"While [Sam & Max: Beyond Space and Time] doesn't progress the genre beyond where it wads a decade ago, it's still a solid resurgence of a lost art. "
Point-and-click adventures have become something of a lost commodity these days. Telltale has responded to this by carving their own episodic niche in the market with the likes of Sam & Max (which was later followed by Wallace & Gromit, Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People, and Tales of Monkey Island). In many ways, their latest series of madcap hijinks represent something of a return to glory for the genre. The sharp writing and inventive scenarios would certainly hint at that. Yet, in other ways, Telltale seems too insistent on playing it safe with old genre tropes, holding everyone's favorite dog and rabbit crime fighting duo back from achieving true greatness.
The game centers around the titular Sam & Max, a dog and rabbit respectively, freelance police. Sam is deadpan no-nonsense detective and Max is his mischievous partner/sidekick. You play as Sam mostly, though there are times where you can choose dialogue for Max as well. In each episode the pair is tasked with solving some bizarre mystery, with a loose connection between them. The episodic format works well for Sam & Max as it gives Telltale a convenient excuse to recycle characters and locations, not unlike a TV show. It works great for what it is, but be forewarned; it won't feel like a usual epic adventure due to so much recycled material. And if you're anything like me and never got around to playing the first season, you may feel a bit lost at first, as you can tell there are plenty of in-jokes you're missing out on. Though even newcomers will quickly be engrossed in the pair's ludicrous antics.
The highlight of Sam & Max is its wonderful script. The game functions almost more as an interactive book of jokes than a game at times. This would be a problem if the writing wasn't so darned funny. Not every joke is a hit- there are some terrible clunkers- but by and large, the jokes are sharp and come so quickly that you can barely keep track. I mean where else will you find a game ballsy enough to make a dated reference to 12 Monkeys? Next to Brutal Legend, this is the funniest game I have played this year.
The gameplay is comprised almost entirely of solving puzzles. Most of which are quite logical, though there is the occasional obtuse solution here and there. For better or worse, the interface has been streamlined since the days of yore when you'd have a multitude of different ways to interact with any given object. Sure, it would be annoying when you'd be stuck on a puzzle for a long time because you tried to push an object rather than pull it, but that was part of the challenge. You'd have to be specific rather than just fumble through the game trying to use everything on everything else. Having one all-purpose interaction button cuts down on the guesswork, but also makes things a bit too easy at times. At least it means that the times when you are stumped, it's usually in a way that is absolutely fair and clever.
Probably the single biggest problem with Sam & Max is it's not nearly as interactive as it should be. While point-and-clicks have always been known for impeding your progress until you can figure out one very narrow, linear solution, it's more evident here as there's less to discover. Some of the greatest lines from old LucasArts games came from when you tried to solve a puzzle the wrong way. You wouldn't gain progress, but you'd discover a great gag, which was half the fun of playing. There are far too many instances of Sam just saying, "no way" when he doesn't like your suggestion, rather than trying ti anyway just to see what happens. Given that there's only one interact button, you'll often click on an item, hear a funny observation about it, and that's it. As it stands, the game feels a bit threadbare at times, making the parts where your progress is stifled feel that much more like a chore.
The game's presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. Character models are rough around the edges, but there's a certain timeless charm to their diorama-like blockiness. Dated graphics matter less than one would think in this sort of game, where it's all about the writing. The more important thing from a presentation standpoint is the voice-acting, which is something of a mixed bag. David Nowlin is pitch-perfect as Sam, with his snappy, deadpan delivery that never really gets old. William Kasten's Max, however, doesn't fair so well. Some of his lines are delivered brilliantly, but his voice starts to grate after awhile and I couldn't help but feel that a decent amount of his lines were botched due to poor delivery. The supporting cast is equally hit-and-miss. It's never so bad it ruins the game- just a few jokes every now and again. When the acting is good, it's really good. But when it's bad, it sticks out all the more.
If I come across as sounding tough on the game, that's only because the good elements are so good that more is expected from the rest of the package. Having more input on the game's world would go a long way toward bumping the game up to the A-list, and it's really sad to see a great line go to waste due to poor delivery. It's here that I'm torn. While it doesn't progress the genre beyond where it wads a decade ago, it's still a solid resurgence of a lost art. It may feel too much like a cover band at times, but with Ron Gilbert making action-RPGs and Tim Schafer making action/adventure/real-time strategy games, Sam & Max: Beyond Space and Time represents the is the next-best thing in classic adventure gaming goodness.
Freelance review by Jeffrey Matulef (November 30, 2009)
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