Sam & Max Episode 1: Culture Shock Reader Review
Gamers feared the worst for point-and-click adventures; I feared the worst for LucasArts. I fondly remember the Amiga era with the Monkey Islands, Indianna Jones and other adventures, but after then there seemed to be a draught of funny games. As a consequence, I shifted away from adventure to the consoles and then to the action 3D worlds of the PC. So I was especially glad to find LucasArts back with more adventure games and retaining the unique and fantastical humour that made it all so enjoyable in the form of Grim Fandango and reviving Monkey Island. And in all cases, the puzzles were great and logical, needing you to examine the interactive items on-screen and thinking about the conclusion that needs to happen. Then it's just a case of recognising the dots and joining the whole thing together. So anyone who's anyone who likes LucasArts adventure games were likely to have been extremely pleased that Sam and Max were freelancing some more, but in 3D.
And then the news that it had been canned was a bastard, although with such little information given the to gaming public I suppose there didn't seem to be much of a loss. But now it's time to rejoice as Telltale games have taken the reins and are launching not one, but six Sam and Max games. Okay, yes, they are pretty much bite-size in comparison to what adventure games usually are, but what it does is actually quite wonderful.
Firstly, it's episodic in form. Short, three to six hours of gaming pleasure with a few locations that allow the player to properly examine their surroundings and know the areas of interest inside-out. You might well revisit the locations a number of times throughout the game, and ultimately it's a benefit as you'll remember things that will help you complete the puzzles. And because it's episodic, in the next episode you'll have learnt most of the room's furnishings and can spy out the new items, saving you time and allowing you to go out adventuring in new locales. Furthermore, the fact that Telltale are saying 'Sam and Max Season 1' makes for fantastic news with the potential for a second season. And a third. And a fourth. And...
Having these games nice and short allows for us gamers to actually feel good from completing them as well as having something to look forward to. Yes, we'll be able to complete each episode in a single (albeit fairly lengthy) sitting and have to wait for the next one, but then it's kind of like television programmes, only with a longer waiting period. But at least they are actually coming out and are good (unlike some episodic Sin games I could mention). Three episodes have been launched, the fourth is destined for release on 22nd February 2007, leaving just a couple more to complete the season. Fantastic, really - probably an average of four hours each, six of them, making 24-hours of gameplay for a modest sum of $35 (£20-ish). Now you can't tell me that that's not worthwhile.
Secondly, the comic is still very much there. It's not full-blown comedy, but funny very much in a comic fashion (which no doubt comes from its roots of being a comic - that was something I didn't know before this new release). We all know that the secret of comedy is timing, and that is something that's difficult to reproduce in games where you control the set-up situations and there is a complete removal of any possible timing. With Sam and Max, the fun generally only comes from the pre-determined, scripted sequences following interactions and puzzle solutions, but there are a number of humorous quips between the two that will make you smile and, at times, give out a little gaffaw. It's certainly not a laugh a minute, and maybe I've seen so many comedies since my last outing with a LucasArts adventure that it's not as funny as their previous games, but I can't deny that it's not funny or at least enjoyable through and through.
And thirdly, the puzzles. No LucasArts point-and-click adventure game can be complete without ingenious and fiendishly logical puzzles. I mean, seriously, all you need to do is think about your situation, your wanted outcome, your inventory, and then that's it. Maybe you'll need to be in a different place to complete your puzzle, but because you've no doubt already looked about all the locales (as mentioned above) and know what can and can't help, then you'll know what to do next. Well, most of the time anyway. But because there's such a great feeling from beating the designer's logic (which doesn't stray into the illogical given the surreal nature of the game), you don't mind getting stuck every-so-often. There's certainly no fun in being able to beat the game without geting stuck because you kind of expect from such genres to be flummoxed at times, and to not be means either you're too good or the designers have failed. And more often than not, it'll be the latter. For me, it's nether - the puzzles are pretty much perfect.
I don't think that I'll be reviewing each episode, mainly because they are short but also because it's an adventure puzzle game from a well-known background (and if you don't know Sam and Max, go get their previous outing 'Sam and Max: Hit the Road'), and there's not much to tell without giving away solutions. I will say, having played Culture Shock and the second episode Situation Comedy, that there is (or seems to be) a story running through the episodes and thus Season 1 (my hunch will be confirmed from the third episode, waiting for me to play). Whether it concludes with Season 1, I don't know. Hopefully not, as it'll be good to see a different setting for the duo's next collection of stories, and allows the designers freedom in story-telling by not being tied to one lenghty (and potentially fatally stretched out and diluted) storyline. Season by season storylines would actually be rather spiffing.
Culture Shock (and the following Situation Comedy) shows that episodic gaming can work and doesn't rip people off, just so long as it comes out at regular intervals and is priced properly (£1 an hour for some classic gaming pleasure is far from being ripped off, especially in this day of next-gen £50-a-shot gaming scene). And if that's not good enough, you'll get a physical disc of the complete season, fully boxed and all that jazz that normally comes from shop purchase. Wonderful.
Ah, Sam and Max, you crack me up, little buddy.