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Sam and Max Season Two: Episode One: Ice Station Santa Review

by Gunther Schmidl

While episodes are the standard way of getting a TV series out on the air, the track record in episodic gaming is pretty bleak. Whether it's SiN Episodes, Zelenghorm, or AGON, no episodically distributed gaming content had ever reached its stated goal of episodes (although AGON still might) before the first season of Sam & Max came along, courtesy of the creative minds of Steve Purcell and Telltale Games.

The six games of the first season were released in rapid succession—one a month—and on time. This also meant that Telltale had no chance to react to criticism until the fourth episode, and more fundamental changes to the series were entirely impossible.

The season break gave the developers a little time to come up with things to make the player's life easier. Unfortunately, they also came up with things to make this reviewer's life harder—but more about that later.

The first thing one notices when starting up the new episode is an assistant that allows the player to choose resolution, fullscreen or windowed mode, and whether subtitles are on and off. That's a marked improvement on the first series, where you had to sit through the entire un-subtitled intro in fullscreen before being able to turn on subtitles and windowed mode, something I always do because I have two widescreen monitors and want a) to be able to use the second screen and b) the content not to be all squished and deformed. My current experience with adventure games is that many of them don't allow this, so kudos to Telltale for including this option from the start. Unfortunately, the subtitles still appear slowly as the characters speak, making it impossible to skip over dialogue (I read faster than I listen, and I don't always want to listen). That's a relatively minor gripe, though. Warp mode is gone from the settings menu, so no more of that awesomeness. Oh well.

The second new thing is a tutorial for people who've not played adventure games before; however, given the running commentary by Sam and Max, you're going to want to play it anyway. If you've played Season 1, you'll probably notice almost right away that the cursor now changes color when it's over a manipulable item, a subtle but very useful change to the UI.

The first episode of Season 2 begins in Sam & Max's office yet again, but worry not: not all the locations have been recycled. In fact, as the game opens, the block is being given a makeover by a gigantic killer robot. As soon as that little problem is sorted out and you have determined said killer robot was a present sent by none other than Santa, the game is afoot. Locations include several you've seen before—the office, Bosco's Inconvenience Store—and a couple of new ones: Stinky's Diner and the North Pole, for example. Almost all the recurring characters from Season 1 also make an appearance in the new season, but the rote puzzles (buy thing from Bosco for excessive amounts of money; abuse Sybil's latest job) are gone. Instead, there are a large bunch of clever and interesting new puzzles, all of which are logical enough to give you a fair a chance of figuring them out. If you do get stuck on a puzzle, Max will act as a subtle (yes, you read that right) but very useful hint system. You can even reduce his hint-giving subtlety by dialling up the adjustable hint level. The puzzles are an interesting mix of logical deduction, wanton violence, lateral thinking, wanton violence, psychological manipulation and wanton violence. I do not want to give away too much of the plot, so suffice it to say it involves trivia contests, formerly yellow snow, demons, and time travel.

Several new characters make an appearance, too, including Sam & Max's hyperviolent neighbour Flint Paper (who also "appeared" in the original 1993 game), Stinky, and Santa as well as his elves.

And then there are the minigames. I already wasn't fond of the action interludes in the first season, and they've been dialled up for the second one. There's a timed (!) driving sequence, and there's a boxing minigame. Both actually require little skill, but it was late, I was tired, and the boxing game took me way too long and struck me as completely unnecessary. And if you're into the whole do-nonsensical-stuff-for-rewards thing (I'm looking at you, Xbox Achievements), you'll love the optional "shoot rare items for car-pimping decals" game.

My complete lack of minigame skills aside, I enjoyed this new episode a lot. The new hint system meant I didn't have to go crying to Telltale for help (how embarrassing would THAT be?), and the new locations and characters breathed some (necessary) fresh air into the series. I'm looking forward to the second episode already, and if you are now looking forward to the first, the wait is over: it's out on GameTap now, and everywhere else on November 9, the two-week wait period from the first season having thankfully been eliminated.

Words in this review I've been asked never, ever to use again by Max: 4.

Number of shops I'm not allowed to refer to as shops: 1.

Humans and animals (except dogs and rabbits) harmed in the creation of this review: That would be telling.

This article copyright © 2007, Gunther Schmidl

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