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Sam & Max: The Penal Zone Review - Gameplay
For those new to the series, Sam & Max is a point and click adventure game based around the adventures of the “Freelance Police” officers, Sam and Max. You walk around their chaotic world full of eccentric characters and homages to try and solve cases by coming up with some creative solutions to weird puzzles.
This one actually has a fairly noticeable shift in gameplay thanks to a complete overhaul of the interface. It is now completely 3D. You maneuver around the new system for environments using either the WASD keys or by click and dragging the mouse around the screen. You still do the bulk of the game by clicking on interesting things though.
The other big change is that you can now swap into Max's view. More importantly, you can swap to Max's view and use his new psychic powers. The big puzzle for the series appears to be these strange magical toys that give powers to special people. For now, this means that Max gets some cool abilities. They've revealed four so far, only we only get brief access to two of them. Max gains the ability to teleport to any phone number that he knows, which is used for puzzles and fast travel in the world for when you don't want to walk to the Desoto. He has the power to use some magic silly putty to turn into anything in a picture. There are also some magic cards that let you read minds.
The big deal is the main object of the plot. The Eyes of Yog-Sogoth allow Max to see the future. This is used for some puzzles and also serves as a very useful in-game hint system. Usually looking at Sam with the eyes will show you some key component of the puzzle for the area. My only complaint is that there isn't a good division between the hint side and the crucial puzzle-solver side. It becomes habit to just look at everything in the world with the glasses, which significantly reduces the challenge of some puzzles. You can't ignore anything though, since some minor visions are the only things that advance the plot and make the puzzle solvable.
I'll let it slide though, since they're still working on it. It appears that there should be another three powers to be unlocked over the course of Season 3, since there are three empty spots left in Max's psychic wheel.
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I figure the puzzles deserve their own detailed spot. I didn't feel that any of the puzzles were that hard in The Penal Zone. I only had to look up help for one of them, which is pretty good for me. As I stated, the visions of the future serve as a very useful hint system.
The actual hint system is still there. I'm glad that they leave this in. For those who didn't play the second season, the hint system can be turned off or turn on all the way in the options section. It then keeps an eye on your gameplay. If you don't make progress for a little bit, either Sam or Max will usually tell you which area you need to look in or which person you need to talk to to advance the plot. I didn't feel these hints were that helpful though, especially since a few were apparently broken. Several times I was told to go check on puzzles that were already solved. The view finder/magic eyes are life savers though, so it balances out.
I will note that none of the puzzles feel as object heavy. You won't use your inventory much. The focus is primarily on using the powers and manipulating environments. It's actually kind of nice in hindsight, since object hunts are never the big seller for adventure games.
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Review of Sam & Max: The Penal Zone - Story
I won't say much about the story itself, since that would kinda ruin the point. There's about 4 hours of gameplay (3.9 according to Steam) assuming that you roughly follow my pace. I'll admit that the opening was a little rough. They pull a bit of an “In Medias Res” start by basically showing you the end of the game. It's mainly a tutorial, but it really wasn't a good starting point. I feel that it's better to just go through the motions until the game really starts off about 10 minutes in. I was actually pretty worried that they were going to continue with the jumping around and backward story telling, but they drop that right after the opening.
The rest is pretty good and par for the course. The voice acting is good and it seems like there is a bit more of a connection with the characters. They seem to actually be talking to one another, at least more than in some of the last games. With this better timing and the usual jokes, the story and exploration should keep you interested.
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The settings are pretty nice. I actually don't believe anything was recycled from last season. The office is still locked down, Stinky's Diner has been refurbished to look like it did in the original game, Sybil's gone and Bosco's store is closed while he's away in Vegas.
They're all quite nice with lots of interactive objects for some extra jokes. That's always been the main point of these games anyway. In short, the areas are done well. My only real complaint is that there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for having Mama Bosco's “Bosco Tech” location on a separate street. They somewhat lampshade this, by saying that “not everything happens on your street.” I guess it makes sense to break up the action a bit, but having to drive there every time I had to backtrack was a little annoying. This gets solved once you learn the teleport activity, so I think they were aware of this.
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The graphics are alright. You don't really play an adventure game for the graphics. They're fairly crisp and look good. The animations actually look much more fluid than in the first two series, and it's a nice improvement. There's really not much else to say. The characters, locations and items are very creative with a lot of little details. I'm sure that any old fan will be happy.
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This one won't be much of a grind on your computer. It just needs a 2.0 GHz processor, 1 gig of RAM, and a 128MB video card. I played this on my XPS with 2.6 GHz dual processors, 3 gig of RAM, and an Nvidia 8700M GT. I actually had some trouble. Graphics quality “9” was too much. I had to turn it down to “6” to have a steady game. I believe there have been some optimization issues. You don't lose much by decreasing quality though, so it's not a big deal.
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Overall Review - Sam & Max Episode 301: The Penal Zone
Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse seems to be off to a good start with The Penal Zone. The characters are still funny, the voice acting is good, the jokes are pretty fresh and the game still has a lot of charm. The new interface will probably throw you for a loop for a bit, but you should get used to it quickly.
It's a fun game for old fans. New fans shouldn't feel like they have to play the old ones first though. There are a few in-jokes, but you should be able to pick up most of the stuff quickly. They even introduce characters with little game cards to catch you up.
So, this probably isn't a game changer for the series. It's more of the same good stuff that the last two seasons provided. I'm really looking forward to the second episode.