Sam & Max: The Devil's Playground Ep. 4 Review
Since opening in 2004, Telltale Games has made quite a name for itself in the episodic adventure arena. One of the main reasons for the company's success is the Sam & Max franchise, which has lately been revitalized by The Devil's Playhouse, an innovative five episode series that has Sam & Max chasing down a dangerous artifact called the Devil's Toybox. This month sees the release of the fourth hilarious episode, Beyond the Alley of the Dolls, which unfortunately, spends less time innovating and more time revisiting established characters and gameplay concepts.
Throughout the series, our favorite Freelance Police have been led on a merry chase by the elusive Devil's Toybox, which when filled with its complete collection of infernal toys, has the power to destroy the world. Thus far in the story, our heroes have been imprisoned by a power-mad space gorilla, raided an ancient Egyptian tomb, outsmarted Santa and his elves and had Max's brain stolen right out of his head. Having survived all that, in Alley of the Dolls, their pursuit of the Toybox is further thwarted by an army of mindless, half-naked Sam zombies (Samulacra? Dogglegangers?) and it's all Sam & Max can do to avoid being killed by these gold-shorts-wearing-clones long enough to find out where they came from.
The game starts with Sam & Max holed up in Stinky's Diner, surrounded by Samulacra (Dogglegangers!). They're not alone; trapped with them is grizzled diner owner, the vaguely piratey Grandpa Stinky and his lazy, text-message-obsessed granddaughter, Girl Stinky. In this environment, you're confronted with a classic adventure game challenge—escape from a closed room using only what's at hand. Sam's ingenuity and Max's psychic powers are put to good use here as they work together to find a way out of the seemingly inescapable greasy spoon. This cooperation is a strong hint at things to come since throughout the game, Sam & Max are asked to solve puzzles that require them to work in tandem.
Once the duo escapes from the diner, they set out to discover who's trying to undermine them with the mob of dog zombies. Their search takes them back to places like Monsieur Papierwaite's office at the museum, to a grungy urban warehouse to chat with Sal the giant cockroach, and to an unknown super-villain's secret lab. The usual approach is required here as Sam interviews various suspects and Max lends a hand by making sarcastic remarks in between using his psychic powers to read people's minds, throw his voice or see into the future. While the gameplay in Alley of the Dolls is still fun, it's noticeably less inventive than that of previous episodes. The Penal Zone had a power-hungry space gorilla,Sammun Mak had time travel and some great visual gags;Max's Brain had a memorable film noir-ish approach—Alley of the Dolls by comparison, is fairly straightforward, both aesthetically and gameplay-wise, and that feels like a step backwards.
We see the return of favorite characters Skun'ka'pe, Monsieur Papierwaite and Sal, as well as more clever puzzle design that makes good use of Max's psychic powers. However, some of the puzzles fall into the tedium zone, requiring a goodly amount of trial and error—one in particular requires you to play through it again and again and again just to see the effects of your actions. In addition to this, one or two puzzles also require you to jump a bit of a logic gap and the last, episode-ending puzzle may leave more than a few gamers scratching their heads. If the puzzle design is uneven and the gameplay as a result feels a little on the ho-hum side, we might hope the art would make up for it. Alas, it doesn't. The settings in Alley of the Dolls just aren't as interesting as the ones in previous episodes. There are no mystery trains or ancient tombs or turn-of-the-century city blocks here. Thankfully, the characterization and voice acting are still great, and the writing's as amusing as always.
The Devil's Playhouse series has thus far been overall, of high quality. The first three chapters have offered up mostly the good and a tad of the not-so-good—the good being some classic Sam & Max humor and some interesting new twists on adventure gameplay, and the less good being some repetitious puzzles and unpolished graphics. Alley of the Dolls represents a still-funny but less creative chapter in the series that for some will feel more like a stepping-stone to the finale than a worthwhile chapter in itself. Of course, it does manage to end fairly spectacularly, and with an intriguing nod toward the fifth and final chapter. In spite of the relatively low drama of Alley of the Dolls, Devil's Playhouse fans should keep the faith and keep playing—especially since we're only a few weeks away from the final chapter.