The end of the previous Sam & Max episode concluded with the revelation that someone had carved Max's brain out of his rabbity skull and absconded with it, leaving poor Sam in the company of a hollowed-out lifeless shell. What's a freelance police dog to do? The third episode of The Devil's Playhouse — "They Stole Max's Brain!" for the PC, Mac, iPad, and Sony PlayStation 3 from Telltale Games — mixes up the formula again as Sam acts solo to recover his buddy's missing gray matter and take revenge against whomever took off with it in the first place. There are some interesting twists in this episode that set it apart from the last two installments, several clever puzzles that are very satisfying to solve, and, of course, a healthy dose of subversive humor.
"They Stole Max's Brain!" is divided into three acts, each of which plays differently than the last. The story opens as Sam takes to the streets alone in a gritty noir adventure in which he rounds up suspects who may know something about the theft and interrogates them. Dialogue trees are the order of the day again, although this time the replies that Sam receives during questioning change depending on when the player initiates Sam's response. Accusing someone of lying at just the right time may cause them to confess, for instance, while threatening someone with Sam's gun at a bad time leads to the suspect scoffing at Sam's directness. Sometimes a suspect will only crack if Sam has actual conclusive evidence against him. For fun (and a PlayStation Trophy if done enough times), Sam can switch into a noir-style monologue that depresses those around him. The puzzles in this act primarily revolve around questioning the right people (and critters) with the right responses at the right time. It's a sequence puzzle, basically, but the jokes take center stage over the logic quandaries. Here's the first ten minutes of Act 1 courtesy of Stedal1978 where you can see the interrogation sequences in action:
Act 2 takes things up a notch as Sam locates the thief: General Skun-ka'pe, the space gorilla from "The Penal Zone" who has broken free from his interstellar prison. The general has teamed up with the villain from "The Tomb of Sammun-Mak", the mysteriously ageless Paiperwaite, for a decidedly evil plan. Stealing Max's special brain is only one phase. Sam must explore their museum hideout and work from behind the scenes to break up the alliance. Along the way Sam picks up a new brain to put in Max's body: the brain of a young pharaoh stored in the museum's Egypt exhibit. Alive again, the pharaoh is glad to help Sam recover Max's brain, and as it turns out, the pharaoh can also use the psychic toys from previous episodes of The Devil's Playhouse. Once again, magical powers such as future vision and teleportation must be used to move forward. This brings me to one particular puzzle I want to highlight, as solving it was very satisfying.
Without giving too much away, the basic setup is that Sam needs to make one of Skun-ka'pe's guards attack one of Paiperwaite's museum security guard employees (a large roach named Sal that is channeling Patrick Warburton as Seinfeid's David Puddy). Using the tools at hand, the game hints that the employee will intervene if a beast attacks a city. The trick is to use the Rhinoplasty psychic toy to transform the pharaoh-in-Max into a model of an ancient city based on blueprints from Paiperwaite's office, then approach the guard with it. The guard will be spooked by the talking city, leading him to shoot it. This leads to the employee acting against the guard. I'm simplifying the sequence of events and leaving out a few steps so as not to completely spoil the experience, but when I think back on the puzzles of "They Stole Max's Brain!", it's this one that I remember the most. It was easy to see how all of the pieces were needed, but not quite how they properly fit together right away. My brain tingled as I put it all together, and I love it when that happens.
Not all puzzles are so evidently solved, sadly. Consider the sequence of events in Act 3 that are needed to force a gambling rat to give up his credit card. While I had a vague idea of what had to happen, there were too many possible ways to solve the puzzle that seemed to be the correct solution. The actual answer makes sense in context of the story, but is such an example of radically outside-the-box thinking that I'd never even considered it. In fact, so many of the puzzles in Act 3 intersect in strange ways that I declared myself officially stumped after several hours and resorted to a handy walkthrough guide in order to move forward. I love a good logic challenge, but the solutions in Act 3 went above and beyond what I consider to be fair game.
Despite Act 3's burying of the needle on the challenge meter, "They Stole Max's Brain!" is the strongest episode of The Devil's Playhouse yet, and I have to laud Telltale for presenting a story that manages to tie the loose ends from "The Penal Zone" to the seemingly off-topic detour of "The Tomb of Sammun-Mak" into a well-crafted narrative. I'm fully invested in the characters at this point and eager to see what the penultimate episode, "Beyond the Alley of the Dolls", has in store for our unlikely heroes. Consider "They Stole Max's Brain!" recommended, although you really ought to play the previous two episodes first in order to get the most out of the experience. Anyone who has been following the episodes one after the next will surely enjoy this midpoint of The Devil's Playhouse.