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The Devil’s Playhouse – Episode 1: The Penal Zone review

Surreal logic, strange wit and a healthy dose of supernatural powers makes the Freelance Police’s latest outing a must-have for any adventure game fan.

The Devil’s Playhouse stars the Freelance Police: Sam, an anthropomorphic canine detective, and his sidekick Max, a three-foot, certifiably psychotic lagomorph (that’s “giant bunny” to you). Telltale Games has received plenty of acclaim since taking over the Sam & Max adventure game franchise, thanks to polished graphics, consistently tight writing and gloriously surreal puzzles and humour.

The latest instalment retains the cartoon-like 3D graphics of its predecessors, but the graphics have received a bit of spit and polish. The character models in particular are smoother, sleeker and more detailed. Like previous titles, the game is being released as a series consisting of five short episodes, released monthly, each of which provides around three hours of play. We’ve only seen Episode 1: The Penal Zone for this review.

You’re thrown straight into the action as our plucky heroes, imprisoned aboard a space ship, attempt to open a dimensional rift to banish a megalomaniacal alien gorilla who seems hell-bent on destroying the city. It’s soon revealed that this is in fact a flash-forward, courtesy of Max’s strange new psychic powers.

These powers play a key part in the game’s plot and are the solution to many of its mind-bending puzzles. They’re bestowed by magical toys, including a slide viewer that allows Max to look into the future and toy phone that allows him to teleport to the location of any phone he knows the number of. Sam and Max are in a race to get these toys before Skunka’pe, their simian nemesis.

Telltale has made a few changes to the interface. The traditional point-and-click method of navigation has been replaced by a virtual joystick that lets you drag Sam around the screen with the mouse, or guide him with the WASD keys. This feels a little clumsy at first but we got used to it quickly enough – it also means that the game has full support for Xbox 360 controllers.

The new controls worked surprisingly well, even during a brief action sequence that required us to dodge laser beams from a hostile gorilla-themed space ship. Interacting with objects still works in traditional point and click style, with hotspots to make life easier for controller users.

The Penal Zone feels like an introduction, which is largely what it is; it serves to set out the plot and debut Max’s powers. Fortunately, Telltale hasn’t let this get in the way of strong puzzle and story development, so you’ll soon be drawn in to discovering the horrible fate Skunka’pe has in store for the innocent-but-irritating Mole People and coping with the implications of being able to change events in the future by your actions in the present.

It’s a great opening to what’s shaping up to be yet another fantastic series of Sam & Max adventures. The whole series costs £25. If you’re undecided, you can buy each episode for £6, but stand-alone episodes won’t be available until the full sequence has been released.

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