You Don’t Need Psychic Powers to read this Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse – Episode 1: The Penal Zone Review!

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“The Penal Zone is one of the best first episode’s in a Telltale series to date. You owe it to yourself to play this game.”

Now that you’ve seen the closing thought, why not check out what brought me to that conclusion?

In the time since we last met up with everyone’s favorite Freelance Police officers, Telltale has released 3 episodic series’ spanning a total of 14 three-to-four hour episodes. In addition to the bump in graphics and a huge change in how you control the games, the overall Telltale package has become far more cinematic than where we left off with Sam & Max at the end of Season Two. Despite going into The Penal Zone with this knowledge, I was still blown away constantly by just how big of a leap it the game is from the previous seasons in almost every area.

The most obvious upgrade is in how the game looks. Some of the scenes look on par with animated movies released in theaters. Our main heroes look to have been completely re-textured, and Max’s model seems to animate with a lot more expression than he had in previous entries (especially regarding his eyebrows). The lighting system also seems to vastly improved from Monkey Island, which is impressive as I thought that game did some very cool things with it’s lighting. Finally there’s a really cool film grain effect throughout the entire thing which definitely adds to the cinematic quality. The game is launching on Playstation 3 (a Telltale first), in addition to the other platforms and the graphical updates will make it right at home on the system.

This should give you a good idea on how big of a graphical jump the series has made.

In The Penal Zone Sam & Max must prove that an extra-terrestrial primate named Skun’kape (Pronounced Skunk-Op-Ay) is not as peaceful as he leads everyone to believe. In order to do this, Max must use his newly acquired psychic powers to aid the investigation. Up until now we’ve only ever been in control of Sam, but in The Devil’s Playhouse we get control over Max and his new powers which totally changes how you interact with the game. The psychic powers are tied to enchanted toys, and in The Penal Zone you get your hands on two of them: Teleportation and Future Vision. While Teleportation is pretty obvious, Future Vision was the most interesting new feature of the game. When using it, you look around the current area for objects that have a future state that is viewable. Upon selection, you’ll see what happens to to that object in the near future. This serves as both a really cool story telling mechanism, as well as a streamlined hint system. Whenever I was stuck on a puzzle, I would use it to help build a better picture of what was different when the puzzle is solved. It does a great job of helping you figure out what needs done, without just giving you the answer. With many slots open for more toys, I can’t wait to see what new gameplay mechanics show up throughout the series.

Most of the story takes place in Sam & Max’s neighborhood, but navigating to different areas in your Desoto is now handled through a town map (a callback to Sam & Max Hit the Road perhaps?). This small change made me feel more involved in the process. They’ve also made a great change in how conversation’s occur. Instead of picking from a list of lines for Sam to say, you’re given a Mass Effect type dialogue wheel and topics to pick from. I’m sure this was mostly intended to aid console players with controller’s, but I really enjoyed it on the PC as well. The simple addition of a small Sam popping out of the middle of the wheel, watching wherever your mouse is pointing just made the act of conversations that much more fun.

Speaking of playing it on a PC, I was surprised to encounter certain areas that were fairly system intensive. On the main stretch of road outside of their office, my frame-rate dropped down to between 20-30 frames per second versus the constant 60 I got through Tales of Monkey Island. I should clarify though that I was playing at the highest graphics setting (the same I used in Monkey Island), and the version of the game I played was not final. It could also be an issue on my end. I just wanted to mention it, as it was something I wasn’t expecting to encounter. I want to stress that it never got in the way of gameplay, but just noticeable in some scenes.

By the end of the episode I was still just as impressed as I was at the start. It filled exactly what I wanted out of it: technical upgrades, fresh and funny dialogue, new gameplay mechanics, references to previous seasons, and a climactic close. I had a great time with it, and I can’t wait for Episode 2: The Tomb of Sammun-Mak next month. The Penal Zone is one of the best first episode’s in a Telltale series to date. You owe it to yourself to play this game.

Whoa… Deja Vu!

Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse – Episode 1: The Penal Zone is available on PSN, PC, Mac, and (shockingly) the Apple iPad. You can get a copy of your own right here: Telltale Store

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