Based loosely on The Wire: Season Three.
Acronyms save time and lives. That’s a fact. Need to know if that man stumbling at the front of the bus is having a stroke? Think FAST (Face, Arm, Speech and Telephone). Is Grandma choking on her toffee sweets again? Time to call Dr ABC (Airway, Breathing and Circulation).
Want to play a point-and-click adventure game? Commit to memory the three Ps: Pixel hunting, Permutations and Psychological profiling.
Once patience and effort give way to frustration and curse words, most adventure game puzzles can be solved by clicking on absolutely everything on screen, taking and combining as many items as possible in every way possible and then using the bastard combinations on whatever remains in an attempt to crack the twisted logic of the game designer who constructed the Escher-esque lateral thinking puzzles in the first place.
The most striking and perhaps brilliant thing about Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse is that it is free from the three Ps.
I should say that Sam is a fedora-wearing six-foot dog and Max is a hyperkinetic rabbity thing. They fight crime.
Broadly speaking the main story across all five episodes concerns Max’s newly acquired psychic powers- the latest tool added to the Freelance Police already impressive arsenal of talking to people and using things on other things. Each episode, while hinging on a specific Toy of Power, is inspired in style, soundtrack and setting after various film genre.
The sci-fi infused opener The Penal Zone introduces Max’s myriad powers dealing mainly with his Future Vision. Providing a brief glimpse into an item or character’s future the puzzles are then to ensure or prevent such predictions from occurring.
Not only are these non-sequential puzzles supremely satisfying – delivering prophetic punch lines to obscure setups – but using it on Sam himself offers additional hints in the form of snipped premonitions. Between the dialogue hints and Sam’s notepad containing case details and suspect breakdowns, The Devil’s Playhouse errs on the safe side in terms of difficulty- which is to say the correct side. There are no use-cat-hair-to-make-fake-moustache difficult puzzles in the traditional psychotic sense and yet many are as fantastically bizarre in content.
I played the episodes during the season, that is to say with a month or so between episodes. You lack the time-travelling abilities to relive that but know that next time Telltale offer episodic releases it’s definitely worth trying. Each episode lasted me a good few hours played over a couple of evenings and once finished there was a nice cool off period till the release. They’re short, clever and didn’t outstay their welcome- had I waited and powered through all episodes one after the other I don’t know if it would’ve been as pleasurable.
Contrary to perceived notion of episodic gaming reusing assets and sets, the locations visited are surprisingly varied with Telltale themselves evidently in some sort of experimental phase.
The second episode, The Tomb of Sammun-Mak, chronicles the pairs’ great-grandfather’s turn-of-the-century escapade to Egypt. An epic adventure in four reels, the story is told through switching between reels in the projector and puzzles in an often non-chronological order. Navigating the episode itself becomes a puzzle.
They Stole Max’s Brain! was quite honestly amazing. The grainy opening has bad cop Sam stomping the streets in search of justice and brains against a soundscape of jazz and neon signs. Because Max’s life is on the line, the static dialogue tree is replaced with a more dynamic way of interrogating perps. As the suspects tell their tall stories, you choose when Sam should interject with either accusations of lying, further questioning as well as some good old fashioned police brutality. It’s used sparingly but to great effect with the more spontaneous and urgent line of questioning showcasing yet another way The Devil’s Playhouse avoids the three Ps.
[Hello? Is this thing on? I’ve travelled back in time from July 2011 to tell you that the above interrogation interlude, though far shorter, packs more of a punch than L.A. Noire. That is all I have to add. Let us return to the 2010 review in a time when everyone was moaning about Google Buzz and not gushing over Google+ -Future Craig]
Beyond the Alley of the Dolls and the finale The City That Dares Not Sleep take a surprisingly dark turn into B-movie and Lovecraftian horror. The latter two episodes are more traditional in nature and in that sense are less memorable in terms of puzzle solving and sort of blur together. At this point Max has the full set of psychic powers at his disposal so it remains an enjoyable if slightly flatter experience.
Inevitably, with puzzles involving psychic powers in an already absurdist world, there were a few times when I was being asked to jump the logic shark. But with all the support on offer you’ll find you’ve already been guided onto the motorboat in the water with the in-game hint system nudging you gently saying “Try jumping over that ramp over there, little buddy”. Need some more convincing? None of the puzzles are as contrived as that shark metaphor.
So when it comes time to gain the Egyptian overlord’s trust by transforming into a toaster and nutting a table of corndogs in a laser-quarium, it’s quite naturally the sensible thing to do. The characters are absurd, the world is warped but the logic is solid and dependable.
Most importantly, and top of my list but bottom of the review, is that The Devil’s Playhouse is damn funny. The dialogue is crisp, the sight-gags hit their mark and a lot of the humour is worked into the responses to both correct and incorrect actions- both the blessed and failed paths feel rewarding.
Like seeing a really good standup comedian I don’t remember many of the jokes but they were cleverer than anything you’ll get from those schmucks on QI or Mock the Week. This game is funnier than TV.
I came for the comedy and so I don’t mind the relative ease of The Devil’s Playhouse. If I wanted a truly challenging puzzle at the cost of being thoroughly entertained then there’s a perfectly good Rubik’s Cube down the back of my cupboard.