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Review: Sam & Max - The Penal Zone

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When Sam & Max: Season One was released back in 2007 it was a wonderful resurrection of both the adventure game genre and a well-loved series from the bygone days of pixel-hunting. Snappy writing, familiar gameplay, and brain-bending logic puzzles made each episode a joy to play, and I personally wound up buying the whole season. The series has done well since, and has since moved to the iPad for the third season, a wise decision as adventure games suit the iPad quite well.

I found the first episode, The Penal Zone, on sale not too long ago, so it along with Sword & Sworcery kept me entertained during flights I took earlier this month to visit family in Texas. So how was the trip to the Penal Zone? Well...

Lemme preface by saying that The Penal Zone is a lot of fun. The appropriately zany story revolves around Sam and Max attempting to thwart the plans of General Skun-ka'pe (skoon-KA-pay, or SKUNK-ape if you're Sam), a smooth-talking ape warlord from space who, of course, wants to take over the world. Using Sam's new-found telepathic powers, toys of power, and a few inventions from Dr. Momma Bosco, the Freelance Police set out to return Skun-ka'pe to his prison in the Penal Zone.

Gameplay is standard adventure game style: tap where you want Sam to go, tap on items and objects you want to observe, and select dialogue options from a radial menu when talking to people. Not ones to sit on the same formula, Telltale does a couple of interesting things to spice up the game. First, tapping with two fingers will highlight all objects on screen that can be interacted with. If you ever played any old point-and-click adventure games from the 80's and 90's, you'll understand what a godsend this is; there's a reason the phrase "pixel hunting" is used when describing them. The other nifty idea is the use of Max's psychic toys, specifically the future-telling ViewMaster. When you have Max use it you see the world through his eyes, and when you tap on anything that sparkles, you'll be given a vision of the future regarding what you tapped. It's basically a glorified hint system but it's well-implemented, and though the game generally avoids the more obscure "use the cat on the guitar" line of adventure game logic, there are a few head-scratchers that are kept from being frustrating by this.

The dialogue is wonderfully bizarre, and in Max's case entertainingly twisted. All characters have distinct personalities that their voice actors convey convincingly, from Stinky's distasteful boredom and Superball's deadpan agent-voice to Gordon's high drama and Skun-ka'pe's skeezy assurances. The game is a pleasure to listen to, and though nothing had me actually laugh out loud, I was grinning the whole way through.

So why did I start off this review by assuring you that the game is a lot of fun? Because the iPad version has more bugs than Sam and Max combined after a weekend in the wilderness. Audio is where most of the problems happen, and the most frequent bug was this harsh static distortion that would play during loading screens. This is annoying enough when coming over the iPad's speaker, but it's nails-on-a-chalkboard when it blasts unexpectedly through a set of headphones, especially when the volume's up. There were some small detection errors when Sam would ignore something in the world that had a blue dot to show it could be interacted with. This was usually fixed by just walking around and making the camera reposition, but it was annoying nonetheless. The camera got stuck and glitchy a few times, leaving me with a distorted screen that was almost impossible to interact with, forcing me to restart the game. Speaking of restarts, the game also crashed a few times.

Bugs happen, they're just a fact of gaming as it's not really possible to test for them all. For a system as homogeneous and locked down in its hardware specs and operating system as the iPad, though, the sheer number, frequency, and severity of the bugs in the game is inexcusable, so it makes it hard for me to recommend the game with any enthusiasm. But if you're a fan of Sam & Max (and really, you should be) and you can deal with a flea trap-full of annoying bugs, then give the game a download from the App Store. Just be sure to be thankful that the game auto-saves.


Wolf said:

Throughout the series there's more than a little inuendo between the two main characters themselves. A friend of mine managed to ask Steve Purcel (creator of Sam & Max) if they had a gay relationship. Steve said he gets asked that a lot, and never really decided himself but "if you look at the clues, the answer is there!"

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Wolf on Review: Sam & Max - The Penal Zone: Throughout the series there's more than a little inuendo between the two main characters themselves. A friend of mine managed...

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