Sam and Max: The Penal Zone – The Verdict

Sam and Max: The Penal Zone – The Verdict

Telltale confuse me so much.

Their method of episodic content works very well, certainly more in line with the general sort of notion of episodic than any other developer that springs to mind (cough cough Valve), but sometimes I wonder if they are working in reverse.

The new season of Sam and Max is upon us and, true to form, surreal and hectic hijinks are about to beset everyone’s favourite Freelance Police. There’s not much to say about the basic premise of the series that you won’t already know, but I’ll do my best to fill you in on this particular instalment.

General Skun-Ka’pe (or however they insert those bits of punctuation into “skunk-ape”) arrives on Earth in search of some things called the “Toys of Power”. These toys promise the bearer some pretty nifty psychic powers, though the good general doesn’t seem too bothered by that. He’s offering peace and prosperity and technological exchange for the permission to scan the Earth for these toys. It’s all very “they come in peace but not really, oh god how did we not see through his wafer thin veneer of trustworthiness, oh the pain” and, for the most part, actually works quite well.

I indulged in the last two seasons although, I will readily admit, the writing started to decline in the second half of season two. Thankfully, this seems to have been largely rectified. The writing still won’t rival Chaucer, but it’s entertaining and characterful enough to hold your interest. The conversations seem cogent enough, and there’s been a marked decrease in the overly long and pointless remarks mid-conversation. Telltale have shifted the focus into keeping the conversation on target, rather than trying too hard to be funny, and it has only served to make it a better experience.

And this is where I start to get confused.

Telltale has improved and refined and trimmed so much of the series, polishing it to a fine shine, and then go and take a massive step back by using the same movement controls as the Wallace and Gromit games and the latest Monkey Island instalments I don’t see the merit of replacing point-and-click with this WASD or hold-and-drag system. I’m not one of these people who has a problem with the break in tradition of “updating” the control scheme, but I just don’t see why this change was worth while.

Allow me to illustrate my issue. Depending on the sort of game I’m playing, I adopt a certain posture behind the desk. For shooty games, its a little closer to the screen, more comfortable for using the keyboard, that sort of thing. But adventure games are sedate things, with long conversations and hotspot searching. I like to recline when playing these sorts of games, leaning on one arm like Kirk in the Enterprise’s captain’s chair. This leaves the right hand for the mouse. Adventure games are so simple, they can be controlled by a single device. I like it that way, it makes it relaxing. Spreading the control to two devices just seems like a step back.

Still, perhaps I am just making a mountain out of a molehill.

The important criticism to level at Telltale, one that will become apparent immediately, is that it really is time for them to update their graphics engine. As much as I like the Telltale games, and I do, they were looking dated when they first started, and they’ve not made much progress since then. I understand it keeps costs and system requirements down, and I’m not asking for real life quality, but it really could do with a bit of an upgrade.

Also, I still don’t like Sam’s voice.

But that’s a lot of negatives for something that I think is a nice return to form. Good writing, good characters, good voice acting (except for Sam) and, control issues aside, the updates to the game seem to fit. Max’s psychic powers make quite an impact on the way you think about puzzles, adding an extra layer to concocting the solution, be it from the skilful use of telekinesis or getting a hint from your handy clairvoyance power.

Two steps forward, one step back? Maybe. But that’s still an improvement.

A deft avoidance of too many penile jokes.

2 thoughts on “Sam and Max: The Penal Zone – The Verdict

    1. Perhaps I should have gone back to the older two series to compare the graphical updates, but coming into it mostly fresh I can’t say I really noticed much in the way of improvement. I still think they’re further behind than they should be.

      I really didn’t want to get into the fact that the controls are now designed for game pads for one reason: it’ll send me into a rant. I tend to think that if you’re releasing a game for the pc you should work the controls to suit the medium, rather than basically forcing you to use another medium’s control scheme. Does my head in.

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