Holy jumping weasel critters on a hit cross bun!! This season of Sam & Max keeps getting better and better. When we last left our favorite freelance policemen, we fought a race of alien space apes and discovered a mysterious box hidden underneath their building. This was no ordinary box, you see. This was the, gulp, DEVIL'S TOY BOX!! Oh, yeah, and there was a Sam and Max-shaped skeleton also in the room ... but I'm sure that's not important.
Welcome to the second episode of Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse, the exciting third season of Telltale's graphic adventure games. This is The Tomb of Sammun-Mak, a fun Indiana Jones-style adventure set in the first part of the 20th century. In this episode Sam and Max's ancestors, Sameth and Maximus, are in hot pursuit of the aforementioned toy box. To do this our (slightly different) heroes will need to annoy a bunch of mole people, battle an old man with a penchant for cookies and even fight off a vampire. And that's just the start of this story.
Last episode we learned that Max has new psychic powers that allow him to use childhood toys and solve difficult puzzles. This exciting new gameplay mechanic has been expanded in The Tomb of Sammun-Mak to include a ventriloquist's dummy and a can of nuts. Think these era-appropriate toys aren't very exciting? Think again. The dummy, for example, allows you to put your own thoughts in anybody's mouth ... even inanimate objects. And that can of nuts? It's a magical can that somehow stuffs regular sized characters into a small space. Without these toys you wouldn't be able to tell this harrowing story.
One of the things that has really struck me about this season of Sam & Max is the unusual narrative structure. In the first episode we start towards the end and then fill in the rest through one big flashback. This episode is no exception. In The Tomb of Sammun-Mak you are witnessing the past through a series of short movie reels. The conceit is that you're watching film of your ancestors as they fought to steal the rare toy box, keep it safe and then ship it to America. To do this you have four reels of film that cuts the story into quarters. In order to beat this game you're going to have to skip around and learn things from one reel that can be used to complete puzzles in other reels.
What makes this narrative really fun is that you get to see a lot of alternative timelines play out. Not having the right information can result in characters suffering a gruesome fate. This not only means that your characters can die, but it also offers a crazy new dimension to the comedy. Suddenly the game is making fun of things that haven't happened yet, will never happen or might happen in the future. When you stop and try to make any sense out of the structure you'll go crazy, yet somehow it works in the confines of a Sam & Max adventure.
Longtime fans of the series will be happy to see relatives of a number of familiar faces from the past two seasons. Better still, this episode goes as far as to tell us the origins of Jurgen (the flamboyant vampire from season two). If none of that makes sense and this is your first season, then don't worry about missing anything. While you'll definitely get more out of being a longtime fan, this episode still stands on its own and a great work of comedy genius.The big deal about The Tomb of Sammun-Mak is that nearly every set was designed specifically for this one episode. In the past Telltale Games has reused sets and characters to help keep the speedy development cycle on track. Apparently that's not the case with this episode, because I didn't recognize a single reused set. At one point we go back to the intersection of Straight and Narrow (where Sam & Max have an office), but it's in the early 1900s and uses all new assets. The rest of the adventure takes us inside a creepy theater, to an Egyptian pyramid and on the train ride from hell. All of these areas are brand new and full of the kind of detail you expect from Telltale.
As I mentioned in the last episode, this season of Sam & Max has an interesting new control scheme. Instead of just pointing and clicking, The Devil's Playhouse has you holding the mouse buttons to run around. You can also use the keyboard to move the character around, but I have found the mouse works just as well. Because so much of this episode involved you in closed in areas, I found this new style of control to be difficult to use. It was far too easy to get the character stuck on a wall or unmovable object. It's a shame that you can't go back to the traditional control scheme; I would have preferred it in this situation.
Thankfully everything else about the game is top-notch. Telltale did an excellent job of demonstrating their new graphic engine with a bunch of cool new locations to explore, some fun familiar faces and a story that is actually challenging this time around. I also love the writing, which seems to get better with each episode. And then there's that twist ending, which will have you on pins and needles waiting for the next episode. After playing only two episodes, The Devil's Playhouse is shaping up to be the best Sam & Max season yet.