Sam & Max Episode 1: The Penal Zone for iPad Review
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Sam & Max Episode 1: The Penal Zone for iPad Review

Our Review by Robert Corra on May 24th, 2010
Rating: starstarstarblankstarblankstar :: ROUGH START
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Sam & Max's debut on the iPad is good but not great, due to some serious performance issues.

Developer: Telltale Games
Price: $6.99
Version Reviewed: 1.0

Graphics / Sound Rating: starstarstarstarblankstar
Game Controls Rating: starstarstarhalfstarblankstar
Gameplay Rating: starstarstarstarblankstar
User Interface Rating: starstarstarhalfstarblankstar
iPad Integration Rating: Rating: starstarblankstarblankstarblankstar
Re-use / Replay Value Rating: starstarblankstarblankstarblankstar

Overall Rating: starstarstarblankstarblankstar

I’m a sizeable fan of Sam & Max. I don’t mean that I’m big and I like Sam & Max, as I’m not really that big in stature. I wouldn’t say I have a swimmer’s body either. Maybe “husky” is a good way to put it, or “stout”. What I was really getting at is that I like the characters, the adventure gameplay, and the style of humor that can be found in the existing Sam & Max series of games. I might even own some paraphernalia, which makes me the target audience and then some for the series’ debut on the iPad.

For the uninitiated, Sam & Max: Freelance Police are a detective duo featuring a dog gumshoe and his deranged, rabbity-thing sidekick. Their off-the-wall adventures first hit the pop culture scene in the late 1980’s as a comic book created by Steve Purcell. Sam & Max went on to star in their own videogame in 1993 thanks to LucasArts, the kings of point-and-click adventures. A cartoon series aired for a short time in the late 1990’s, but fans of the series had to wait until 2006 for the duo’s much anticipated return to gaming. Telltale games resurrected the series, and did so in episodic fashion, breathing some new life into the adventure games market. There have been 2 full seasons so far, spanning 11 episodes. Sam & Max Episode1: The Penal Zone is the first episode of season 3, The Devil’s Playhouse, and the first Telltale game to hit the iPad.

I was very much looking forward to the prospect of playing a new Sam & Max game whenever & wherever I wanted on my shiny, new iPad. Well, after jumping into the game like a kid on Christmas expecting a Nintendo64 under the tree, my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened.

The same point-and-click goodness is there, and the game employs a very nice interface on the iPad. General movement is controlled by a virtual joystick that appears wherever you place your finger. If you hold two fingers on the screen, points of interest will be highlighted with blue dots. You can click on one of these to automatically walk over to them, or double-click to run.

Sam & Max on the iPad also has the same signature humor and writing of the series, which can be hit or miss depending on the player, but well-crafted nonetheless. It is often fun to pick the unnecessary or “wrong” selections in the available dialogue choices, just to hear and see all the extra banter. New to this game are psychic powers for Max, which offer an interesting wrinkle to the gameplay. Max can use various Toys of Power obtained throughout the game, such as special silly putty or a toy phone, in order to perform such feats as transform himself into something else or teleport to another location. Most importantly, Max can use his newfound psychic abilities to scan any location and see cryptic premonitions of the future. These visions of future events fit organically into the story, and provide subtle clues on what to do next. The game itself has an adjustable in-game hint system that can be employed throughout.

All of that sounds pretty good, and it is, but all the positive aspects are quickly hampered by some glaring performance issues. The port of the game simply does not run well at this point on the iPad. Playing the game can get frustrating, with increasing bouts of choppiness and slowdown. Audio and video glitches are frequent, as Sam & Max chugs along with obvious difficulty. The overall sluggishness of the experience detracts from the methodical aspects of the adventure gameplay. You need to try various things, talk to multiple characters, and revisit different areas of the game in order to solve the requisite puzzles, and this is hampered by the tedious struggles of the underlying engine.

All of these issues really feel like things that should have been ironed out before release of the game. They are not typical of the level of quality of past Telltale Games’ efforts on other systems. The problems I experienced, including the first and only time my iPad completely froze, had my yearning for playing the game on my PC. Or the PS3. Or anything else. I also experienced a fatal error early in the game, where the virtual joystick would not appear when coming back to a save file recorded in the opening location. This error thankfully took place very early into the story, as I had to restart from the beginning of the game a couple of times because of this.

The performance issues in Sam & Max are not normally that bad, but they do wear on your patience. The overall experience is saved by the finer points of the game, namely the established characters and refined adventuring, but the pervasive, technical shortcomings do impede on the fun factor. Sam & Max could definitely have used some more time in the oven, as opposed to being released in time for the launch of the iPad. It seems logical that many of the issues can be addressed via update, which would increase the overall score. The style of gameplay of the Sam & Max series is an otherwise perfect fit for the device. Seeing that the next episode of the Devil's Playhouse is already out on other systems, hopefully these issues will be patched sooner rather than later.

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iPad Screenshots

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