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Mini-Review: Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse - Episode 4: "Beyond The Alley Of The Dolls"

PaiperwaiteWe're headed into the home stretch of Season 3 of Sam & Max, and the penultimate episode — "Beyond The Alley Of The Dolls" from Telltale Games for the Sony PlayStation 3, PC, and Apple iPad  — picks up with our heroes (and the villainous General Skun-ka'pe) on the run from a rampaging army of mindless, half-naked Sam clones that suddenly appeared at the conclusion of the previous episode.  Where did these Samulacra dogglegangers come from?  What do they want?  And will they ever put on some pants?  The main mysteries of The Devil's Playhouse wrap up during this adventure with loose ends tied off, nagging questions answered, and dead characters revived.  This fourth episode falls back into the design of the season's first episode, "The Penal Zone", as Sam and Max are back together once again at last.  The first act finds them barricaded inside Stinky's diner.  The clones are sweeping the city in search of the Toys of Power (which, as you'll recall, give those with special brains mysterious psychic powers) at the behest of their unseen master.  As the game progresses, Sam and Max will escape the diner, unmask the master of the clones, discover the oddly ageless Paiperwaite's embarrassing secret, catch up with Sal at his new job, reconnect with the ghost of Doctor Momma Bosco, meet Dr. Norrington at last, ease Harry Moleman's pain, debrief with Agent Superball, travel to other dimensions, and predict the ultimate fate of the Bluster Blaster arcade machine (it's "totally awesome!!!").

If you've been following along with my other mini-reviews of this season's episodes, then you're basically up to speed on what to expect from this installment. Our heroes progress by searching for clues to the identity of the force behind the clones. Puzzles are solved by questioning suspects and witnesses as well as collecting key items to use at the right place and time. Max's amazing psychic powers are back in play as he rounds up more of the Toys of Power; in fact, Max wields more of the toys in this episode than ever before.  Here's the first nine minutes and change of "Beyond the Alley of the Dolls" courtesy of Stedal1978 for a taste of the action:

Thanks to the attack of the clones, Sam and Max spend most of their time reacting to the dangers around them rather than exploring at their own pace.  This gives the puzzle sequences more of a rushed feeling, although the actual pace at which one can play is still as relaxed as ever.  While there may seem to be a ticking clock at work, the impending doom actually stays at bay until the story requires it to advance.  Consider the final boss battle, for instance.  It comes off as a frantic sequence of events that can actually drag on for as long as the player wants.  The threat waits for the player to figure out the proper solution and even offers helpful clues when a wrong selection is made, and the sense of urgency is outright false once one realizes this.

Beyond The Alley Of The DollsThe puzzles this time around are not as satisfying as the last episode's quandaries (several appear to be unsolvable dead ends at first, second, and third glances; I'm looking at you, trial and error while searching for the Cthonic Destroyer), but the level of humor makes up for that. Now that our heroes are teamed traditionally again, there's plenty of opportunities for amusing banter and backtalk. My favorite moment came when Sam showed concern for where Max's amazing psychic powers would eventually lead him, to which Max quips that he promises to take Sam with him when he "merges with the godhead". Other hilarious moments include Max attempting to read Agent Superball's mind, Sam tempting Skun-ka'pe with some Banang, Sal discovering the meaning of gravity, and a future vision interpretation of Sam's final destiny (it involves being swallowed alive by a giant Max).

It's becoming difficult to find new ways to offer the same praise for each episode of The Devil's Playhouse. "Beyond the Alley of the Dolls" continues the trend of fantastic episodes in a series packed with great moments and fun dialog, and if I haven't convinced you after four episodes of the series that it's something you should experience, I'm not sure what else I can do for you. With the ongoing plot seemingly resolved, this episode's cliffhanger seems to be guiding us into a stand-alone finale in "The City That Dares Not Sleep", but I'm betting that there's more than meets the eye going on here. Next time when the season concludes we'll take a look back to explore how all five episodes fit together effectively and judge where The Devil's Playhouse went right and wrong as a whole.