When Strong Bad made his episodic-gaming debut last month in Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People: Homestar Ruiner, his signature sense of humor was stretched disappointingly thin across the open-ended structure of the game. The second episode, Strong Badia the Free, has a more linear layout that not only makes for better gameplay, but allows the humor to get a foothold as well. These improvements make this adventure game both funnier and more fun than its predecessor.
Civil unrest flares up in Free Country, USA as the King of Town levies the kind of unfair taxes that make honest men dress up and throw midnight tea parties. Strong Bad lights the powder keg of revolution, and the land is soon splintered into a number of republics ruled by various familiar characters. As you struggle to unite the disparate factions under the serpent & tire flag of Strong Badia, you'll make your way through different areas and try to win over each newly minted monarch. To assimilate each territory, you'll have to find a few key items and figure out how to use them to persuade, intimidate, or bamboozle each unique ruler. The solutions are generally well hinted at, but you'll still chuckle happily upon reaching them. You have to complete certain areas before proceeding to others, and this progression creates a much-needed sense of pace that helps keep point-and-click fatigue at bay.
The story and structure provide the backbone of the game, and this support puts less pressure on the humor to carry the show. Whereas the first episode faltered by trying to squeeze new laughs out of a worn-out plot (Strong Bad messes with Homestar...again!), the second episode succeeds by creating a self-contained new plot. No longer forced to prop up weak gameplay, the jokes seem to find better places to fit in, and some of the lost comedic pacing is restored. Characters such as Strong Mad and Homsar create surprisingly amusing nations, and even the 8-bit FunMachine minigame (Math Kickers, featuring the Algebros) offers some entertainment value. Some tired jokes are still tired, but there's enough organic, well-wrought humor here to make you laugh often.
It's immensely heartening to see that improvements have been made on the subpar first episode, and it makes the future of this series look brighter. Developer Telltale Games seems much more on point this time around, and even adds a few nice presentation flourishes (like the triumphant WWII newsreels). There are still some disappointments--notably the lackluster final challenge--but Strong Badia the Free gets most of the important stuff right. It ends up feeling more like a proper game than a cash-in attempt, and should earn a look from anyone interested in a few hours of lighthearted adventuring.