Somehow I managed to avoid playing any Sam & Max games before The Devil's Playhouse. Sure, The Next Level has reviewed them favorably before, and I did poke my head in on one at some point, but the series just failed to grab my attention. Coming off of the King's Quest series and the Monkey Island games, I think I had a subconscious tendency to regard Sam & Max - with its big, rounded, friendly graphics and furry protagonists - as a just a brash dog-and-rabbit show. It almost felt like playing the video game equivalent of a cardboard picture book.
Okay, let's get this straight right off the bat: I was very, very wrong. And if you're like me, if you don't particularly care for animated series and you don't follow the latest shock-toons, take heart. Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse is intelligently written, competently acted, and funny. It doesn't often go for crude, obvious humor. It's not simple-minded. It's fun and squarely aimed at a gamer like me. What in the blue hell was I waiting for?
The narrative is broken up into five episodes, each running over four hours if you commit to some detective work and avoid using extra hints. These are standalone chapters with individual stories that are connected by an overriding arc. Even if you play it all together as one giant game instead of as episodic content (the chapters were released in roughly one-month increments), you probably won't be bored. Stuck, maybe. Bored, no.
What in the blue hell was I waiting for?
Besides the consistent writing, the main reason The Devil's Playhouse never wears out its welcome is the use of distinct and familiar subgenres laid over the core point-and-click gameplay. Episode 1, The Penal Zone, is a science fiction piece that heavily relies on time travel. Episode 2, The Tomb of Sammun-Mak is presented in the style of an adventure serial, with the ability to switch between movie reels at will included as a clever plot device/game mechanic. Episode 3, They Stole Max's Brain! delights with film noir dialogue. Beyond the Alley of the Dolls is based firmly on zombie movie conventions. And The City That Dares Not Sleep ties it all up with a nod to Fantastic Voyage.
Where I was dreading hokey, heavy-handed humor, I instead found heaps of lithe repartee. The thought of spending twenty hours with a shrill rabbit and an easygoing dog wasn't immediately appealing, but I quickly found that there was more there. For instance, near the beginning of one episode, I encountered references to everything from George Lazenby to Avatar, but it was all organically worked in - the opposite of the way something like Family Guy would handle it. And though there were loving tributes to bygone times, I was never beaten over the head with self-consciously appropriated symbols and references à la Scott Pilgrim.
The puzzles were similarly designed for the gamer with sense. Putting together the right combination of elements that would progress the story was just difficult enough to be fun. That is to say, most of the time it was smooth sailing, but some areas, particularly a couple of the boss battles, demanded closer attention and some deeper analytical thinking. If you think you're just going to find a yellow key in one section and a yellow door in the other, you're in for a surprise. But there are some in-game dialogue choices and an adjustable hint level in the options that both allow you to tweak the difficulty on the fly.
Beating the game involves making the best use out of a collection of psychic toys. These allow mind reading, teleportation, replication, putting words in other people's mouths, and other abilities. This spices up the gameplay and gives Max something to do besides follow Sam around. Even when a specific power isn't required to advance the narrative, its use can have entertaining and enlightening results. And thanks to the thoughtful design, the mindreading is restricted to Max and doesn't extend to you figuring out what the developers were thinking.
For those who know what they're getting into, it sounds to me like The Devil's Playhouse is more of what you know and love. If you're familiar with the Sam & Max universe, but haven't picked up one of the Telltale-published games, our Sam & Max: Culture Shock review applies and will tell you much of what you need to know. However, if like my former misguided self, you've been avoiding this slice of gaming heaven for whatever reason, let me encourage you to try out an episode and see what the fuss is about. What in the blue hell are you waiting for?