Review: Sam & Max: Save the World

November 10, 2009, Author: Ray Willmott

I think it’s fair to say that a story can get away with a lot of things within the realms of a computer game. Having been a gamer for twenty years, I’ve seen a lot of wild and wonderful things: from a janitor in space becoming a hero of the entire galaxy to monkeys being trapped in balls, rolling around a maze to reach the exit and voodoo pirates being killed by bottles of root beer.  It’s easy to suspend belief if a game has a compelling concept or weaves a captivating story, and it’s within this freedom of creativity that the industry has flourished so much within the last decade.

Computer games are allowed to be wacky; they can highlight a zany undertone and people are unlikely to bat an eyelid or drop their jaw. In some respects, videogames have become the new art-house of the entertainment industry and are allowing stories and adventures to go to new, remarkable places that other forms of entertainment wouldn’t dare to touch on. That’s why comic book writer/illustrator Steve Purcell’s vision of freelance police officers Sam and Max, a dog in a police uniform who can play the banjo, and a naked psychopathic Lagomorph respectively, works in the context of a computer game. That’s why the game has earned its place on the extensive catalogue of Xbox Live Arcade games and received so much acclaim. Yet, it is perhaps this very reason that it is one of the most underestimated and underplayed games on Xbox 360 in 2009.

When it was originally released, Save The World began as an exclusive PC project, but, since its release, Sam & Max have broadened their horizons and now feature on Nintendo Wii and Xbox Live Arcade, with rumours of a Playstation Network release continuing to hound the airwaves.

A dog that walks upright and a rabbit thing
So what is it all about you ask? Well, we have a dog and a rabbit posing as freelance police officers that are utterly adverse to the letter of the law they are practically its antithesis; they are more like freelance criminals. They are as depraved, as psychotic and as irresponsible as juvenile delinquents and love to terrorize, pillage and plunder! However, from the very beginning of the first episode, as you find your two main characters walking aimlessly around their office filled with everything from last week’s donuts to a closet filled with cheese and a calendar depicting monthly road kill, you find yourself quickly drawn into the psychological makeup of these characters, and are not so quick to categorize and pigeonhole them;  perhaps more so than any other videogame characters you’ve ever met.

Then, when a phone call comes in about a strange video hypnotizing the entire population, it seems you are the only ones who can solve the case.  You suddenly find yourself more drawn into their lives than perhaps you would like to be. Suddenly, you’re solving puzzles the way they would, using their own unique style of logic and deciphering clues and reaching conclusions in ways that will make you scratch your head and leave you speechless.

It is clear that the ‘Save the World’ subtitle is more than just a tagline and more of a recurring theme throughout each of the six episodes. Of course, it may delude you into thinking you need to save a beautiful blonde cheerleader in order to accomplish your task, but as the story progresses you realise she’s nowhere to be found and the scale of the game widens as the freelance police find themselves at the White House, in Virtual Reality and heading as far as the moon.

When concluding an episode there is a clue at the end of it that shows you what to expect from the next installment. In this regard there is a sense of continuity cross-stitching each of the six episodes together. However, while the game usually references what has happened in previous installments, there doesn’t really seem to be an overall arching storyline during the early stages of Save The World. It almost feels as if Telltale weren’t even sure themselves where the season was ultimately going to go. However, this is quickly rectified by the time you reach my personal season favourite, Situation Comedy.

Not your typical buddy story...

Point, then click!
The game is primarily controlled by the left analog stick, with occasional mini-games scattered throughout with their own means of control. As the player you are in control of a pointer which can be used to interact with certain parts of the scenery around you. When you press a button on any of the significant parts of the scenery, Sam will describe what he sees in his own inimitable way, and sometimes Max will chime in with a chilling fantasy of his own that may disturb or delight. You also have an inventory system located at the bottom left of the screen in a large cardboard box. Upon clicking on this box you can then use items you collect around Sam & Max’s crazy neighbourhood and other places they visit in conjunction with other characters and situations.

However, one of the major arguments levelled at this game is the unsuitability of the control scheme to the 360 pad. Simply put, it’s not a lovechild born of the angels. You can tell instantaneously that the game was never written or designed for consoles, and as a result you can be left vexed and frustrated as you try to control the game. No matter how hard a developer may try, an analog stick will never replace a mouse. This is especially noticeable during time sensitive situations, or when you’re hunting for the smallest area on the screen to continue your adventure. In this regard, Telltale could take some tips from Lucasarts and what they did with the Secret of Monkey Island’s Special Edition interface or even their earlier venture on the 360, Wallace and Gromit: Fright of the Bumblebees. When taking these two games into consideration, you can see what can really be done with a gamepad, and how a game in this genre can be realised to its full potential on Xbox Live Arcade.

