In which heroes are reborn, villains come in all the colours of the rainbow and Chris 'The Tingler' Capel feels a sense of déjà vu.
You may think you've read this already. There are six reviews already on Mojo for Telltale's saga (seven if you count the Soundtrack review), so do we really need another? If we didn't I wouldn't be here. The thing is, we've reviewed all the individual episodes, but what of the season as a whole? Does it hold up to closer scrutiny, with all the episodes just pieces in a jigsaw?
Let's have a look at the game also known as Sam & Max 2, pointing out all the highs and lows and desperately trying to find the answer to the ultimate questions: is the whole game any good, is Bosco paranoid or is the world really out to get him, and just where is the noose collection?
DO YOU HAVE ANY CANDY PINK FAT BOYS?
I had a real amount of trouble deciding on the structure of this review (I'll give that as my feeble excuse for its lateness). Should the review look at each episode in turn and see how they affected the whole in terms of evolution and design, or should I just treat Season One as a full game and review it as such? I eventually chose the latter, because you've already seen the reviews of each episode and that'd be dull. So what comes first in an adventure review? That's right, the roadkill calendar. Um, I mean story.
And so we hit our first complaint.
The overarching story of Season One feels very much an afterthought. I can see the team getting really excited about all the wonderful episode ideas they've created, pinning it down to six very different plots that parody six very different things and then about a month or so before the first episode hits someone suggests that they need an overall story and everyone panics. Consequently the full story feels vague and ill thought out. 'Hypnosis' was probably scribbled on a board somewhere as a way to tie the episodes together, but even that only feels relevant in episodes 1 and 6.
Remove hypnosis from episodes 2, 3, 4, and 5 and not much changes really. Myra is still holding her studio hostage, she's just gone mad rather than been "persuaded". Harry Moleman still takes over the Toy Mafia, just no longer sells hypnotizing bears (they could easily do something else just as nefarious). The puppet President is still giving out weird orders, Abe Lincoln stills comes to life and eventually goes on a rampage and Max still becomes Prez (was hypnotizing really necessary at all in this case? Chuckles could easily have been the one pulling the strings). And the beta-testers of Reality 2.0 could just be addicted, like in the Red Dwarf novel's version of 'Better Than Life', with the Internet the one in charge, finally getting sick of all the rubbish we've been filling her up with and deciding to take revenge.
Reading that paragraph again makes me sound like I don't want an overall story for the season, which isn't true. It just seems fairly clear that Telltale already had their episodes planned and then had to crowbar in a hypnosis plot. It might have been in Episode 1 since the start and that's where they got the idea from. Episode 6 was probably just a note saying 'S&M on the moon again' and then devised on the fly as the ending of the story, which probably is why Bright Side of the Moon feels the most formless and rushed of all the episodes.
Could've been harder, this
Which is all a shame really, as the individual episodes mostly had pretty good storylines, and the potential was there for a really crackin' plot. I love the idea of having an evil genius being behind all the cases, but each episode merely ends with a character from the next episode being responsible and not 'Roy G Biv'. Speaking of which, the mysterious Mr Biv should have been mentioned waaaaaaaay before Episode 5. There should have been hints about him and Hugh Bliss right at the beginning, so fans could have pieced things together before the big giveaway in Reality 2.0's finale.
Still, maybe that's not the point. Maybe having an overall story was merely a means to an end and was only meant as a bonus for people who play the entire series from beginning to end. However it's there now, and we have to judge it. Does it succeed? I'd say just about, although it can be massively improved upon.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FINE LEATHER JACKETS?/
Let's move on to the next Big Thing of the Adventure Playground, the puzzles. What really surprised me most about the season while playing it was how many times I got stuck. Despite only having a small amount of characters, places and items, not being able to combine inventory items (the old lazy staple of the genre) and the relative simplicity of some puzzles left me all the more surprised whenever I did get stuck. Hell, in playing through the series again for this review Reality 2.0 had me stuck twice even though I've played it before! I actually had to look up a walkthrough both times, and I didn't even do that first time round (honest). The puzzles are mostly well-designed and excellent, which is sometimes astonishing given the short development time and the episodic nature.
Some puzzles are just plain fun to play. Isn't that great? Solving the puzzles itself is nice, and it's good to have a laugh around them, but when the puzzle itself is an utter joy to work out it really makes the player happy to go on. Surely that's the holy grail of adventuring (unless of course you're playing Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade)? Any particular examples? Sure, how about The Three Trials (!) the Toy Mafia set you? Setting up Sybil's death, reverse-plundering Bosco's, and of course the wonderful "Is that a cap gun?" and Yo Momma contest that Leonard provides. And of course the delightful Midtown Cowboys is a lesson in genius. All of these are incredibly fun to participate in, and even more fun to solve.
Surfin' the Highway
Unfortunately though the opposite is occasionally true too. Having to wander or drive back and forth between locations can get very irritating when the player's not doing particularly much in each location. No matter how much I love it, Abe Lincoln Must Die! is particularly guilty in this regard. And if Fun Puzzles are the holy grail, then surely Magical Talismans are the, um, chilled monkey brains. Bright Side of the Moon’s over-reliance on these items is at best boring, at worst lazy. Even Reality 2.0's weird alternate universe didn't need them. Figuring out that you need to use the computer bug to shut down the C.O.P.S. is fun – using the Magical Bending/Unbending Talisman to unbend a parking meter is not.
