Hot off the heels of reviewing Season 2 of Sam & Max for the Nintendo Wii, I'm jumping into Season 3 of the continuing adventures of the Freelance Police with Episode 1 of Season 3 for the Sony PlayStation 3 (also available for PC, Mac, and Apple iPad, all available through digital distribution) available via the PlayStation Network. The first installment of The Devil's Playhouse — "The Penal Zone" — begins in media res with Sam and Max aboard the flagship of evil space gorilla General Skun'ka'pe. Our heroes must use Max's amazing new psychic powers to thwart the general and send him back to that interdimensional prison known as The Penal Zone. They won't be working alone, however, as various acquaintances the duo have met during past seasons such as Stinky, Grandpa Stinky, Harry Moleman, and the ghostly apparition of Doctor Momma Bosco will all pitch in and lend a hand in their own special ways. Humor and puzzle-solving come together in this amusingly captivating point-and-click (well, on the PS3 it's more tilt-the-control-stick-and-click) adventure.
"The Penal Zone" continues the great Sam & Max tradition of combining wacky situations with semi-challenging puzzles. As one would expect from a pair of animal detectives, Sam and Max spend most of their time questioning suspects and witnesses rather than engaging in combat or platforming stunts. Every character in the game has something to say, and only through talking to just about everybody will players be able to put the clues together and figure out how to send Skun'ka'pe (or, as Sam and Max derogatorily call him, Skunkape) back to the Penal Zone. Some characters (such as the Stinky clan) aren't helpful at all and require some finesse in order to extract information. Others like Doctor Momma Bosco are eager to assist. Navigating dialog trees is the order of the day here, as asking the right questions leads to proper responses that move the story along. Not following me? Check out this video clip of Sam and Max asking Grandpa Stinky a few questions about his new badge of honor.
Something new added to the mix this time around are Max's mysterious psychic powers. Armed with the Toys of Power, Max is able to see into the future, read the minds of people around him, teleport to any known telephone, transform himself into a real-world replica of any 2D image he sees, and read the nutritional content of people and unique objects nearby. Unfortunately, after being teased with these powers during the game's pre-credits prologue, Max spends the bulk of the game with only his future-gazing and teleportation skills available. Still, the two powers he retains are the most useful of all, as being able to see into the future allows players to see how puzzles can be solved. This is not as much of a gamebreaker as it sounds. For instance, a tantalizing passageway in the sewers is not immediately accessible. Looking into the future only reveals that Sam and Max will eventually be able to enter it, but does not show how to reach it. In response, Max muses that he can't wait to see how they manage to get over to it.
There's little not to like in "The Penal Zone", but I do have two minor gripes. A small few of the puzzles are bafflingly odd and require not only thinking outside the box, but unlearning behavior that the game has worked to train. Future-vision shows what will happen in the future, and lots of the early puzzles involve making those visions come true. One particular puzzle revolves around preventing a vision rather than forcing it to occur, so I spent far too long trying to find a way to make poor Flint Paper take a tomahawk to the head as Max predicted instead of giving him a hardhat for protection as was expected. The game pulls similar mind-twists in other ways as the story progresses, and while the eventual solutions do make sense, they're not really obvious things that I considered trying. My other issue is something that I mentioned when reviewing Season 2, Beyond Time and Space. After completing the game, there is little reason to replay it beyond picking up the stray joke or two one may have missed the first time around. There is a bonus psychic power granted early during a replay that has little bearing on events, but it is required in order to earn one of the PlayStation Trophies. It's a neat little addition, but ultimately it doesn't inspire me to replay the game all over again. Of course, being just a single episode out of five means that the experience doesn't last terribly long (I cleared it in just under four hours, frustrating roadblocks included), but I knew going in that this wasn't a magnum opus unto itself.
Little complaints aside, "The Penal Zone" is an entertaining and engaging start to what promises to be a fantastic season of Sam & Max. Fans of the genre will enjoy it and those who enjoy bizarre humor will chuckle the entire way through. Consider it recommended. New episodes are due each month, and thanks to the shocking cliffhanger that sets up the next installment, I'm eager for the story to continue.