Still hitting the road
Back in the day when LucasArts ruled the genre of point-and-click adventures, life was good. You had games that ran on almost all storylines and the gameplay was included. During those days, LucasArts produced such huge hits as Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island, and Sam and Max: Hit the Road. The basic concept was that you led these characters around with your mouse, pointing and clicking on objects while giving your characters commands on what to do with those objects. Thus the term, “point-and-click”. LucasArts, and it’s developers, concentrated mostly on making a good story (see The Dig for details) that helped get the player grounded in these make-believe worlds. So, you would have fantastic dialogue, progressing plot points and just enough to make you think about the game days after completing it (if you ask Steven McGehee, he’s still coming down from The Dig). Anyway, it was a good time for gaming.
Fast-forward to the early 2000s and Gametap and Telltale Games have brought back one of LucasArts gems. Sam and Max first appeared on the Gametap service when it first began, but has since moved to an episodic based adventure. It’s an interesting concept, one that works particularly well with this time of gameplay. I have been hesitant to partake in this series because of the episodic break-up. I always felt like if you wanted to see an entire story you should be given the entire story. The concept of having a story broken up into pieces seemed kind of cheap to me and I assumed that this was a quick way for Telltale Games and Gametap to make some loot. Then a few things happened. First, I played season two, which is what this review is about, I understood why they had done. Second, with each episode you get at least five hours of gameplay time. If they had packaged this all into one game it would either be one of the hardest games to play or what seems like a never ending story (minus the Nothing). So having experienced this first hand over the last two weeks I have come to realize how good of an idea this all is, at least the concept.
As for the games, I had been advised to start with season two by an associate. I haven’t played the first season, which isn’t a huge deal, but the first season of anything (especially television shows) is usually a comfort period. So, season two it was and what game out of it was a mixed bag of emotions. First, the point-and-click adventure I was use to had been slightly altered. When you’re playing the game now, you simply have a mouse to work with that points out objects and does multiple commands. You no longer have the obnoxious menu on the bottom of the screen that has one word commands like PICK-UP, READ, etc. It’s kind of like riding on a bike for the first time without training wheels, it felt weird. When I wanted our two heroes (anti-heroes, maybe?) to pick up things, I simply pointed to it and they would either give me a description of the object, pick it up or they would tell me it’s useless. The decision to make it all work has been given strictly to the animated characters, which is a good and bad thing. It’s good because I don’t have to sit there and click on 16 different words in hope of getting the right command. It’s bad because it makes the game somewhat linear. You’re almost forced to play it a certain way and for this day and age, that’s a bit restrictive.
Speaking of restrictive, the difficulty of this game is bipolar. There are times where you will have a firm grasp of what is going on and other times where you’ll walk away from your computer and stare at a wall for hours wondering how to get past a certain part. Telltale certainly didn’t make this game for the non-thinker, who owns every FPS in the book. This series, and many like it, were solely made for the type of gamer who loves solving problems. That is all fine and dandy, but the real issue with this game is that it has more than a few parts where you really need to over-think to have a chance at being right. For example, in the second episode of the season, you have to obtain a horn for baby Glenn Miller, so he can make some new music. (SPOILER AHEAD) You have to unknowingly leave the island that you’re on, go back to your city, visit the COPS (who are hilarious, btw), play a game of bagpipe road rage (not the official name) and win a horn from them. If you missed the initial hints about this you would figure that the horn, or whatever you need to find, would be somewhere on the island you reside on (SPOILER END). There are more than a few moments in the game where you could just tear your hair out trying to figure out what they want you to do. That type of difficulty, while appreciated, can cause a game to be unlikable really quick. It’s a bit more difficult than what this type of genre use to be, though there was plenty of difficulty in the past games. That’s a bit of a knock on the season.
With that said, the storylines are great. The first storyline involves Santa and it rolls from there. Each episode has a beefy story that is very entertaining. You can give credit to some really great voice-over work and even better writing. The second season of Sam and Max captures the essence of the original game on PC. You have a level headed hound with an obnoxious bunny, trying to run a shady investigation agency. Throughout these season you’ll see the demise of Santa, the interesting Bermuda triangle (and a few other baby triangles), a disco loving vampire, a band of mexican UFO owners and the devil. I know what you’re thinking, there’s no way they can take all of those odd-ball concepts and lump them together into one complete story. Well, strangely enough, you would be wrong. Telltale Games not only puts these stories together, but the fate of episodes depends on what you know from others. It’s a great concept and it makes you want to play all the episodes in order.
More fun than at Stinky’s
Outside of the difficulty, which can be much at times, the episodes are really quite good and they’re worth the price of admission. For the season two package it costs $34.95, which isn’t bad considering how long each episode will last. You’re talking about five hours of gameplay for each episode, after clever math that turns out to be around 30 hours of gameplay (give or take). From a distance that isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually quite impressive especially if it grabs your attention (like I know it will).
Now, if you’re really bold, you can skip episodes and play different ones at the same time. So, for example, if you want to play the first episode, but you get stuck, you can move on to the second episode while you’re thinking about the first. It’s a good strategy for these types of games because it keeps the gameplay fresh. If you hit a wall, just move on and come back. I did that several times during the reviewing process. The only downfall to doing this is that you get to see some of the end results of previous episodes (which is great because you can see how they were tied together). This type of non-linear movement of gameplay really helps alleviate some of the stress you might feel from the difficulty of the series.
As for the visuals, which we haven’t talked about yet, you get some nice rendered animation. Again, capturing the original game and improving upon it was key. All the animations that are in the game are smooth and very cartoony. While it certainly won’t require the latest nVidia card to run it, it will visually please you with goofy animation. Sam and Max pretty much look unchanged (as they should), the rest of the characters have the same model design: Big head, small body. It works well in general. One of the more impressive visuals of the game are the very active environments. Everything seems so alive onscreen, even when things are dead (like the zombies). I’m glad they created that type of visual atmosphere, it helps the story. Audio-wise, you get some really appropriate audio. Picture this, if Swing and Jazz had a baby, it would be the soundtrack for the game. It’s unusual, but unusually fitting.
So, is this type of game fun? I think that Telltale Games has managed to capture the fun that the original games of this genre developed. In a sense, they have innovated how it all gets done, but in another sense they have eliminated some of the things (like the menu of commands) that made the genre kick. In the end, thanks to really beautiful animation, basically no loading times and a well-thought out story you’re going to be satisfied with the end result. Of course, you might be frustrated as hell at times and want to kick kittens, but the pros outweigh the cons.