Sometimes the lack of puzzles is just as annoying. Okay, there should be Red Herrings. Puzzles which seem to have one answer and then turn out to be another is a good thing. But when you get served something which had potential to be a real brain-teaser and is not really a puzzle at all, well that's just a letdown. Examples? 'Kay, how about Cooking Without Looking from Situation: Comedy? Apart from saying 'a cake' that whole scene is puzzle-less. What about that mass of ingredients? Were they meant to be something? And in Culture Shock how about creating Sam's hypnosis-blocker? There were loads of items to get in those blueprints, and yet all the player needs to do is pick the aerial off the TV. That's not a puzzle, that's puzzle-teasing!
And let's not forget the biggest disappointment of all, the season's finale. Taking out all of those Death Traps would've been better, followed by the final finishing off of the villain somehow. But no, most of those Traps are irrelevant, and can all be escaped with the use of the same (sigh) Magical Talisman. What a shame. Still, the ending song saves it.
DO YOU HAVE ANY RUBBER CHICKENS WITH A PULLEY IN THE MIDDLE?
I'm getting worried now. This review is taking a turn for the negative and I loved Sam & Max Season One. What the hell is going on? Maybe it's those evil LucasGremlins infiltrating my mind again. Must... play... Thrillville: Off The Rails... instead...
No! Be strong! Focus on something undeniably good! Alright, the graphics then. No, it's not Crysis (but then again, if you're one of the twelve people on Earth who can play that game you're probably not reading this review), but they do suit the cartoony-yet-grimy nature of the comics well. They could be a little grimier though. More rats! More dirt! Less sheen! Their car's too spotless!
Of more interest to me and why I sound out a big 'rispekt' to Telltale is the almost staggering amount of detail they've packed into their areas. This was something that is sorely missing from many adventures after they made the move to 3D, such as Escape From Monkey Island or Ankh. I mean, who thought of the ‘Room For Rent' sign on the White House? After Sybil gets jilted by Abe Lincoln, having her window signs say 'Love Is For Suckers' and 'Abe Lincoln Must Die!'? Changing the Desoto into a presidential limo after Max gets elected? Wonderful, and shows the love, care and loving care that Telltale dedicate to their games.
You may have noticed that all those examples I just gave were from Episode 4. I don't want to go off on another rant, so I'll just say simply – the attention to detail in each episode shot up for the last half of the season. We'll get back to that later. Yes, there is another burst of negativity coming, but I want to put it off until I have to.
What more impresses me is the animation! It's just great (although noticeably better in the cutscenes), and that Giant Lincoln Statue marching over the White House Lawn is still stunning, as is the whole of the Internet disappearing and Max doing his sad Bugs Bunny impression. It can only improve too – just look at Out From Boneville compared to Bright Side of the Moon. It's quite shocking, although Bone is still surprisingly good considering it's Telltale's first game. Heck, even Telltale Texas Hold 'Em still has pretty darn good anny-may-shon.
DO YOU HAVE ANY SOUVENIR SNOWGLOBES FROM THE MYSTERY VORTEX?
So then, graphics good. It's like playing a cartoon (an Adult Swim cartoon). Let's keep going with something else that impresses before those Gremlins get a hold of me again. We've done looks, so how about another sense? No, I don't mean taste, as licking the monitor is bad for you (particularly looking at your grubby bedroom, you slob), I'm talking about hearing. What's the sound like? In a word: good. In two words: f***ing awesome.
The voice acting for instance is superb. LucasArts-standard I'd say. Remember when that first trailer came out and everyone hated Max's voice? Well, they certainly improved, and now I can't imagine anyone other than William Kasten in the lagomorph's unworn shoes. David Nowlin's Sam, which was a little bit humourless at first, quickly mellowed into the perfect freelance police-dog. In fact Episode 1 is still a little bit dodgy it must be said, but from Episode 2 onwards they seem fully settled into their roles.
Anyone else particularly worthy of praise? Joey Camen's Bosco is always a delight. Keeping in character and putting on so many different accents is very hard to do. Bosco's Mom is worthy of the praise alone. And it may sound like fan worship, but composer Jared Emerson-Johnson as the four C.O.P.S. was pretty darn spot on too. Sound effects, yes, they're great too.
Do I really need to mention how great Jared's music again? If you want to know what I think check out the Soundtrack review. But for now, suffice to say it's top-notch. The BeeGee's knees.
DO YOU HAVE ANY CHIMPANZEE-SIZED DIAPERS?
Finally (who just said 'thank Christ'?), we come to something unique to Sam & Max Season One: Evolution. You will not find this topic in any other review, unless there's a Charles Darwin game I don't know about. There has never been an episodic computer game series before. While Valve show no signs of improvement with Half Life 2: Episode Two over Episode One or even Half-Life 2, Telltale have used the episodic format to steadily improve each of their games. Criticisms made of Culture Shock are gone by the end of the season. If something can be done well and quickly, it's done. But what changed?
It's evolution, baby!
I've already mentioned the voices and how the actors got settled into their roles. I mentioned the details too, about the care that got put into designing the locations and somehow kept increasing. Everything had a lovely quip in the first three episodes, which then changed to an equally funny quip in each of the last three episodes for us to enjoy anew! And most importantly, the Road Kill calendar got updated. Hooray.
However (there's that word again), this does unfortunately mean that the first half of the season is a bit... dare I say it... samey. The Mole, The Mob & The Meatball is particularly badly hit by this. It's got the best song of the season, my favourite puzzles (The Three Trials!), two of my favourite characters (Leonard and the Bug), and arguably my favourite scene (Max's exaggerated death), yet somehow still feels been-there-done-that! The Casino is still massively underwhelming too, and is a rare case of Telltale biting off more than they can chew. It's worse than the one-screen carnival in Curse of Monkey Island!
Episodes 4 and 5 pretty much banished these blues, and now I do believe we can look forward to Season Two full of hope. There are improvements that must be made however... see the next page.