So, the first true episodic game reaches climax. Six months and as many episodes of consistent high quality. Ten to fifteen hours of fun. Untold numbers of adventure-philes happy with the return of their '90s heroes. You could say it's been a job well done for Telltale Games on several levels.
But more on that in a moment.
Episode 6: Bright Side of the Moon provides a typically irreverent set of encounters for the furry duo. For reasons left utterly unexplained, they're on the moon, chasing down arch-hypnotist Hugh Bliss and faced with plenty of returning characters from all five previous episodes.
It's probably wise not to ponder too deeply on why a posse of redundant talking computers, a hen, the floating stone head of Abe Lincoln and an indignant mole have all found themselves on the surface of the moon (without any breathing apparatus, we note), but perhaps that's the charm of a typical Sam & Max adventure in a nutshell. One minute you're just trying to work out how to get a lead door open, the next you're inside someone's stomach complaining about the stench.
As with any episode of Sam & Max there's a fair bit of flitting between the 'base camp' of your office, Bosco's store and Sybil's and whatever new location Telltale has dreamed up. In this instance, you get the standard issue three or four new areas to explore and click on till your heart's content - but no new characters to indulge in crackpot banter with. But that's okay. Having accumulated a fairly weighty cast over the past few months, Telltale has almost treated this one as a greatest hits collection, dropping various members of the cast in seemingly at random in one final surreal hurrah.
Back down to Earth
After the unexpected high point of Episode 5, Bright Side of the Moon feels more like a return to the more formulaic point and click approach we're all used to - and as such it doesn't quite live up to the last episode's standard, either. In fact there are a couple of pretty evil puzzles that all but completely stumped us for a while, and the addition of a belated 'hint' system via Sam was all but useless at steering us back onto the right track.
Without spoiling it, one puzzle that had us hopelessly stuck involved picking up something we'd never previously been able to collect over the course of the entire season. If there's one thing that irks about adventure games it's lack of consistency - either let players pick a particular object up or don't. Don't decide arbitrarily that ten hours into the game you're now 'allowed' to pick something up that everyone's been mentally ignoring. Something as simple as this spoils the entire game, because you end up stuck in this loop of going round the same locations over and over.
Fortunately, the FAQ-meisters out there are on hand to help out during such moments of design madness (and even they were complaining!), leaving the player to calm down and enjoy the relentlessly formulaic but always amusing banter between our heroes and the world of strange that they live in. As ever, the main enjoyment from playing the Sam & Max games is from simple things. It's not really that satisfying to solve obscure puzzles when it wastes so much time getting there. The real fun from the Sam & Max episodes has been mining the conversation trees for little unexpected nuggets, and the idle fun from trying to be as rude as possible to everyone you meet.
This is just the beginning
Six episodes down the line, did it work? In some respects, absolutely. Being able to 'tune in' for a couple of hours a month was a really pleasing diversion from the epic portions that we're routinely forced to digest, and as such there was never a point where we got bored and wanted to switch off. Each chapter of the game was just big enough to feel like you'd got your money's worth, but short enough not to outstay its welcome. On a purely cost-to-entertainment ratio, Telltale got it bang-on. The writing was well up to par, the technology and art style faithful to the legacy, and the voice acting every bit as sharp and witty as it ever was. In almost every area that mattered, Telltale got things right. Almost.
Where the experiment really didn't work for me was perhaps the way the short episodic structure made it very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to weave decent puzzles into the narrative. By always making sure that every episode had its own set of self-contained challenges and problems, it narrowed the player's focus into a small number of locations, with an equally small number of objects. As such, once you found an object, it almost always became obvious to the player what to do with it, and gone was any sense of achievement from joining the dots.
Also, by junking the player's inventory at the end of an episode, there was never any chance to carry over objects throughout the adventure. Every episode had the same basic problems in this lack of continuity. It wasn't like you were playing six parts of a full game, but six tiny games with a linked narrative, and that ultimately was the thing that held it back. Being tiny games made them entertaining in their own right, sure, but there was always a lingering feeling that it would have been a better game had it been designed as one continuous game from the outset.
Cycle of violence
The problem for Telltale is that the adventure genre has never had a precedent for small-scale offerings, so trying to use the same old school mechanics and then scaling them down to two-hour chunk doesn't necessarily always come off. On occasion - like the end of Reality 2.0 - if the quality of the problem and the scenario are so different that you're doing something genuinely new, then you've succeeded. If all you're doing is recycling old locations and conjuring rather unimaginative problems with annoying sub-characters, then you may as well not bother.
On balance, Sam & Max Season 1 gets the thumbs up. Telltale knows full well it's kinda been making this up as it's going along, and probably knows better than anybody what worked and what didn't. And if it's in any doubt over what worked and what didn't, it now has a whole season's worth of feedback to chew over - and that's before the boxed release hits. What's more important than any of its game design decisions is that Telltale did what it set out to do. It brought Sam & Max back and managed to digitally deliver six episodes out in six months - two things we're more than happy to reflect upon.
The bottom line for most Sam & Max fans, though, is whether Season 1 is any better than 1993's Hit The Road. With so much clouded nostalgia invested in something most of us probably haven't even played since, it's unwise to fuel the debate, but an inevitable question to be debated by many. The two games' structures are too different to be directly comparable, but the important thing is that the humour, writing, dialogue and voice acting is every bit as good as it was, though is often let down by some lacklustre co-stars.
In terms of gameplay, that's easy: Telltale's simple, refined interface is a vast improvement on the horrendous icon system LucasArts employed, but you can't help but feel that Telltale needed to be a little more ambitious with the gameplay mechanics in Sam & Max than it was this time. It's one thing staying true to the beloved gameplay that we all still cherish, but that heady whiff of nostalgia only gets you so far - especially when the limiting episodic structure itself makes the actual puzzle solving such a horribly basic part of the game. Let's face it - things have moved on, and it's a massive contradiction to be talking about a forward thinking, digitally delivered, episodic game that's held back by its reverence to the past. But there you are.