummy. The game ends when you “solve” all four reels.
Confused? Well, that’s the idea. But it does make for some interesting and even occasionally challenging game play. As I whined in my reviews of Wallace & Gromit, Telltale has managed to constrict the choices in their games to such a point where no actual thought is required to solve them. It may look like a puzzle, but what you’ve got is a simple selection of A, B or C. If it’s not A, then it’s B or C. While that’s still largely true here in Sammun-Mak, at least it all feels fresher because of the time-shifting and reel-switching.
The only returnees from Penal Zone are the Mole People, who get a much more expanded role here, as the reluctant (and chatty) eternal guardians of the Devil’s Toybox. Also back is the Twilight-Zonish narrator, who looks like a cross betweenRod Serling, Buster Poindexter and Howdy Doody. Back too on the scene from earlier seasons is that villain Santa Klaus, named, simply, Kringle, a ruthless toy magnate (and Mr. Monopoly look-alike) and his entourage of elven young toughs who talk like the Dead End Kids. (The hardest thing to keep up with in these games is just which old media icon Telltale is spoofing at any given moment. You practically need a scorecard.) Baby Amelia Earhart returns as well. Or, rather, presumably this is the real child Amelia before she was turned into a baby by the Fountain of Youth in Moai Better Blues. Whatever. The pint-sized tyke in aviator goggles simply shows up here and petitions to be Sameth & Maximus’s faithful sidekick. Rejected for this role, she turns into a Pain in the Sidekick. Sporting the accent and mannerisms of a young Kate Hepburn circa “Bringing Up Baby” she is one of the S&M universe’s more novel and amusing characters. Though I kept waiting for Sameth & Maximus to succumb to the obvious and tell her to “Get lost!”
Most shocking of all, S&M #302 ends on a somber note. Really, the smirk is wiped right off Sam’s face. Which makes for the best cliffhanger ending they’ve had in a while. As for the technical stuff like the controls and the options and the music and the acting and — c’mon, you’re not really going to make me go through all the technical stuff, are you? This is the thirteenth game in the series!
I am still ticked off at Telltale for deviously dumbing down the puzzles in all their games, but the quality, inventiveness and cleverness on display in this episode are undeniable. Now how about a “hard play” button for those of us who still like to solve instead of “experience” adventure games? Oh, well, just another losing battle, I suppose. Grumpiness aside, I must give this newest S&M effort a well-deserved A.
Final Grade: A
PC System Requirements:
Mac System Requirements:
Note: Final system requirements subject to change.