Sam & Max The Devil's Playhouse: The Penal Zone




Genre:   Adventure

Developer & Publisher:    Telltale Games

Released:   April 2010

PC Requirements:   Windows XP / Vista / Windows 7 (Mac OS X 10.5 or newer), 3 GHz Pentium 4 or equivalent processor, 1 GB RAM memory, 128 MB video card, DirectX 9,0c or better 






by Becky


Sam & Max: The Penal Zone opens with Sam, Max, Stinky (green haired female version), and Harry Moleman right in the thick of things. The male characters are held prisoner on the spaceship of General Skun-ka'pe, a world-conquering gorilla. Stinky sits on a throne-like chair. It's unclear if she's a prisoner or a friend of the gorilla. It's not even clear that she's aware of what's going on. The space ship zooms through New York City, shooting at anything that moves, while Sam and Max discuss their grudging admiration for their captor.

The Question is not so much Where We Are as When...

Manipulating time, a motif in Sam & Max's intricate Season Two episode: Chariot of the Dogs, is reprised in The Penal Zone. Max has stumbled across a View Master toy that allows him to see random glimpses of the future. General Skun-ka'pe, the gorilla, is searching for this toy, along with several other Toys of Power that can only be used by someone with The Gift. If you haven't thought of Max as "gifted" until now, be prepared to see him in a new light, his body levitating and twitching as psychic powers invade his mind.

In case you haven't encountered Sam & Max before, Sam is a retro suited police dog and Max is an imp in the guise of a rabbit. They are employed as Freelance Police by The Commissioner, who is wise enough never to appear on camera. Max is also the accidental President of the United States, though in this episode his executive powers are subordinated to his psychic abilities.

The Penal Zone is the opening episode in the Devil's Playhouse series. You can play it without having played Season One: Sam & Max Save the World or Season Two: Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space. The game is more amusing if you've played the first two seasons, however, because so many characters from the previous episodes put in cameos.

You Maniacs! You Blew it Up!

This third season of Sam & Max maintains a cartoon style, but with significant graphical enhancements, including complex shadows and more realistic details. Sam and Max's neighborhood has undergone several other changes. The Freelance Police office building is boarded up, rats and cockroaches scurry about and rats with wings fly by. The sky is greenish, graffiti is everywhere, and the whole city block looks even scruffier. General Skun-ka'pe's spaceship sits upon the ruins of Sybil's place, sending up clouds of purple steam.

This episode is edgier than its predecessors. A clever plot is matched with a frenetic pace. A new character right out of The Twilight Zone, sporting a red rose boutonnière, hosts the series. With ill-disguised smugness, he warns you that, in the course of the next five episodes, you should prepare to feel various emotions -- including perplexity and disgust. Pay close attention, though, and you just might save the universe.

Other new characters inhabit The Devil's Playhouse, including a disembodied brain and a portable scanner named Carol. My favorite returning non-player character is the ghost of Mamma Bosco, who employs her scientific expertise to good effect. Voiceovers are uniformly excellent.

The humor in this opening episode is less sharp and absurdist, and sometimes cruder than in previous games (puns involving the word "penal," for example). At times the humor is aimed at a young male audience. Still, other funny moments abound that will bring a smile to lips of all ages and genders.

Beware the Beast Man, for He is the Devil's Pawn

Movement in The Devil's Playhouse, unlike previous Sam & Max episodes, is not via point-and-click with the mouse. There are now three navigational options.

Option 1: I a click-and-drag motion with the mouse, a method similar to that in Telltale's Tales of Monkey Island (TMI) series. The cursor changes into a clearly visible Frisbee/target, with a "shadow" behind it that shifts to reveal the direction in which the character is moving. Although this looks goofy, it works better than the tiny red arrow cursor in TMI. (Let's face it -- since when is goofy out of place in the Sam & Max gameworld?) The environments themselves are easier to navigate than in TMI -- with fewer boundaries and objects on which the player character gets stuck.

Options 2 and 3: you can use the WASD keys or a game controller. The "Help & Settings" screen shows you the default buttons for the controller and keyboard.

The only navigational problem I encountered was in Mamma Bosco's lab, where (when upstairs) I repeatedly used the elevator when I meant to use the door, and (when downstairs) I couldn't always find the elevator when I needed it.

The series introduces a map of New York City, produced by the C.O.P.S. (obsolete technological devices), complete with creative place names like "Hell's Pantry." The map, plus the Toy of Power telephone, makes traveling between locations fast and easy.

Short plot summaries recap the action when you load a saved game (save slots are apparently unlimited). The options menu allows you to select the frequency of hints and to enable subtitles (recommended). Dialogs can be clicked through.

Put Down That Gun!

This game contains inventory puzzles and some easy dialog-based challenges. Dialogs reveal a new animation -- Sam's head appears in the center of a circle, with topics ranged around him. Sam's head turns toward each topic as you select it. The inventory also features new animations. You can read descriptions of items in the inventory, take them out and use them, or activate them (activation is accompanied by a hand grasping a squeeze toy, with appropriate sound effects). There are peculiar inventory items, including demon broth and a note torn into the shape of the State of Idaho.

For the first time in the Sam & Max games, you play substantial portions as Max. Well, sort of. You view the world through Max's psychic vision, panning around in first person perspective, seeing random transparent images (like cows, chickens and sports equipment) overlaying the gameworld. At the same time, the jazzy background music becomes hollow and distorted -- overall quite a nice effect. While in Max mode, you can use his Toys of Power abilities -- for example, triggering brief cut scenes of possible future events.

Chalk Up Another Victory

The Penal Zone is a masterly setup for the rest of the new Sam & Max series, with intriguing innovations and improvements, but enough references to the past to sustain fans of the first two seasons. Max is a fellow of infinite variety and jest, confounding concerns that, after eleven episodes, Sam & Max may be getting a trifle stale. My only overall criticism is that The Penal Zone leaves so much for upcoming episodes to build upon that it doesn't feel quite as substantial as previous opening episodes.

Quick List for Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse -- The Penal Zone

A natty dog and a lunatic bunny take on time, dimensional instability, and a power mad General from outer space. Colorful, stylized graphics, good writing and voiceovers, nice ambient animations, comic antics. Occasionally rude humor, appropriate for teens and up. You can click through the dialogs. This is the first episode of five.

Third person perspective with occasional first person psychic interludes. Three options for navigation: click-and-drag with the mouse, the WASD keys, or a game controller. You can't die.

Inventory and dialog challenges. A new "Toys of Power" mode where you use psychic tools (this has lots of potential). No mazes, no sliders, no sound puzzles, no color-based challenges, no timed challenges. About four hours of gameplay.

A useful new map for visiting New York City locations. A hint system that is helpful, though not exhaustive. Handy plot synopsis in the save/load game menu. Plenty of save slots plus an autosave function.

No problems with installation. The only minor glitch: exiting the game alters the original resolution on my desktop.

Aimed at anyone who would enjoy Twilight Zone adventures starring a dog and rabbit comedy detective duo.

Final Grade: B+

Sam & Max The Devil's Playhouse: The Penal Zone can be downloaded from the Telltale Games website here.

What I played it on: 

Dell Studio XPS 8000

Windows 7 Home Premium

Intel Core i5-750 processor


1024MB NVIDIA GeForce GT 220

Soundblaster X-Fi


*Section headings are from the film "Planet of the Apes."


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