Average Brain Caper
Sam & Max is never a series that’s lacking for imagination. The Devil’s Playhouse has been interesting enough thus far, with the furry freelance police first taking down a space-gorilla in the season’s debut episode, followed by a proverbial trip into the past as the duo’s early-20th century forerunners Sameth and Maximus in episode 2.
That particular episode ended with a peculiar cliffhanger—Max having his brain sawed out and stolen—and the aptly-titled third installment, They Stole Max’s Brain!, picks up right where the previous one left off. As far as episode openers are concerned, They Stole Max’s Brain! is a stroke of brilliance; Sam is royally pissed at his lagomorphic pal’s sudden loss of grey matter, and he wants answers (or blood). Luckily, Sam remembers some pointers (as explained by series regular private eye Flint Paper) about interrogating witnesses, which he immediately begins with Chandler-esque aplomb. This fedora-and-jacket off, shirt-sleeves-rolled-up, unloosened tie Sam is a side never seen before, and for noir fans it’s a real treat.
Thus the first fourth of the episode is very prominently a hard-boiled homage, complete with a meandering jazzy score, voiceover, and late night drives taking Sam through various parts of the city. From a gameplay perspective, the new interrogation mechanic is a nice use of the dialogue tree, as Sam can threaten or coerce witnesses to confess whatever truths they may be hiding while giving the player a number of approaches with which to gain new information. Of course, it wouldn’t be a noir homage without bleak, voiceover-style monologues about corruption, violence, and sin, which Telltale’s talented writers included among Sam’s dialogue options, much to all of his witnesses’ dismay.
However, past the opening segment of the episode, the interrogation mechanic is no longer used; once Sam finds out that Max’s brain has been brought to the Museum of Mostly Natural History, his relief is a catalyst for Telltale to jettison the noir trappings, with the episode proceeding as normal. If you haven’t been following this season of Sam & Max, this episode is spoiler-heavy, with several particulars of its plot being important both from a gameplay perspective as well as the unfolding story arcs present. That being said, you’ll still have access to Max’s psychic powers for most of the episode, and Sam isn’t alone for much of it. They Stole Max’s Brain! is also set-up, more or less in a three or four act structure (although not explicitly saying so) and the changes made between acts are palpable.
The core gameplay, aside from Sam’s hard-boiled interrogative opener, however, is more or less the same throughout. Unlike episode two of the season, which refreshingly allowed you to “play back” the past events of Sameth and Maximus in whichever order you want (the current generation of freelance police discovered a series of old film reels in the underground resting place of the devil’s toy box), They Stole Max’s Brain! reverts back to similar straightforward puzzle mechanics of the season’s first episode. Max’s psychic powers allow him to once again teleport, use future vision or transform into various objects, but aside from some new combinations of these mechanics, any new abilities or toys of power are somewhat conspicuously absent.
This doesn’t make They Stole Max’s Brain! a bad episode, though. The puzzles are as worthwhile as in past episodes (for the most part), though perhaps not quite as head-scratching as in episode two.
The development of the season’s storyline is really the vehicle for They Stole Max’s Brain!, in fact. Like any good middle-parter, the plot thickens, previously established actions and characters’ roles are more firmly cemented and earlier plotlines (expect to see more of Sammun-Mak, Paperwaite and other familiar faces) begin to converge, making sense of what’s been seen thus far.
There are even a couple of new characters are introduced, most notably a Patrick Warburton-esque cockroach named Sal. As has been characteristic of the rest of The Devil’s Playhouse, They Stole Max’s Brain! is also more entertaining that laugh-out-loud funny, though it has its moments.
Ulimately, They Stole Max’s Brain! is an important episode of The Devil’s Playhouse, but it also suffers somewhat from middle-child syndrome. The noir opening is by far the highlight of the episode, and while there are some strong points in the remainder, it remains a good-but-not-great outing with the freelance police. With any luck, episode four, Beyond the Alley of the Dolls, will re-up Telltale’s game (the closing shot of this episode—a creepy horde of silent, soulless Sams—is certainly one that raises eyebrows). Let’s hope there’s some fresh twists on the game’s tried-and-true design, or at least some new toys of power to play with, when it hits next month.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
HD Sam & Max continues to shine. 4.0 Control
Controls are the same as they’ve always been—easy to use and precise. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Another fantastic vocal performance by The Devil’s Playhouse cast. Sam’s David Knowlin particularly deserves high praise here, effortlessly growling hard-boiled monologues in the opening of the episode. 3.7 Play Value
Despite the episode’s fantastic opening, They Stole Max’s Brain! is a good, but not great, Sam & Max adventure. It’s a shame there aren’t any extras to make you play through again 3.8 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.