From zombies to alien abductions, the fourth chapter of Sam and Max's second season of episodic adventures is not exactly much of an upgrade in terms of comic inspiration. However, just as Night of the Raving Dead started with zombies but soon turned into a disco vampire story, so Chariots of the Dogs starts with our anthropomorphic duo investigating Bosco's abduction by forces unknown, but then takes a left turn and becomes a time travel romp.
So, yeah. This is a time travel story. As fans can probably guess, this opens up lots of possibilities for the well-oiled gag-writing team to have some fun with the chronology of the games, sending our heroes to meet past, present and future versions of themselves and other characters. It also helps to slightly alleviate the déjà vu as - yet again - you can expect to spend a hefty chunk of playing time shuttling between the office, Stinky's diner and Bosco's convenience store. Visiting these locations in 1963, 1980 and the distant future mixes things up slightly, but the weary sense of familiarity remains. They even joke about this repetition, with our heroes dumbstruck when their future selves admit they've spent their entire lives exploring the same street. Such self-referential in-jokes are certainly cute but, as The Simpsons Game conclusively proved, you can't effectively satirise something when you're guilty of it yourself.
Despite this, the comedy content is still luxuriously generous as ever with the sort of sharp dialogue and snappy timing you'd expect from Futurama or the latest Pixar movie. It's also a densely layered episode, with both puzzles and gags frequently harking back to the prior chapters. The ink ribbon from Night of the Raving Dead gets a nifty pay-off which made me giggle, while the scenes with a senile Sam who speaks only in lines from the original Sam & Max game are great fun for time-served point-and-click fans.
But for all the goodwill generated by the regular laughs there's no escaping the sense that this is a structurally weak episode, populated with rote puzzling. The concept borrows heavily from the Back to the Future films, but unlike other pop culture references in the series, this time it feels a lot more like a rip-off than homage. Nods in the direction of other time travelling hits, such as Doctor Who and Bill & Ted, are more subtle but the overly familiar shape of the narrative means that the actual gameplay element feels more predictable than ever.
As always, success is simply a question of finding the handful of objects available to be picked up, talking to the small cast of characters dotted throughout the locations and seeing which conversation options are there for laughs and which are clues, and can therefore be endlessly repeated. The problems, and solution, quickly become apparent and the order of events needed to progress the story can be worked through in minutes. In fact it's become so formulaic that I breezed through this chapter in just over an hour, with only one birthday-related puzzle near the end causing any sort of head-scratching. Dialogue clues are even more blatant, even without the context-sensitive hints switched on, with characters all but spelling out what needs to be done.
Whereas previous chapters were made up of several smaller puzzles with a couple of large quests at the middle and end, Chariots of the Dogs really does feel like the smaller puzzles have all but vanished, leaving just two obvious fetch-quests to prop up the backbone of the story. The story is commendable for the way it humorously ties together numerous plot threads from the previous chapters into something that makes sense (or as much sense as anything makes in Sam & Max) but it all feels rather thin compared to previous entries.
Now, I really don't like criticising this series. It's fantastically funny and delivers episodic gaming on a regular schedule for a reasonable price, and that's something I can't praise enough. It's so cheap, and so funny, that criticism can feel like nitpicking, but if I'm underwhelmed then I'm underwhelmed. With Night of the Raving Dead the jokes were starting to take precedence over the gameplay, and that's only deepened with Chariots of the Dogs. It's so easy that at times it felt more like an interactive cut-scene than an adventure game for grown-ups. I'm all for games that want you to reach the end, and encourage you to stay on board for the whole ride, but, assuming that the vast majority of people following the series are experienced point-and-click players, this is starting to feel patronising. When the actual core gameplay becomes an undemanding routine, that's a dangerous position for an episodic series which needs to keep players playing.
It all ends on a positive note though. The end of this chapter is a genuine cliffhanger with exciting implications for the final chapter. Given the way the season has started to come together, with seemingly throwaway items and moments proving to be cunningly central to the story in this episode, it looks like the grand finale should be worth sticking around for. I just hope the puzzles are worthy of the story.