I’m not going to do an “official” review of Sam and Max Episode 3. All the big aggregate game sites will give you the same Consumer Reports style bullshit about this one; how the environments are recycled, how the game is shorter and the puzzles are easier, and so its just not so good as the rest.
But you and me, we know differently. We already discussed with Episode 2 that repeated environments are to be expected in episodic content (and shouldn’t always be thought of as a bad thing). We know that length is not always equal to value. In short, quantifying game elements just doesn’t work, so let’s take the videolamer look at why I think Ep. 3 is the most entertaining and worrisome of the bunch.
Episode 2’s humor was somewhat blunt with its parodies of sitcoms and talk shows, but I still liked it. As obvious as the jokes may have been, no one ever seems to say them. Episode 3 does one better by delivering a game that’s both hilarious and very smart. This time around the duo must take down the Toy Mafia behind the schemes from the last two episodes, which means plenty of jokes about organized crime, the legal system, and the cheap and silly entertainment we sometimes scarf down.
Many of the jokes are subtle, like how the mafia-run playland and casino is really just a room with three games. Often the script itself is comical, which tries (and succeeds) at delivering a joke involving both J. Edgar Hoover and mathematical proof. Other times it’s simply good voice acting making the most out of a line (such as the scene with Bosco snooping out his window). Telltale has finally hit their stride with the humor. Not only is it flatout funny, but you can enjoy a lot of jokes at many different levels, and no matter how deep you go it never makes you feel as though you’ve missed out on something.
Most importantly, I’m glad to see that Telltale is not trying to pander with their writing. There are several references to The Godfather here, as well as words like “Mutually exclusive” and “Orso Nostra”. Sad to say, but I doubt that the majority of teenaged gamers would understand all of the jokes contained in Episode 3. On the other end are the many denizens of the Internet that will tell you they much prefer “subtle, intelligent humor.”
This really means that they are trained to laugh in all the right places in a Monty Python movie regardless of whether they understand British Humour, and feel smug that they understood a handful of jokes in Futurama. Sam and Max aims for neither of these crowds. Nothing is in here because it wants to be stupid or smart; it just tells some jokes that the writers believe a well-rounded and mature adult should understand, or are simply fitting for the style of Sam and Max. For me, that works wonderfully, and I really hope that this is a sign that they’ve found their sweet spot.
Now for the worrisome. The gameplay exhibited here is problematic not because of length. Rather, it is starting to show some weakness that suggests it won’t stay fresh over the duration of an entire season. Once again we see the same pattern from the last two episodes; our heroes solve a handful of disjointed puzzles, then have three major tasks to complete before facing off with the final boss. This pattern works well over the length of a small game, and like the repeated set pieces it seems sensible for an episodic series, but I think it is a more severe issue than some recycled props.
Before I made it to “the three tasks” of Episode 3, I had already figured out what I would have to do for one of them. When Ep. 6 rolls around will I be able to predict them all? It is critical that the developers try to mix things up some more in the next three games. Hopefully, this shouldn’t be a problem; the developers have already shown some initiative by breaking free of the very strict mold that the first two episodes had for their endgame scenarios. Let’s hope they follow through.
But that simply leads to the question of what they should, or even could do to fix the gameplay. Adding more puzzles seems logical, but in order for that to be effective the puzzles need to be fresh, otherwise the added length will just make the game monotonous and tiresome before all is said and done. Yet what is the best way to spruce up the puzzles? Part of the reason Sam and Max has been so easy is because it has been fairly logical in its design. If you get an item, chances are it won’t be used for an obscure purpose. Nothing is ever hidden from view, and the game usually gives you just enough information to figure out the “what,” leaving you to take care of the “how.”
Any one of these things could be changed or removed to create a huge spike in difficulty, but then we’d be stuck with the kind of harebrained, nonsensical design of some traditional adventure games, the same kind that drove away all but the most dedicated of fans. All in all, while the humor of Sam and Max doesn’t pander, the gameplay certainly does, and to an audience that may not be well versed in this genre. I don’t know if it is possible to get both facets to the same level of quality without stooping to the absurdity of a Gabriel Knight puzzle, but I believe this would be the key to silencing the critics.
It has been a few days since I’ve finished Episode 3, and still I hum the hilarious theme song of the mafia casino, still reminisce over some of my favorite lines. For now, all is well in this zany world, but its a toss up as to what part 4 will bring us. Thankfully, the wait won’t be long.