However, my love for the crazy cast meant the experience of the analog was not enough to detract from the intelligent yet mind shreddingly insane dialogue and radical, over the top story lines. Where I may have sat and felt a semblance of tedium or frustration because the pointer wasn’t moving across the screen to my liking, I would hear one of the Lagomorph’s violent soliloquies or Sam’s rampant ramblings, and suddenly I’d be chuckling to myself again.

Faux 3D?
The game’s graphics are extremely cleverly designed. Essentially, they can be described as 2.5D. They’re set against luscious hand drawn 2D backdrops, but are bustling and filled with life and actions going on that are not controlled by, but are occasionally influenced by you. Also, the character models for Sam, Max and the rest of the cast, such as Bosco and Sybil, are very well realised fleshed out, and they’re given their own environments in which to dwell on and reflect their personalities.

The game is extremely vibrant and colourful, and keeps things fresh with areas completely unique from each other. For example, the somewhat wacky depiction of the White House interior is one you definitely won’t soon forget, nor is its innovative and technically brilliant imagining of Reality 2.0.
The graphics and art style supports the unorthodox setting and draws you deeper into the game world. With its vision it’s not impossible to believe a dog and a rabbit are openly interacting with human beings and having long drawn out conversations about politics, Prima Donnas and even prunes!

Click, click, click!
The voice acting for the entire cast is well suited. There’s that slight southern husk in Sam’s tone when he wraps his tongue around insightful dialogue which somehow seems to give it an added sense of purpose; that high pitched note of  excitement in Max’s voice that runs chills down the spine when inspired by violence or his own perverted sense of justice. The rest of the supporting cast are just as excellent, with Bosco perhaps getting to give out the most variety in tone throughout the whole season. Also, just wait until you hear the voice of Abraham Lincoln!

As for the music, the sweet succulent symphony of the saxophone will keep playing on loop in the background, and stay stuck in your head whether you’re playing the game or not. You may even find yourself whistling the tunes on the bus on the way to work or cooking food over the stove. It’s a nice refreshing change from heavy metal, rock and rap music dominating the soundtrack of games, and can make you feel very comfortable and relaxed when settling down with Sam & Max.

The sound effects do take somewhat of a backseat during the game, but, when used, are usually very important in puzzle solving and setting the mood and ambience in a particular scene. Whether it is the beeping sounds of the C.O.P.S in Reality 2.0 or the Desoto speeding up the highway in pursuit of criminals or other unsavoury elements on the road, the game implements them seamlessly into the experience.

Seriously, what are you?!

So how is it? Really??
Overall, Telltale Games have done a magnificent job in recreating Steve Purcell’s vision from comic book to computer screen. At times they come close to hitting the high notes that the original Sam & Max Hit the Road set in 1993, but there are also times when the action seems is drawn out for too long. There’s no doubt the script writers understand the characters well; they have made the chemistry between dog and rabbit the highlight of the entire experience, as it should be. Also, during the second half of Save The World, the player will really start to notice just how experimental and comfortable Telltale have become with these characters, and how their creativity is represented in later cases. In my opinion, this is when the game really starts to shine and finds its voice.

Yet, there are occasions where you feel like you’re retreading familiar ground, hearing the same lines of dialogue repeated over and again and a sense of formula really starts to set in. The more you play, the more you become aware of the structure of the game, reminiscent of TV shows such as Sesame Street and 24.

As for the price point, a source of controversy among many gamers, it has undoubtedly stunted the sales of this remarkable game.  XBLA gamers flamed up a storm when the standard price point from Arcade Games went from 400 to 800, so imagine how they must feel when they see something appear at double the price. However, it’s worth every single point and more. This may be hard to believe, but 1600 points is an absolute bargain for the package you get here, and no I’m not drinking Kool-Aid, or under the influence of any type of drug. Seriously, test my blood! The tag line is not a joke; this game will last you at least 20 hours on your first play through, unless you’re a former contestant on Mastermind, you’re playing with a guide or have the hints cranked up on high just to get those extra lines of dialogue for the leaderboard (Oh yeah, I’m onto you!). Plus, if you weren’t as thorough during the first playthrough, there are additional achievements in certain episodes you can get in the second.

Sam & Max is charming; you know it’s trying to be charming, sometimes even cute, and sometimes that will force your gag reflexes, but you can’t help but be floored when your sides are hurting from laughter and you have to put the pad down to compose yourself. Once you allow the humour to take you in and draw you into its world, you can’t help find yourself swept up in it all and lose hours just clicking around and experimenting with all wild manner of combinations. This game has been criminally left at the back shelf of XBLA games and it is an absolute travesty. Certainly, there are flaws in this game, but that is true of a lot of titles on the market today, even the ones with high production values and positive reviews pouring out of their ass. There are few games with intelligent writing, a clever story and unique scenarios as Sam & Max: Save The World does. I understand these games aren’t for everyone, but you’ll never know if you’re one of the lucky few until you give them a try!


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