As it turns out, giving guns – and a blank check for chaos – to a human-size dog and a crazy rabbit easily ranks among one of the best ideas Steve Purcell ever concocted. When he first began creating Sam & Max comics in 1987, Purcell probably didn’t expect his goofy gumshoe characters would end up ranking high on the funny charts as the stars of their own episodic PC game series. Nonetheless, Telltale Games’ second season of the ongoing anthropomorphic escapades of Sam and Max continues to tighten the detective duo’s already firm grasp on the title of supreme rulers of the point-and-click adventure game universe.
Apparently, when moonlighting as “freelance police,” you have to take whatever bizarre gigs you can get. The weirdness level in Sam & Max‘s first season of cases ran the gamut, establishing a solid baseline for the outlandish adventures to come. Among other oddball heroics featured in Season One, dispensing justice to a trio of brainwashed former child stars, waging war against the malevolent A.I. of the vast internet, and venturing to the moon to save humanity from the hypnotic, feel-good clutches of a prismatically inclined super-villian rounded out the premier collection of crazy crime fighting episodes. In Sam & Max Season Two, Telltale makes a few subtle-yet-notable improvements to the system, ramps up the absurdity, and hones the comedic gameplay to a fine point.
By the time the final credits roll, it’s evident all five of Season Two‘s episodes are far more cohesive than the first batch. The development and design team clearly spent a greater amount of time planning out how each of the more rousing plot developments in all of the episodes would wind together. There’s still a staggering amount of variety and topical humor to be found in the widely differing locales and situations Sam and Max end up in, but the strong sense of continuity running throughout the entire season is a noticeable improvement. The tighter plot orchestration also allows for some crucially hilarious gag setups and surprisingly clever twists, paving the way for the series’ warped sense of humor to wickedly unfold.
Starting out with a bang, the season opens with a giant robot – who can’t stop belting out deadpan snippets of 80s pop tunes – laying waste to Sam and Max’s neighborhood. It turns out the big metal guy is a gift of holiday cheer sent from the North Pole where a demonically possessed Santa holed up in his workshop has taken to brandishing a semi-automatic weapon at anything that comes within a few paces of his dooryard. Needless to say, Sam and Max have their work cut out for them. From there, things get progressively stranger and subsequently funnier with each episodic installment. The duo faces portal-hopping madness with giant Maoi heads and volcanic end-time prophecies on sunny Easter Island, brain-eating zombie ravers led by a sitcom-loving goth vampire, alien abductions resulting in rips in the fabric of time and space, and a final showdown in the pits of corporate Hell against dark forces even more sinister and unholy than Satan himself.
Quite a few standout characters from the first season make return appearances alongside many new faces. All around, the excellent voice acting and punchy dialog remains as tight as ever, keeping the unruly cast of characters lively and entertaining. Though some locations from the first season are recycled, they’re re-used in intriguing ways, and each episode lays down enough new ground to keep things from getting stale. Other than a handful of minor graphical improvements, the series’ vibrant, cartoonish visual style remains intact.
Season Two introduces a handy, adjustable hint system. At any point in the game, you can tweak the frequency of hints; Max will respond by increasing or decreasing the intermittency of his helpful quips. Even though adventure game veterans may find the game’s tougher puzzles can be eventually worked through without any assistance at all, the hint system helps ward off frustration without completely giving everything away.
It’s hard to find something not to love about Sam & Max, but the rather antiquated nature of the point-and-click gameplay comes close. The main puzzles involve picking up anything and everything possible and using these found objects on various hotspots and characters. It’s a play mechanic PC adventure gamers tired of long ago, and the series brings nothing overly new to the table in this regard. The addition of a few more amusing minigames changes the routine up a bit, but this is something the developers could try to spice up in the coming season. Fortunately, the game’s humor-driven charisma and sheer wit makes up for its lack of innovation in this area.
Most of the episodes each take only a few hours to complete, yet the complete Season Two package offers a reasonable number of other perks for true Sam & Max fans. A nice selection of slick custom wallpapers let you deck out your desktop, the designer sketchbooks from Dave Grossman and Heather Logas provide an interesting peek into the creative process behind the series (and some insight into what could have happened this season), and the MP3 soundtracks lets you enjoy a sampling of the in-game tunes featured throughout the season – the über cheesy 80’s guitar rock action on “Radical!” is easily the high point of the tracks. If that’s not enough bonus content, popping the disc into a DVD player gives you access to hours of trailers, commentary, cinematics, outtakes, and other special footage.
With each new season, the Sam & Max series continues to build momentum and make steady gains. The humor and clever writing in Season Two is top-notch, even if the gameplay will be nothing new to most seasoned PC gamers. Another season of ridiculously entertaining detective episodes is coming right around the corner in 2009, and one can only imagine what new adventures will befall upon the unlikely heroes. In the meantime, there’s no excuse for passing up this quality collection.
Bottom Line: Season Two does little to improve on the traditional point-and-click style gameplay, but the laughs, absurdity, and quality writing just keep multiplying.
Recommendation: Buy it. The series’ impeccable style and off-kilter humor goes a long way.
This review is based on the DVD version of the game.
Nathan Meunier is a robot made of meat. He’s also a freelance writer with an unhealthy videogame obsession.