After a surprise release on the iPad, season three of Sam & Max's episodic adventures have hit the PC, Mac, and PlayStation 3. This marks the widest release the series has seen, and the first time Telltale's adventures have found their way onto Sony's system. Releasing on additional platforms opens the door to an entirely new audience, one that, in the past, simply didn't have access to the series. It's obvious that Telltale is counting on The Penal Zone being many gamers' first experience with Sam & Max or, at least, their versions of the classic characters. In order to deal with this, the episode takes time to introduce each character anew, something that could have gone horribly wrong if handled poorly. Luckily, since Telltale knows that they're doing with the genre, the re-introductions manage to be entertaining for old fans, and informative for new ones. While they're at it, they do a damn fine job at starting off a new season, too.
The evil alien General Skun'ka'pe has landed on Earth, and is attempting to find toys scattered around the planet that will grant certain gifted individuals psychic powers. Luckily, sadly, and hilariously, Max is one such gifted individual, and finds himself gaining possession of several of the toys during the episode. Each grants him different abilities, from the future-seeing Viewmaster to the teleporting children's telephone. The inclusion of these items, and Sam's ability to use them, creates a number of new puzzle elements that flip the traditional formula on its head fairly quickly.
For instance, the Viewmaster will often allow Max to see the end of a situation that, otherwise, would be next to impossible to figure out. He might see himself and Sam standing atop a building that they didn't even know they could get on, or he might hear a character replying to receiving an item he didn't even know existed. As expected, these clues are usually somewhat cryptic, since the future vision tends to end either just too soon or begin just too late, but they do a good job at expanding on the puzzle opportunities in the game. The teleportation, too, adds some fantastic gameplay elements, making the game feel a little more action oriented than before. While it stays true to the point-and-click roots of the series, it doubles down on the "adventure," without veering too far off the track.
Everything the series is known for comes across with the newest episode, and the inclusion of several new gameplay elements makes things feel fresher than ever. Sam & Max's puzzles have never been more intuitive, either, though it's hard to tell if it's because the developers made them easier, or because they simply did a better job giving clues. In the off change that anyone does get stuck, the game's hint system has also been improved to the point where it feels perfectly integrated into the game. Before, it was a bit jarring when a character would blabber about going to see a character that hadn't shown up for some time, but they've learned how to mix it in better, and the dialog feels natural, without being condescending.
Unless, of course, it's trying to condescend, in which case it does a fine job. Telltale's writers are at the top of their game, with fantastic pop culture references, inside jokes, and typical fourth-wall shattering fun. The titular heroes will crack jokes at the industry, themselves, and everything in-between, providing occasional social commentary without losing wit. Old characters return, new characters are introduced, and there's a large variety of interesting locations to visit. Nearly all of the areas in the game are new, or, at least, modified from the last time the duo visited, and there's no lack of stops for the DeSoto to make.
It all feels distinctly Sam & Max, maintaining the style introduced years ago in the original LucasArts adventures while piling on enough current day know-how to maintain relevance. The main differences come in the way it's all presented, which, even when compared to the last season, feels remarkably more polished. They've even adopted a conversation wheel, throwing the archaic dialog list to the figurative wind.
Not that the other games in the series were slouches when it came to their style, but the new season blows them all out of the water, with enhanced graphics and gameplay improvements that move the series in a wonderful direction. It's apparent that they've pulled out all of the stops this time around, putting together an introductory episode that should prove as a great opening for newcomers, and a fantastic follow-up for those who have been following the series for some time now. After a handful of entertaining hours, it comes to a close with a bang, paying off in a big way and guaranteeing some interesting follow-up episodes.