Sam & Max – The Devil’s Playhouse begins with this line: "In all the universe, the only power beyond the mind’s comprehension is the power to comprehend the power of the mind."
Get used to that kind of thing, because that’s pretty much what The Devil’s Playhouse is all about. Yes, there are puzzles and adventure, but even those just seem to serve the game’s sense of humor. And that’s fine, because the jokes are sharp enough to carry you through the five episodes that will comprise the series.
Sam and Max are a crime-fighting duo. Sam’s the six-foot talking dog. Max is the manic rabbit. This unusual pair is facing off against the evil alien gorilla General Skunk’ape (skoon-kah-pay). Their story is told with excellent voice acting, although the presentation itself is quite jumpy. Along with frequent framerate issues (Telltale suggests you power down your iPad and turn it back on to clear the system before playing) and long load times, the dialogue often feels disconnected—as if each line was recorded separately then pieced together later. This occasionally throws off the timing of a good joke, but is otherwise harmless.
The graphics are pretty good throughout. They’re a bit jagged, but on par with the Mac/PC versions. The music is especially good, doing a good job of carrying the mood throughout the game…including the cutscenes which are frequent, sometimes quite long, and unskippable.
Controls are all touch-based, of course. Touch anywhere on the screen for movement, and a virtual control stick appears to show you which way you’re moving as you drag your finger across the screen. To interact with a person or object, simply touch it and the appropriate control/dialogue options will open.
I mention all of this here, as I imagine they’ll be the same throughout the series. The Devil’s Playhouse is being delivered in episodic format; the first release was in April, with additional episodes to come once a month. Unlike the Mac/PC versions where you pay for all five episodes and wait for them to arrive, here you buy just the first episode for $6.99. It’s a great way to find out if you like the game, and will ultimately run you the same amount as the computer versions if you buy them all, beginning with:
Episode 1: The Penal Zone
Category: Adventure/puzzle game
Seller: Telltale Games
Requirements: iPhone OS 3.2 or later
File Size: 220MB
Version Reviewed: 1
Age Rating: 12+
The story begins at the end with some quick puzzles that mainly introduce you to the game’s characters, pacing and controls. After the numerous and lengthy (but, thankfully, quite entertaining) cutscenes, you’re back at the beginning of the adventure.
Except that it’s not really the beginning. Sam & Max have been around for a while, after all, and the game doesn’t do much to catch you up on who these characters are and what they’re doing. There are some gags about how they’ve worked together (or against each other) in the past, but you’re likely to miss many of those if this is your first Sam & Max game.
More than anything else, episode one sets up Max’s psychic capabilities, teaching you how to use them to solve puzzles. He can use a phone to warp to different locations, a View Master to see into the future, Silly Putty to change shape, and so on. You’ll use at least one of these objects to solve the majority of the puzzles, which is both good and bad. Good, in that some trial and error with inventory items will almost always move you along. Bad, in that the puzzles do feel repetitive after a while.
Again, though, it wasn’t the puzzles that drove me forward through The Penal Zone, it was the character interactions and sense of humor. I like these people. I like the NPCs. I think that self-referential jokes get tiring after a while (game characters talking about being in a game is kind of too easy, isn’t it), but there are enough solid jokes to compensate.
The ending is a bit weak as far as cliffhangers go…not much in the story to push you towards episode two. Still, I have no problem recommending Sam & Max – The Devil’s Playhouse Episode 1: The Penal Zone to anyone who enjoys a good comic adventure, and certainly to anyone who grew up with these characters (you can explain some of the reference jokes to me).
You’ll get $6.99 worth of entertainment out of the game even if you don’t move on to episode 2. If you really want to play it safe, though, you can download the computer demo. Like it, and it’s up to you whether to drop $35 for all five Mac/PC episodes or $7 for a single iPad episode.