Version tested: PC
And so the second episodic adventure with Sam & Max comes to a close. The final episode - What's New, Beelzebub? - is very much of a piece with the previous entries in this season. That's to say that it's exquisitely written, packed with some of the best humour ever seen in games, but curiously disappointing as an actual game.
There's no faulting the presentation, the only persistent technical grumble is some sluggish loading times, but the criticisms have become wearily familiar over the past few months. Once again the action revolves around the same old street, with a few remote locations to jaunt between. This time it's Hell, with the Freelance Police entering the underworld to rescue the souls of all the characters who have died during the season. Of course, this means that pretty much everyone to have crossed their path gets to come back, including Hugh Bliss, Brady Culture and Santa Claus, and there are also some brief excursions to miniaturised locations from episodes past.
What is more troublesome is how routine the actual gameplay has become. With that in mind, rather than simply reiterating the same praise and criticism for the final episode, consider this a look back at the season as a whole, how the episodic format is working out, and the implications it has for gameplay.
Telltale deserves plenty of praise for being arguably the first commercial developer/publisher to actually deliver on the episodic gaming promise. Each new chapter arrives on time, every month, for a very reasonable price - which is more than most have managed. The storyline may have wandered a little to begin with, but the past few episodes have drawn together the various plot threads in a mostly satisfying way. There'll inevitably be some groans at the big reveal as to who's been behind this season's skulduggery, and the way the earlier episodes are roped into the larger story isn't entirely convincing, but it holds together a lot better than most game storylines.
But the point-and-click genre is one mired in convention, and the Sam & Max revival has fallen awkwardly in the middle of where the genre has been and where it needs to go in the future. One of the recurring complaints - from me, anyway - is that the episodes seem to be getting easier. This is certainly true of the final chapter which, while slightly longer than its predecessors, is no more challenging. There are a couple of puzzles that will slow you down, but even then it's generally a case of knowing very quickly what needs to be done but struggling to figure out how.
Now, I've never been an expert at point-and-clickers. It's a genre I have a lot of affection for, but I'm not ashamed to say that I often had a magazine tips section to hand when working through Monkey Island 2 or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Sam & Max, 2008 edition, seems to go out of its way to avoid the sort of obtuse solutions that used to typify the genre - which is good - but doesn't seem to have found a balance between testing the player and coaxing them through to the next episode. A few hours of gameplay is fine for a game delivered in this fashion, but only if those hours feel substantial as both a game and a story.
This is compounded by the necessarily small play areas and limited inventories of the episodic format, and then compounded further still by the fact that, by now, anyone familiar with the Sam & Max universe will almost always be one step ahead of the puzzles. There were several moments in episode five where I'd be told that I needed to find a certain object, or it'd be suggested that I'd need a certain type of object, and I'd already have it in my inventory. Equally, there are several moments where you find an object in one screen, only to use it in the next. For the most part, these aren't puzzles - at least not as adventure gamers know them - but rudimentary inventory games. Fetch quests, really, but with not very much to fetch. Nothing in this episode, or any of the previous episodes, had me stumped for more than a few minutes. That's not a boast, but an indication that most gamers will breeze through Season 2 without too much trouble.
The familiarity of the characters and locations has made the comedy richer, with each episode adding yet more layers to the surreal stories and sight gags, but the puzzles are poorer for all the repetition. When progress relies yet again on Sybil's love life, or Stinky's recipe, experience of prior episodes can't help but nudge you in the right direction. The finale of episode five is almost ridiculously simple, taking place in an artificially truncated environment where the sequence of events needed for completion is all but spelled out for you. Anyone playing the season from beginning to end as a single experience will find a curious cyclical pace to the thing, with no real build-up in gameplay to match the end of the story.
And yet, looking back over the season, I really find myself torn. I've enjoyed every episode for its writing, and often laughed out loud along the way. As an avowed fan of great writing in games, I want to smother Telltale in kisses for delivering rich character work and genuine laughs in a medium that usually shuns depth and kills comic timing stone dead. Yet at the same time I've become increasingly disillusioned with the game elements, and with the story complete I haven't got the usual thrill I get from beating a game. Clicking through many of the puzzles felt more like a rudimentary task to earn the next joke rather than an end in itself, and that's not good.
Ultimately, this is a fault that lies with point-and-click in general, not just Sam & Max. I single them out only because their world is so rewarding otherwise, that the inherited restrictions of the genre chafe all the more. Put simply, point-and-click adventure games are at an evolutionary crossroads. The genre is, against the odds, staging a comeback of sorts - helped by increasingly popular digital distribution and platforms like the DS and Wii reminding gamers that twin-sticks and fire buttons aren't the only control methods a game can use. Yet clearly the arcane puzzles of old aren't going to cut it these days, any more than a modern platform game can afford to leave players battling for days to get past one screen.
Is the solution, as Sam & Max seem to suggest, to make the answers more apparent so that players can progress with the story more quickly? I don't have a problem with that, in theory, but I feel there's an important distinction between making puzzles logical and making them obvious. Make these worlds more interactive. Allow different solutions to the same puzzle, by making the solution a matter of meeting various criteria rather than a fixed combination of items in sequence. Encourage players to think laterally rather than the linear model currently in use.
Is such a thing possible in the bite-sized chunks of an episodic game? Probably not, and my out-loud ruminations shouldn't detract from the fact that Sam & Max Season 2 still offers a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, provided you value jokes over puzzles. I love these characters, and I love Telltale's ambition for finding new ways to deliver classic gameplay. One day, the point-and-click genre will find a way to embrace the future while holding on to the heritage of the past, and I honestly hope that Sam & Max Season 3 will be one of the first steps along that road.
For more on Sam & Max Season 2, check out our reviews of episode one, Ice Station Santa; episode two, Moai Better Blues; episode three, Night of the Raving Dead; and episode four, Chariots of the Dogs. All of them - including What's New, Beezlebub? - are out now and can be purchased/downloaded from Telltale's website.