Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse Ep. 5 Review
It's been five months in the making, but with Sam & Max: The City That Dares Not Sleep, the latest Sam & Max adventure finally comes to its wacky conclusion. Since April, we've followed the five-episode series through space, into ancient tombs, across the naked city and even back and forth through time. After four globe-trotting, time-traveling episodes, there's only one place left for the series to go—inside the human—er...rabbit body. Episode five takes us inside Max, exploring the unsurprisingly loony inner reaches of our favorite wisecracking bunster.
At the end of episode four, Max was turned into a giant, tentacled monster and was wreaking havoc on New York. Episode five begins near funky Momma Bosco's lab where you're asked to search for solutions by navigating and talking to other characters with a simple point and click. Despite the limited play space, there are lots of folks to kibbutz with since Max's unexpected transformation into a hideous, city-eating colossus makes a perfect excuse for a dysfunctional family reunion. Girl Stinky, Grandpa Stinky, Skunkape, Momma Bosco, Monsieur Papierwaite, Lou the giant cockroach, Agent Superball and Satan all make at least a cameo appearance as Sam works to save his little buddy. The downside of the episode's compelling story idea is that while saving Max from himself is cool, making Max an objective rather than a playable character fails to add anything to the series' established gameplay and in fact, takes a good chunk away from it.
None of Max's psychic powers are available to you this time and so you're left using only the old-fashioned investigative techniques of interview and item collection. This makes for less-interesting puzzles than the ones seen in previous episodes (although it's admittedly interesting trying to figure out how to turn the de Soto into a giant corndog). The cleverest aspect of the story is that it sets most of the game inside Max's body. Like that old '60s movie Fantastic Voyage, Sam and a crack team of experts venture inside giant, nether-world Max and look for a way to gain control of him. Not surprisingly, Max's inner workings are pretty absurd, and the centers that control his arms, legs, brain and digestion are represented by things like game rooms, workout rooms, cluttered store rooms and most interestingly, a stylish mid-century living room.
Once you gain control of giant Max, you can use him to navigate (rather than decimate) the city, and revisit locations seen in previous episodes, such as the clone storage facility of Beyond the Alley of the Dolls. Ultimately, to achieve your objective, you'll have to confront General Skunkape and wrest the last remaining Devil's Toybox artifact—an anti-dark matter toy robot—from him. Despite being allowed to stomp across Manhattan like Godzilla on acid, episode five's gameplay is fairly limited, making the best reason for playing it (aside from seeing how the story ends) the writing. Hilarious writing has always been the franchise's strong point, and it continues in full force in The City That Dares Not Sleep. There are many laugh-out-loud exchanges between characters and for good or ill, you'll never be able to forget some of the characters' lines (the one that haunts me is “faster than you can shave a hobo's coinslot").
In addition to some of the best writing out there, you're sure to enjoy the awesome intro sequence with its spooky, Hitchcockian narrator and funky '70s cop show credit sequence. As evidenced by some of the series' salty dialog, Telltale obviously doesn't mind pushing the limits of the acceptable in games and one of the unexpected aspects of episode five is the addition of a pregnant character. No, not pregnant—PREGNANT. Dr. Sybil Pandemick (who somehow has managed to marry and couple with the Lincoln Memorial, a truly shudder-worthy mental image) looks ready to burst as she embarks on this Max-saving caper. I ask you—how many games would dare to feature a pregnant woman on a treadmill?
For the most part, The City That Dares Not Sleep is entertaining and fun. The only down side is that in comparison to the previous episodes in the series, it feels a bit shallow and short. Without Max in the mix, half the gameplay is gone and the demands of the story severely limit the sense of exploration. The episode can be played through in half the time of the previous ones and so when it's over, you're likely to be left feeling a bit let down. Even so, the episode represents a solid end to a rich, varied series that's lots of fun to play.