They stole Max's Brain! answers an eternal question that preoccupied minds of scientists and philosophers nowhere: could Sam and Max, forever partners, work as separate, individual characters? It's a question posed from the get-go, the episode opening with Sam discovering Max's de-brained body laying in the boiler room beneath their office. Present on the scene are the two doomsday cultist molemen from "The Penal Zone". Sam has questions; they have nothing. Sam has fists; they have answers.
To elaborate, the opening sections of the game are a perfect example of some aspects working really well, while others slightly falter. Max's brain has been stolen and Sam is very, very angry. I loved seeing him suddenly get some stubble on his chin, lose the jacket, roll up his sleeves and basically kick ass. It provides a strong visual opening to the episode and the graphics in Sam & Max have never been better: the first half of this episode is on a par visually with the best sections of Tales of Monkey Island, the rain soaked streets home to a variety of oddball characters.
Which is why it all the more distressing when the wonderful design starts to mesh clumsily with the gameplay, which is a true shame. I literally ached to jump out of the DeSoto and explore the neon lit noir world, ripe for parody and exploration. But you can't: instead these opening sections are entirely on rails, showcasing the now interrogation mechanic as you sit back and watch. It is a slow start.
Sam will listen to a suspect speaking about prior events and must intervene with the correct topic choice at the right time to advance the conversation and ultimately reveal the truth. There is nothing bad about this new feature ( it works perfectly well), but it does somewhat remove player from the action, especially after the exciting opening cutscene. Also, it seems far too easy and disappears altogether once you take full control: it would have been nice for this feature to have stuck around and developed further as the case continued.
Once full control is taken, in Papierwaite's Museum of Mostly Natural History (how is this guy still alive?!), things markedly improve. Exploring the various exhibits while the storm continues to rage on outside makes events seem even more surreal and atmospheric. Things only get more bizzare when you finnaly find a temporary new brain for Max's body...
The bad guys seem to be getting better and better too. General Skun-ka'pe is pretty hilarious, especially when he interacts with Papierwaite: these guys are both after the same thing but can't stand each other, which results in more than enough friction to evoke several genuine guffaws throughout. Throw Sammun-Mak into the mix (how exactly is the ultimate surprise, something I refuse to ruin, and the single funniest aspect of the entire episode) and you get the best group of antagonists Sam & Max fans could have hoped for.
Supporthing characters are great as well, with less emphasis on the molemen this episode. Sal the giant cockroach (mentioned but never seen in Season 2) shows up here as a security guard at the museum and steals the entire show. Elsewhere, Max may not have a body, but his brain-in-a-jar moments are absolutely priceless. The relationship between Sam and Max is also nicely highlighted: Sam really does care about his little buddy a lot, whether beating suspects to locate his brain or wrestling with... wait, I'm not telling! You even get to control Max, controlling Sam, which makes a nice change of pace in the second half.
Sadly this same second half, without spoiling anything, moves very far away from the established noir aesthetic of the opening sections. The result is a lengthy middle section that, while by no means poor, feels like a step backwards overall and has been played rather safe. Also, the puzzles are far too easy in Episode 3: inventory items are kept to a minimum and Rhinoplasty is the only real psychic ability used for puzzle solving (apart from a quite clever Future Vision moment). The flipside of this is that we get to see Max as a variety of objects... which is freakin' hilarious. I keep laughing now whenever I see a toaster!
It is also worth mentioning that I encountered a few bugs, but nothing too serious: the occasional flickering shadow or effect gone awry (both when using Future Vision funnily enough).
Overall, I had mixed feelings in the end about this episode, but I am not too worried about the future of my favourite noir dog and his brainy, rabbity pal. Besides, The Tomb of Sammun-Mak was always going to be a very difficult episode to follow. The final moments here certainly make up for a stumbling middle section and actually manage to ramp things up to a whole new level before concluding. You could be forgiven for thinking that this middle episode's ending would have appeared in the season finale!
Thankfully, the cliffhanger ending that then follows shows that Telltale still have a few more tricks up their sleeves yet. In fact, this may be the most crazy, wonderful ending to a Sam & Max episode this season! Telltale certainly have a knack for making the wait to continue playing feel utterly excruciating. And, as long as we finnaly get some new Toys of Power to play with in Episode 4 and the difficulty picks up next month, we should all be in for a fantastic ending to The Devil's Playhouse come Episode 5. Merely good overall for a Telltale game then, but still miles ahead of the pack.
You can read walkthrough for Sam & Max: Devil's Playhouse Episode 1, 2 and 3 here.