Each of Season One’s six episodes are cut from a traditional adventure game cloth. The whole experience is mouse driven; click somewhere on the ground, and Sam will walk there; click on the dozens of labelled items in a room, and he’ll either quip about it or pick it up so that it can be used in a puzzle. Using items from your inventory is similarly simple; simply click a box on-screen, select an item, and select who or what you want to use it with. You’ll be using this simple interface to interact with a select but fully fleshed-out group of off-the-wall characters and to solve all sorts of wacky puzzles.
Technically, any of the six episodes can be played stand-alone, but only the first three episodes – Culture Shock, Situation: Comedy, and The Mole, The Mob and the Meatball – are really independent enough to be taken completely on their own merits. In this first half of Season One, you’ll be taking on the washed-up 1970s child stars known as the Soda Poppers; a crazed Oprah-like talk show host who has been holding her audience hostage for days on end; and the Toy Mafia, made men who happen to wear giant teddy bear suits. As you take on these cases, you’ll notice that each of the villains is somehow affected by or perpetuating a form of hypnosis; indeed, that happens to be the common thread that ties the entire season together.
Each of these opening episodes takes place primarily on the street that holds Sam and Max’s office; Bosco’s Inconvenience, a corner store run by a crazed, conspiracy-obsessed owner; and Sybil’s, owned by a woman of the same name who conveniently changes jobs each episode to somehow assist you in your case. After some preliminary investigation and item collecting, the second half of a given episode typically takes you to a specific location that won’t be visited in the others; for example, a Casino in episode three.
There is definitely a point where the same old tiny street you’ve been frequenting for the majority of all six episodes begins to get monotonous. Luckily, just as you start to grow tired of exploring the same three cramped locations on your street, the second half of the season – Abe Lincoln Must Die!, Reality 2.0, and The Bright Side of the Moon – takes over and provides more substantial and interesting sidetracks from Sam and Max’s stomping grounds. In these last three episodes, you’ll be visiting the White House, a virtual reality massively multiplayer game, and the lunar surface. These episodes are also more captivating because they tie back old friends and villains; there are also all kinds of throwbacks to previous episodes while still consistently hitting players with new material. Of course, this means you’ll need to already be familiar with the rest of the season leading up to these episodes – especially for the last two in the season – but if you’re a fan of this style of gameplay, it won’t take long for you to get wrapped up in the comic insanity.
This is mostly due to consistently sharp, witty, and very funny dialogue. It’s not very often that a game can really come off as being genuinely comical; but rest assured there are some hysterical moments spread out across season one – like the ‘Hot Rump’ in Reality 2.0 or the song a group of Secret Service agents sing you at the White House in Abe Lincoln Must Die!. Even when the game isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, it’s almost always clever; the ending to the season’s fifth episode, in particular, is very sharp and will have long-time adventure game fans grinning to eternity. Things like the season-long send-up of the Church of Scientology – called Prismatology in the game – feel like easy targets, but the jokes still work. The dialogue matches the quality of the gags, and you’ll find everything from overly intricate Sam Spade-style exclamations (“Holy saints a plenty riding side-wise on a Candy pink fat boy!”) all the way to references from Jonathon Swift’s 18th Century masterwork, Gulliver’s Travels.
The puzzles are also intelligent and fun, and although they are often too easy, they are all worked into the story’s context well and are rarely too obscure as to escape logic. They also scale well; in Episode One, you’ll be dropping bowling balls out of windows to knock child stars out of hypnosis, but by the time you reach the final episode, you’ll be using talismans to make characters throw up items you’ll need to put a stop to the final villain once and for all.
In an effort to get the now-obscure adventure genre on as many hard drives as possible, Telltale has engineered Sam and Max to be low on processing demands and high on charm; a 1.5 GHz system with 512 MB of RAM will easily be able to get a good performance out of Season One. The game looks like a cartoon, with most characters sporting lots of smooth, uniform textures, and the game makes no use of cutting edge shader or bump mapping technology or anything like that. But the look works perfectly for the game, and everyone is comically exaggerated to just the right degree. Reality 2.0 introduces some great, neon-lit virtual reality effects that give a great change of pace to the season, also.
The audio fits the style of the game even better. The game’s voice acting is uniformly fantastic; luckily, Sam and Max have received extra special attention to make sure each line is delivered with sublime timing and an infectious fervour. The person who voices Max in Episode One is swapped for a new one for the rest of the season, but it’s really not too big a deal. To underscore the comic mayhem, composer Jared Emerson-Johnson has crafted hours of original music that mix in familiar, goofy-sounding scales found in the fondest of one’s cartoon memories and blends them into strong, confident jazz tunes straight out of a detective story. The synthesis is quite unlike any other game soundtrack heard in recent years, and is really a treat.
Overall, Sam and Max can definitely feel overly familiar if played in long stretches; after all, the six episodes of Season One were originally intended to be played about a month apart from each other. Under that format, the repeating environments and quips are a little easier to swallow. But it still works very well as a whole, so don’t let that stop you from experiencing one of the most clever games of this year, a vastly appealing mixture of pop-culture, razor-sharp dialogue, and some truly inspired puzzles.