Sam & Max Episode 1: The Penal Zone for iPad


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Sam and Max, an episodic adventure series for computers and consoles, recently saw its iDevice debut with The Penal Zone for iPad. We spoke to Dan Connors, CEO of Telltale Games, about why now was the right time to introduce Sam and Max to Apple handheld consoles, and what longtime series followers can expect.

How is The Devil’s Playground, the third series of Sam and Max, different from the previous two?

Dan: Well, it’s a new story. It’s another mad caper for Sam and Max, but we also went in and worked on some new gameplay mechanics. Max has psychic powers in this one. You can switch between Sam and Max to take advantage of Max’s psychic powers, so you have to go inside of his brain.

We used a new mechanic for that that we haven’t used before. So I think that, along with a lot of other changes that have just been made in our content through the years, from a control standpoint and from a cinematic standpoint, have given it a different feel from the last two Sam and Maxes in a good way.

So it’s a little less like the old adventure game, and a little more like an interactive cinematic experience?

Dan: That’s a great way to frame it. It feels very modern in the way we’re handling it, and there’s different things the players learn through time in the world. So we’re continuing to evolve in that direction.

How many episodes are planned for the current series?

Dan: Five episodes.

How many hours of gameplay in each?

Dan: I think it depends on the gamer. I think our quickest people here get through it in about three and a half hours, the average non-professional gamer probably takes around five.

Can we expect to see a lot of references to the previous characters and the previous series?

Dan: We definitely feature new villains and new bad guys in this one. We’ve got an awesome space gorilla in the first one that’s a brand new character, and almost all of the villains are new. If we brought old characters in, we put a lot of explaining around them as well, because we wanted new players to be able to get into the series.

Especially because we’re on a new platform, like the iPad, but we’re also on the Playstation, where there’s a lot of people who will be playing Sam and Max for the first time. We couldn’t count on the fact that they’d played the first two seasons.

How do you try to introduce new players to Sam and Max starting with Season 3?

Dan: Sam and Max, just as characters themselves, you put them in any situation and they’re immediately interesting because of the humor. I think we just put them in a brand new, fresh situation, where you could get a sense for who Sam and Max are, and what they were all about.

As we introduce characters with a history, we add a different element to the game to explain where they came from and what their backstory was. There’s also a notepad that Sam and Max carry around, that has information on the different characters.

So we really made an important part of the design to be able to provide players with the information they were going to need to understand what was going on, and still have our fans who have played the other two seasons really excited to see characters that they were interested in, and have returning characters in the game.

What’s your take on the iPad, and where’s Telltale going to be with iPad games?

Dan: We’ve often said, the style of games that we do, the reason that we build out content with a simpler interface and ways of interacting with the world, is so they could move to new devices as they came online. And the idea of moving over to a touch device like the iPad, we always thought was going to feel great.

In actuality, the playing of it, it really felt like it worked. I’m super-impressed with the experience of our game, and we’re excited about doing more things on the iPad going forward. I didn’t know at first what it would be best for, but after looking at websites, and seeing the different apps that are coming on, and seeing ebooks, it just makes so much sense as an entertainment device, as an easily portable gaming device, and a movie-watching device.

It just seems you could handle all your entertainment in one spot, and such a cool way to do it. I’m really excited, and I love that it can push our game as well as it does as well.

Can we expect to see the first two series of Sam and Max hit the iPad?

Dan: Well, we’re going to watch how things go with Sam and Max and figure out what the right approach is going to be for the library as well as titles going forward, as well as maybe building something specific for the platform that makes sense.

So we’re really interested in the opportunity. We have such a huge library of content to move over, and we’re going after a pretty aggressive schedule going forward. We’ve just got to figure out what the right fits are, and try to manage it all.

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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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