October 28, 2012 4:00 AM | John Polson
[Guest reviewer Colin Brown profiles each game in the Halloween Bundle from IndieGames' co-created site Indie Royale.]
Any fan of adventure games surely knows of Steve Purcell's Freelance Police. Between Sam and Max's outing in the golden age of Lucasarts and the modern Telltale revamp, the dog and rabbit thingy have been adventure game icons for just short of twenty years. Of course, a lot of that time found the characters stuck in development hell. It was Telltale's critically acclaimed series, co-designed with Purcell, that did a considerable amount to bring them back in a modern context. This brings us to today, where you can grab the third season of this shiny revamp in the Halloween bundle. But is it worth checking out for newbies? Most definitely.
The most common concern I've seen floating around is whether or not the third "season", otherwise known as The Devil's Playhouse, can be enjoyed by an outsider to the episodic series. While the first episode certainly begins with a heck of an in media res cold open, there's little downside to using The Devil's Playhouse as a starting point. The game certainly references past events and characters, but each season serves up a standalone, serialized plot. If that's not enough to convince you, like any proper TV show it took Sam and Max a few episodes before the developers really started to nail the writing and design. So while the first season had a handful of rough patches alongside the inspired bits, The Devil's Playhouse features some of the most consistently excellent writing in the Telltale stable.
Oh yes, the writing. I'm a huge fan of the storytelling structure offered by episodic gaming, but the writing definitely has to rise to the occasion. The writing for Sam and Max is rife with consistently hilarious jokes and excellent tonal shifts, going from upbeat to dark comedy and back again. The world of the Freelance Police has always been a melting pot for American pop culture, but The Devil's Playhouse veers between crime procedural, alien invasion, Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters without missing a beat. And that's just the first episode, as later episodes begin to take on even more influences, from Lovecraft to Twin Peaks. With all these references it would be easy to descend into parody, but Telltale takes the high road by sticking to homage, characterization and genuinely excellent jokes.
To sweeten the deal, The Devil's Playhouse also features terrific design. Puzzles are never obvious, but rarely frustrating or illogical. This is mostly thanks to the new addition of Max's psychic powers, which creates a second level of gameplay that solves many common adventure game flaws. Need a clue? Max can see vague bits of the future, which functions as a prompt for confused players as well as an additional layer for interesting puzzle design. Max develops quite a few powers over the season, and all of them serve to flesh out the player toolbox beyond clicking on everything and gathering items.
So overall we have a five game series that offers up terrific writing, an innovative structure and excellent puzzle design. Even if you're totally unfamiliar with Sam and Max, there's never been a better time to give the Freelance Police a chance.
[Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse and four other titles are available now in the Halloween Bundle on Indie Royale.]