Sam & Max Episode 1: The Penal Zone Review

Sam and Max’s latest adventure may have just been released on the Mac, PC, and PS3, but iPad owners have been enjoying it for a few weeks now. It’s the series’ third season (but the first for the iPad) from developer Telltale Games, who have borrowed heavily from its humble LucasArts and comic book origins and brought it successfully into the 21st century with 3D visuals and new control schemes. But how does it fare in its transition to the mobile arena?

Minus a few hiccups, surprisingly well. On the iPhone, some point-and-click adventures that have previously been ported have been hit or miss as far as controls go. This was primarily due to the small size of the iPhone screen compared to the size of the average fingertip, which often made tapping on small objects overly difficult and resulted in frequent covering of the parts of the screen you needed to see. With the iPad’s much larger screen, this is no longer a problem, and it bodes well for the future of the genre.

Don’t look now, but your sign has a typo.

The controls do take some time to get used to, as Telltale has implemented some new techniques, relying on both tapping and dragging. But after a brief adjustment period, you shouldn’t have difficulty doing what you want.

The Penal Zone’s frame rate, however, does hamper things. The game does not appear to be fully optimized for the iPad. The result is frequent slowdown, even to a standstill, that affects your ability to act swiftly. It’s still a great-looking game, and the 3D visuals are much sharper than we expected. In fact, it looks just about as good as previous seasons looked on a mid-range PC.

The Penal Zone is affected by a few other bugs, most notably in the audio department. The game (and the whole series) is a superb example of witty writing and expertly executed voice acting. It’s unfortunate, then, that stutters, distortions, and echos at times plague the audio. It happens infrequently, but often enough to indicate that this version of the game could have probably used a few more weeks in the oven. We hope that Telltale can address many of these issues with a patch sooner rather than later.

Keep Max away from the register!

As far as the game goes, it’s classic Sam and Max. Sam (an astute dog) and Max (his insane rabbit buddy) are freelance police officers who solve bizarre and paranormal crimes in unexpected and often inappropriate ways. While Telltale’s vision is a bit different than LucasArts’ (it is, dare we say, even more suggestive with its humor), it’s still incredibly funny and clever. As these types of games live or die by the stories they tell, we won’t spoil anything, but the tale of an alien invasion as seen through the eyes of an homage to the Twilight Zone is well done.

Some of the additions to this episode, namely Max’s special powers (including telepathy, teleportation, and more), may or may not resonate with fans. Although they do lend variety to the gameplay, they also feel slightly out of place. Still, we can’t expect (nor should we want) a series like this to stagnate, so we continue to welcome changes to keep the series interesting.

It’s not necessarily the best Sam and Max episode Telltale has put out, and it’s got enough glitches for us to question whether this port was rushed, but it’s nonetheless exciting to see original adventure games with great production values appearing on the iPad. We anxiously await the continuation of the season and the optimizations to the game engine that will undoubtedly occur in the coming months.

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