Review: Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space

It’s becoming a more prevalent trend among video game developers and publishers to recognise the possibilities they have in their back-catalogue. It seems that in recent years we are not only getting a deluge of sequels spilling onto store shelves. We are also getting many “updates”, “re-imaginings”, “reboots”, “remakes” and even just “re-releases” both in the digital distribution stores (think Bionic Commando: Rearmed and Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD) and on the shelves of bricks-and-mortar retail outlets (Bionic Commando again, the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection and Golden Axe: Beast Rider serve as examples here).

Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space doesn’t really fit in with any of these categorisations. Technically it is simply a sequel (or “second season”) to the episodic adventure Sam & Max Save the World which was released on XBLA earlier this year. This modern franchise is a kind of update to the acclaimed 1993 title Sam & Max Hit the Road.

I realise things are getting quite confused so I’ll try to sum it up briefly. The original Sam & Max game (Hit the Road) was made by Lucasarts (spearheaded by Steve Purcell who was instrumental in the Monkey Island franchise too) and released in 1993. Since that time there had been a number of attempts to make a new video game featuring the characters, culminating in the creation of Sam & Max Save the World which was made by Tell Tale Games (where most of the original Lucasarts team now reside) and released in 2006-2009, in an episodic format, for Windows PC originally but later for Wii and Xbox 360.

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This latest title was originally released for Windows PC in 2007 and has only just made the jump to XBLA. It is best described as a point-and-click graphical adventure game but has also been called an interactive comic strip or sit-com. The season consists of five episodes which can be purchased as an entire season for 1600 MSP.

So what’s it all about? Well, Sam (the sardonic, suit-wearing dog) and Max (the hyperactive and frequently sociopathic rabbit) are private detectives or “Freelance Police”. They work out of an office filled with sight gags and references to their previous exploits (these are not confined to the office area either). Essentially it is your mission to guide the two main characters through the “combination-puzzle” mechanics of the point-and-click, dialogue-heavy game.

Each episode comprises a complete storyline which can be played individually or out of sequence with the other episodes but for maximum enjoyment of the copious in-jokes you really should play them in sequence and after completing (or at least reading plot synopsis of) the previous Sam & Max adventures. To say there is an element of fan-service in this game would be like saying that there is an element of nuttiness in a Snickers. This is absolutely brilliant if the player is a fan of the series but for inexperienced newcomers the dryly-delivered quips, complete with mugging to the camera, will often fall flat. There is still plenty of humour for newcomers but it is only a fraction of what is in there for veterans.

For a game with such a slow and methodical control scheme and an esoteric approach to its combination puzzles (which are often so bizarre that they can be annoyingly time consuming and frustrating) the humour is hugely important. If you like your funnies with a dash of sarcasm, a hint of cringingly-bad word-play and a healthy dollop of scatological reference then this is going to be right up your street. If you’re a fan of Oscar Wilde’s subtle, scathing wit then you might think it a little low-brow. Luckily, I can enjoy both kinds of humour so I was heard sniggering childishly more than once before returning a much-practiced aloof expression to my face and continuing with the story.

The crisp graphical presentation and the faithful film-noir style musical asides compliment the introduction credits to each episode which is stylistically perfect for a 1960s comedy crime caper TV show. There is a neat bit of interactivity in these introductory credits whereby you can shoot characters and objects that scroll along the screen. It’s a nice little distraction while the episode loads. Unfortunately there were a number of times when the movement or dialogue stuttered slightly for me during game play. Not enough to be a major concern but still slightly baffling that it happens at all with what is presumably a low-impact drain on the console’s resources.

The actual meat of the game play has you walking from point to point by clicking on the screen. You enter into dialogue with a character by clicking them and select your lines from a simple menu system. There isn’t much to this other than clicking on everything in a scene, exhausting all dialogue options and then trying to combine your inventory items with problems to find a solution. There are occasional mini-games which usually involve driving the pair’s Desoto car down a perpetually moving road to run over items. It’s not very varied and not particularly well-done but as a distraction to the standard game play it is welcome.

The format is well known and Sam & Max have always been among the best at delivering it in an entertaining fashion. There were occasional repeats in the dialogue and Max’s repeated “hint” lines were extremely grating the third, fourth and fifth times I heard them (they also weren’t particularly helpful). In general though, the format is familiar and the game has enough wit and charm to carry you through the otherwise tedious routine of point-to-point-and-back-again adventuring.

Overall Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space is a quality product which will appeal to fans of point-and-click adventure games and will doubtlessly already be on the hard drives of fans of the previous games. It does have flaws though and without the crutch of nostalgia or the love of the characters there are many aspects of this package which will infuriate, frustrate and annoy players. A definite purchase for anyone who enjoyed the previous Sam & Max games or other point and click titles like the Monkey Island franchise but for those of you who prefer your gaming with a little more mindless action, I would heavily advise that you try before you buy.

Graphics: Crisp and clean, they are functional without ever excelling – or needing to: 7/10

Sound: Some stunted delivery to the dialogue but nothing too distracting. Music is perfect for the style: 7/10

Gameplay: One of the best examples of the genre available, if you are interested in the game you know what you’re getting: 8/10

Overall: Witty in a very dry way, this is certainly not for everyone but for those with nostalgia and patience it is an entertaining diversion from all the space marines and treasure hunters.

7/10


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