Episode 2 of Season 2 of Sam and Max continues the fresh trends we saw in Ice Station Santa. The pacing is brisk, the filler is minimal, and each location is compact. This is a good thing, because without these elements this episode might have been painful. The puzzles this time around are dastardly and obfuscated, harkening back to the old days of the adventure genre while not quite reaching the level of absurdity of a Gabriel Knight game. Just as striking as the spike in difficulty is the shift towards humor that is even more obscure and older in taste. Whether or not these are two trends for the future, or a sign of Telltale mixing it up as they see fit, remains to be seen. Whatever the case, this is a stumbling block for the series.
The problem with the puzzles is that each small area has a lot to interact with, and more often than not you have a huge inventory to sort through. By the end of the game the inventory spanned the entire width of the screen. A brute force, trial and error approach would be much too time consuming and frustrating. The key to solving most puzzles this time around is listening very closely to what people are saying. What might seem to be an unimportant comment or observation is actually a key clue.
Further, some of the objects you need to interact with are obscure. What seemed to be a simple and harmless item on the wall at Stinky’s Diner is actually the piece of a puzzle. It makes sense when you see it, but you might not think of it when the Diner is so far away from the task at hand, and when so many items in any given episode exist merely for comedic value. There are also a few puzzles that require specific positioning of certain objects, and if you do not have it right you might not even realize it. The best way to approach this episode is to consider even the most innocent looking piece of equipment as potentially vital. Even then you may find some of the puzzles take some strange twists of logic to figure out. This is the most Myst-esque episode I have seen, and I don’t want to see this become a fixture for the series. Telltale also went back to the old “rule of three” for the episode’s final puzzles, and while not a major deal, I was hoping we would get a longer break from said setup.
On a related note, the spike in difficulty drove me to tinker with the new hint system, which does not work quite as well as I had hoped. When cranked to its highest level, the hints are still less frequent than what most beginners would likely need to continue through the game, and the hints themselves usually caused Max to first point out the right direction to go, then what object to interact with. In past games, Max’s hints often alluded as to how to use an item or what action should be taken without completely spelling it out. This system seems geared more towards pointing in the right direction rather than offering subtle observations about a particular puzzle. Considering the small size of the last two episodes, navigation should be the last of our priorities.
The initial episodes of Season 1 were quite conservative in their humor, relying greatly on references to modern pop culture and defining our heroes through outbursts and promises of violence more than anything else. Eventually the satire began to rely on less obvious targets, Sam and Max themselves got more enjoyably twisted, and some of the jokes required you to be either a well learned gamer or someone over age 35 (or maybe someone who reads cracked.com too much).
This time Telltale has taken things to a new level. Let’s just say jokes about Jimmy Hoffa are mild. Somehow I doubt even most older gamers would know much about D.B. Cooper or how Glenn Miller died, but they are key to the humor in Episode 2. The curious thing is that even when I have to hit Google to research a joke reference, I don’t mind doing so. For some reason Telltalle’s comedy always seems completely sincere even when it is incredibly obscure. A Sam and Max joke never feels like something out of Family Guy, where the goal just seems to be to prove just how much useless stuff the writers know. This particular episode makes me wonder, however; there is one scene that comes out nowhere, seemingly for the sake of randomness, that is straight out of a Family Guy skit. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, but the question remains of whether we want the humor to get so obscure that it trips over itself.
Moai Better Blues proves that the crew at Telltale are some seriously smart cookies, something we can all respect. I also think that past episodes had a delicious balance in their jokes and puzzles, and I hope to see a return to that in the future. The high points of this entry were some of the highest, but this is also the first episode that I did not finish in one marathon sitting. At least this means I once again don’t know what to expect from the next entry. Keep them wanting more, and perhaps you have done everything you needed to.