Kicking off their third ‘season' of episodic point-and-click adventures, Telltale Games' "Sam and Max" series has shown that it can withstand the test of time. The successors to Lucasarts' seminal nineties adventure "Sam and Max Hit the Road", which was in turn based on Steve Purcell's comic books, the eponymous heroes have travelled a long road.
For those who don't know, Sam and Max are ‘Freelance Police', private detectives with a taste for slapstick violence and a well-established cast of friends and foes. Oh, and Max - the bunny - is also the President of the USA, for some reason. Some reason that is never explained. See, this is in-joke territory, and if you're new to the series, a whole lot of it will go straight over your head. Important characters get a short three-bullet-point executive summary when they're first encountered, but beyond that you just have to go with it.
Humour, dear readers, is a many-faceted pineapple, and what is one person's Ricky Gervais is another person's Les Dawson. I managed the unenviable achievement of playing through "Sam and Max: The Penal Zone" without laughing once. I could register when a joke was being attempted, but in every case I winced at worst, rolled my eyes at best. But as I said, there's no accounting for taste.
As far as the actual adventurising goes, it's pretty typical Telltale fare. If you've played one, you've more or less played them all. Old hands will know the drill - give the thing to the guy, use the stuff with the object, broken up with the occasional unusual interruption. In this case, the unusual interruptions come in the form of a crime computer that can decipher extra information if you feed it the right clues, and more importantly the season's motif - Max's psychic powers.
This is a new mechanic for the Sam and Max series. Max can acquire special powers throughout the series by getting his hands on toys of power (don't ask me! I didn't make this stuff up!). One of the early powers is teleportation, and you'll be glad of it, because it can save you plenty of the foot-slogging which makes the pre-teleportation bit of the game a bit of a chore. Max can teleport to the location of any telephone for which he knows the number (bringing his buddy Sam along for the ride, hand-waving the explanation for the sake of convenience). This slightly odd mechanic makes it easy to get to the characters you want to talk to, as well as allowing for some lateral puzzle-solving as well.
When it comes down to it though, this is pretty standard Telltale Games fare. The comedy is similar to pretty much every other episodic adventure they've put out over the past couple of years (except the Penny Arcade games), and seems to hinge on the slightly shaky method of creating fictional people, places, objects and institutions, then ridiculing them. Which is fine so long as they've got some kind of relationship to the real world so we can all grin and say ‘oh, it's funny because it's true', but when it's something to which you've only just been introduced, it's a little hard to really do anything except shrug. Graphics have that telltale Telltale style (yeah, I went there), which could be considered cartoony but to me just looks jaggedly polygonal. The voice-acting is really variable, ranging from incredibly good to just mediocre. Telltale clearly have a stable of talented voice actors at their disposal, though. No, not literally a stable. You know what I mean.
Puzzle consistency is what we've come to expect from Telltale's recent adventures. Not consistency in that they're all the same - just insofar as they take you more-or-less the exact same amount of time for the penny to drop. I got frustratingly stuck once (it was one of those "use the frying pan on the map of Bolivia" moments that just made no sense to me at the time, and still doesn't), solved a couple of the puzzles straight off the bat, and spent three or four minutes working out the rest. Which is pretty much exactly what I could say about each and every one of the Monkey Island chapters.
So here's the bit where, with heavy heart, I tell you what you already knew. It's the oldest reviewers' cliché ever (and that's REALLY saying something): If you're a fan of the series, you'll probably enjoy this. However, I've got to say that if you're coming to it cold, be prepared to not really have a clue who anyone is or what's going on at first. Still, after playing through it to the end, there are certain characters that I'm not sure whether they were new to this episode or old favourites from previous seasons.
So go ahead! If you're jonesing for a fresh point-and-click adventure, and you have precisely three hours, thirty eight minutes and fifteen seconds free, this might plug that gap. You'll probably have forgotten all about it by the time the next episode comes out, though.