*** NEWSFLASH ***
DATELINE — GENERIC METROPOLIS THAT LOOKS A LOT LIKE NEW YORK CITY — Sam and Max and pretty much everyone else in town are being chased — hounded! — by a gigantic mob of Sam clones attired in nothing but gold disco hot pants! Little children all over the city are having their toys ripped out of their tiny chocolate-smeared fingers by the insatiable canine horde. With the intrepid Freelance Police having just settled a dispute between those scurrilous villains, General Skunkape and Monsieur Papierwaite, as well as dispatching the time-bending Pharaonic boy demigod, who is left in the villains’ bullpen? Who could be perpetrating this new eviler evil? Even the General and Papierwaite are scratching their heads over that one.
***In my review of the previous episode, I opined that Telltale’s Sam and Max series was starting to feel like a sitcom. But playing the newest installment, Beyond the Alley of the Dolls, it occurred to me that it’s really a soap opera. Just like in a daily TV drama, we follow the fortunes of various heroes and villains, both of which can be bumped off and resurrected as story needs direct. This month, for instance, Buster Blaster, the former C.O.P.S. member is back from Vegas for a cameo, spewing tales of his unsavory adventures in Sin City with Bosco, another major S&M character. What’s more, Sam and Max, who used to just stand around shooting one-liners and bullets at the surrounding shenanigans, are having character issues now. This whole Psi powers thing has Sam really spooked that he’s losing his furry little buddy. Even Max can now be caught entertaining a thought deeper than deep-fried food or destructive mayhem. The question is — can fans care about Sam and Max characters the way they do about “real” daytime drama characters? In a series where everything remains grist for the satire mill and the “fourth wall” is more porous than a cyclone fence, it’s debatable at best. Right now, it seems to me the writers have simply discovered “drama” as yet another ripe, relatively unblemished target for their snarky barbs. No doubt we’ll discover in the series finale whether there really is anything “serious” going on.
For now, fans will have to make do with yet another episode in which the “exposition” spirals out of control. The twists and turns are coming so fast and furious that I stopped paying attention. What’s the point of trying to get a grip on it all when you know it’s all going to be turned on its head in the next episode? Enemies become friends, friends become enemies, dead people return to life, nice people turn devious. This is acid-trip storytelling. Or, more likely, the way an over-energetic five-year-old tells a story: “ . . . and then, and then, and then, and kabooom! And then, and then, and then . . . ” Of course, this is the writers directing their satire at storytelling itself, but this kind of thing also wears thin fairly quickly. You get the joke and then . . . it keeps going . . . and going . . . Max does resemble the Energizer Bunny (his evil twin, no doubt). He also occasionally brings to mind that other famous white rabbit of world lit, the one who pops down the hole in Alice in Wonderland. Nothing really makes sense in Lewis Carroll’s weird world either — unless you’re an advanced mathematician. Everyone else just enjoys the delicious lunacy. The same is true of these Sam and Max episodes. We all jump into the hole after the rabbit and join in the anarchic fun. For one or two episodes, this is great. The problem with anarchy is that after a short while it all looks and sounds alike. One’s sensibilities grow deadened to further tumult. Which is why both Alice books are short. With Sam and Max, however, Telltale has to keep the franchise humming for the buckazoids to keep coming.
I was as thrilled as anyone when Sam and Max returned for Season Three. The first couple of episodes was like getting reacquainted with old friends. But by the third episode, a cloud of familiarity descended over the happy reunion that continues in this fourth installment. The action is just as wild, the writing is just as funny, the voice acting is just as good . . . but it’s wearing out its welcome. Everyone, including the characters, seems to be killing time, checking their watches, waiting for the big finale. When I reviewed Telltale’s Wallace & Gromit I also questioned the appeal of episodic adventure gaming. That series was four parts and it didn’t really lose gas till the last episode. I wonder what it would be like to play one of these Sam and Max Seasons all in one long go, as though it were a single adventure game — perhaps the energy level would sustain better.
For those who’ve been living on the former planet Pluto and just got back, I will inform you that Beyond the Alley of the Dolls is pretty much a standard third-person (or persons) 3D adventure, albeit adapted for consoles, takes five or so hours to complete and has all-around stellar production values — music, graphics, interface, you name it. I did think episode #304 looked oddly dark and grainy overall, but I think that might either be the low graphics setting I use for my laptop or the designers were going for that “Night of the Living Dead” look.
In the first three episodes of Season Three, the game designers did a good job of injecting some new puzzle and game-play ideas, most notably Max’s new psychic powers and a more complex dialogue-tree scheme for Sam. In episode four they kind of ran out of new notions in that department, but there is one honest-to-God puzzle. I almost fell over when I realized I’d stumbled across a puzzle that actually would have to be worked out logically. At first I thought it was a glitch. But, no, by golly it really was a puzzle. Now that would be a welcome new direction for this series, sure-as-shootin.’
Final Grade: a respectable B+
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