Expansive locations; unique puzzles rely less on the inventory; delving into the past keeps it fresh and engaging; humour still well and truly intact
Most new characters aren’t really new; psychic toys not always put to great use
It’s that time of the month again. That’s right, the second episode of The Devil’s Playhouse will be coming out very soon and I was very interested to see whether or not the quality established in The Penal Zone would be retained. The problem that plagued previous seasons was the very formulaic approach that took over any sense of surprise. Chances are you’d be visiting the street, Bosco’s, Stinky’s and so on – it became wearisome and started to become a bit worn down because of it. Pleasingly, The Tomb of Sammun-Mak has gone beyond the expected and the result is one of the best Sam and Max capers Telltale have produced.
Sorry, a correction – this is a Sameth and Maximus caper. These two are the ancestors of the detective duo, and are the skeletal bodies that were discovered below the office at the gripping finale of The Penal Zone. By making use of a projector, the ‘real’ Sam and Max can play four separate film reels that correspond to a different part in their great grandparent’s story – the retrieval of the Devil’s Toybox from the moleman guarded Egyptian tomb. You’ll need to flick back and forth between the reels to figure out how to progress in the narrative. Although you’re still effectively following a set path, the order in which you choose go about it is up to you, thus removing a sense of linearity. It might sound complicated, but it isn’t. I had some minor concerns that the plot may become illogical and hard to follow, but lead director and writer Andy Hartzell has cleverly managed to retain consistency and sense to the story.
The twenty century setting allows the locations to really shine against places we’ve visited in the past. In fact, this episode is bubbling to the brim with brand new settings that it took me by surprise. There’s no carry over from previous episodes, and that creates an adventure that feels fairly fresh. The game’s namesake tomb is probably one of the best locations the dog and rabbit pair has visited in the Telltale games. It’s a huge, expansive place full of exploration and different levels and siderooms. It’s all encompassing too, so there’s no load screens as it cuts off from one area to another; you can see where you just were between the pillars, for example. You’ll also take a ride on the Disorient Express, a highly inhabited train ride, complete with camera bobbing and scenery gushing past. The most genuinely shocking location was the Straight & Narrow, which is full of Victorian charm and barely recognisable due to the snowy makeover. These aren’t even everywhere you’ll visit, so it’s safe to say you’ll be completely satisfied here.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for all the ‘new’ characters. The only face you won’t have seen before is Monsieur Papierwaite, the strange looking chap responsible for sending Sameth and Maximus after the Devil’s Toybox. Although he plays such a key role in the playing out of events, it’s a tad disappointing that you don’t see much of him. It doesn’t help that his character development is entirely predictable as soon as you meet him. The rest of the cast are made up of redressed characters or models (the elves and moles) from previous episodes – acting as their ancient counterparts – which will enthuse you solely on whether or not you liked them in their original appearances. I had no quarrels with the choices, but it would have been much more preferable to be interacting with people we’ve never seen before. Still, they’re used to enjoyable effect (Slushy the elf stands out in particular) and their new costumes and personalities are almost enough to look past the admittedly clever bit of recycling.
The way you solve puzzles is a bit different this time round as there’s less of a reliance on the inventory. It’s still there, of course, but there’s an introduction of some more inventive techniques thanks to the reel switching, such as discovering clues in one part of the story to solve something elsewhere. The molepeople also have an ability to cast their own unique hex onto Sameth and Maximus, changing the way a situation is approached. For example, one curse makes the pair suffer constant bad luck and it’s up to you to figure out how to work this for your own good. Three new psychic powers make an appearance too, one being the aforementioned flipping between reels, although they never seemed to reach their full potential. The can of nuts is the least interesting since it’s pretty obvious when you’ll need to use it, and it’s more the build up to its use that is more complicated. There’s also a ventriloquist doll that allows Maximus to transfer his voice into others. It works perfectly well and is cleverly used, but there were times when it was underused and would have provided a better puzzle solution to the one given.
The humour is still well and truly on high form in The Tomb of Sammun-Mak. Although I didn’t find myself chuckling as much as I did with The Penal Zone, that’s still no criticism. There are laughs-a-plenty, both through the writing and the clever touches scattered throughout. Moments like an elf shouting a quip from the background about Sameth’s costume or callbacks to the molemen’s idea of comedy make this game. There’s even the odd self-referential joke here and there to provide a cheeky nod and wink to the player. And, of course, although it feels defunct mentioning it as it’s never any different, the audio is completely brilliant.
When it comes down to it, the other problems with The Tomb of Sammun-Mak are nitpicking. Occasionally you’ll get some repeated dialogue when you revisit a character, the elves’ voices may not be distinguishable enough and you may run into a couple of bugs, but there’s little else to object to. When you’ve got an episode that plays as well as this, the little niggles that pop up can very easily be pushed aside. Enjoy it, for the consistent level of quality throughout makes it impossible to pass up. If this standard of innovation is only just the beginning, the cliffhanger at the end of the episode will have you drooling over your calendar in anticipation for the future.