Previously thought to be something of a moribund genre, graphic adventure games have seen a surprising resurgence of late. Classic titles are being re-issued on a variety of platforms, sometimes with glossy new visuals, and in many cases are even spawning brand new releases. For well over a decade, LucasArts and their SCUMM engine stood proudly at the helm of adventure gaming, releasing title after title and delighting fans with offbeat humor and brain-twisting puzzles.
But as the ’90s turned the corner into the new millennium, the advent of more powerful computers and the birth of online play as we know it today began to see PC gamers shift away from the once-loved genre. Several titles floundered in development hell or were simply outright canceled. One such casualty was Sam & Max: Freelance Police. This planned sequel to Sam & Max Hit The Road would have taken the series from its SCUMM-powered origins into unexplored territory for everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic dog and hyperkinetic rabbity thing duo – the world of full 3D graphics. This, however, was not to be. In a move hailed by many as the death knell for the graphic adventure genre, Sam & Max: Freelance Police was canceled out of the blue by LucasArts in 2004.
Thankfully, companies like Telltale Games, formed by a group of laid-off Freelance Police team members, kept the flame alive through these dark times. When LucasArts’ license for the Sam & Max series ran out in 2005, Telltale resumed work on the game, now scheduled to be delivered episodically under the title Sam & Max: Season One. The first episode released in late 2006 and the subsequent full season has since seen release on the Wii and, most recently, Xbox Live Arcade, which is the version we’re here to review today.
As stated previously, Sam & Max Save The World – as the first season was recently re-titled – is the story of the eponymous duo, self-styled “Freelance Police”, who end up caught in the midst of a global domination conspiracy involving mass hypnotism (isn’t that always the way?). The game is presented as a series of six episodes, which can be played in any order. I would strongly recommend against it, however, as this would make the storyline nigh-incomprehensible. This isn’t to say that the story is rich, complex, and thought-provoking – it’s surreal slapstick, for pity’s sake – but the majority of the self-referential jokes would be lost on the player and its bizarre cast of re-occurring characters would be like strangers… and they’re already strange enough, believe me! I assume the collection was structured this way so that if a player got stuck on a particular puzzle, they could skip ahead to the next episode with only a minimal loss in the narrative. But in this age of readily available online FAQs, who gets stuck on adventure games anymore? Just take our word for it; tackle the episodes in order with no skipping ahead to see how the story ends, okay?
The run-down city block containing Sam & Max’s office brownstone serves as a hub from which each chapter of the hypnotism conspiracy gradually unfolds. The other mainstay features are the offices of former tattoo artist, Sybil Pandemik (who now flits from job to job with the speed of a hummingbird on methamphetamines) and the “inconvenience” store of the paranoid, yet good-hearted conspiracy theorist, Bosco. A secondary area for each chapter, ranging from a television studio to the White House to the moon itself, are accessed via the duo’s old DeSoto convertible.
The interface is simple but functional and only suffers from a couple of minor issues, which we’ll get to later. You control Sam with a pointer, clicking on locations to move to them and objects/characters to interact with them, while Max more or less trails gleefully along behind you. A cardboard box at the bottom of the screen serves as your on-screen inventory, full of whatever junk you’ve accumulated along your way. Oh, and also your gun. Probably a good thing to remember where that is, huh? It’s also important to bear in mind that pretty much everything you pick up will be used to solve one of the game’s puzzles in some fashion or other. However, since it’s not like you can drop or throw away items, this is more of a reminder to you that no matter how odd or bizarre an item may be, it’ll get used somewhere.
And this is one of the nice things about the puzzles in Sam & Max. Adventure games have a bit of a reputation for requiring spurious leaps of logic that few sane individuals would experience outside the throes of sleep deprivation. Being a relative adventure game virgin, I found myself only having to consult a walkthrough twice during the entire game when I reached points where I literally could not solve a puzzle… and then both times promptly felt like an idiot because the solution was something I should have been able to figure out. However, do keep in mind that what may be a seemingly innocuous piece of set dressing in one chapter could be crucial to solving a puzzle farther down the road, so don’t be afraid to click objects you already examined in previous episodes.
One of Sam & Max’s series trademarks is the offbeat humor. This is one aspect I was especially looking forward to, being a fan of the absurd and surreal. However, I was strangely put off by the script and jokes… at least initially. In the early stages of the first chapter, the humor came off to me as forced, feeling like it was written by that one unfortunate friend everyone has who thinks he’s Mankind’s Gift to Comedy while actually being about as funny as unanesthetized root canal. I groaned inwardly and steeled myself to slog through the next six chapters in pain.
But then a funny thing happened. I caught myself smirking and then occasionally snickering. The game’s particular brand of humor apparently was just slow to take root with me, but before long I was happily along for the ride. From that point on, everything felt in place – as in place as things can be in a world where an animated statue of Abe Lincoln runs for president against an amoral talking rabbit with a penchant for hyperviolence.
There were only some small speedbumps to the enjoyment. Sometimes a particular line of dialog would fail to play when selected, leaving Sam either mouthing a sentence silently or just skipping straight to the response. This seemed to happen on the same lines over and again, making me assume either an audio file went missing or something got tweaked by accident in the port, but it didn’t mar the overall experience. Also, an option to fast-travel around the map would have been nice as the engine’s movement mechanic was a bit clunky on an Xbox controller, leaving you setting your pointer on the far edge of the screen and rapidly clicking to keep Sam moving in one direction. Lastly, an integrated hint system seems like it should be standard in adventure games by now. You can chat Max up to get a vague indication of what to do next, but it doesn’t always help and sometimes you just want a firmer nudge in the right direction, as opposed to being forced to consult GameFAQs.
All-in-all, Sam & Max Save The World is an enjoyable entry into a genre that is doing its best to pull off a John Travolta or Mickey Rourke-level career revival and, as near as we can tell, apparently succeeding. Its length-to-price value proposition is just about perfect and the pacing is pretty decent, with only a few bumpy spots. The “Abe Lincoln Must Die!” and “Reality 2.0″ chapters stand out as the high points of entire package. Old-school adventure game fans will probably just buy this outright and those discovering the genre for the first time should at the very least give the game’s demo a look.
Things We Liked: Quirky sense of humor. Bite-sized pacing. Getting the animated stone head of Abe Lincoln to make a booty call.
Things We Disliked: Minor control issues. Small technical glitches.
Target Audience: Grizzled adventure game vets looking for something light and fun. Newcomers looking for a soft intro to the genre. Furries.