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Sam and Max: Beyond Time and Space XBLA Review

18/11/2009 Specialist Closeup Gamer Review
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Sam and Max: Beyond Time and Space XBLA

Sam and Max: Beyond Time and Space



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Playing Sam and Max Beyond Time and Space on the 360's Xbox Live Arcade brought back some fond nostalgic memories of halcyon days playing other point and click adventures. It made me want to play them though, and definitely not Sam and Max.

My feelings towards the Sam and Max franchise are similar to my feelings towards Morecambe and Wise. I know that some people find Eric and Ernie to be hilarious, iconic and soothingly familiar, yet every time I've tried to watch them I just don't see or get it. I see two odd-looking gentlemen, who are very much of the establishment, performing antiquated sketches and falling over. It doesn't move me, ask any questions of me, offend me or make me laugh. That does not mean that people who love Morecambe and Wise to the very core of their being are in the wrong, just that those people have experiences and preferences that have led them to an appreciation of that style of humour. I am sure that if you put Morecambe and Wise in their historical context they were edgy, subversive and entertaining. I was not around at the time, so it is not fair to compare their output to that of modern comedians, the world (and comedy) has changed.

So what? Well, I missed the boat with Sam and Max first time round. Sam and Max Hit the Road when I was 11 years old and was preoccupied with the console-based delights of Super Mario World and Pilotwings on the SNES. Through friends I would come to play and appreciate many of the other LucasArts point and click adventures of the time on the Amiga: Monkey Island 1 and 2, Day of the Tentacle, The Dig and Full Throttle. The original Broken Sword remains one of my favourite games. I've yet to visit Paris but I'm certain that when I enter the city, Barrington Pheloung's sparse yet majestic score will haunt me for the duration of the trip. I went through a phase where I could not get enough of playing point and click games, so the genre is not the problem.

I had a quick go of Sam and Max Hit the Road aged 13 but found the humour a little bit forced: the characters were zany, but not particularly interesting and whilst I could tell that there was some sort of parody of American popular culture going on, I was fully aware that the vast majority of it was flying way over my head. Perhaps I should have given it more time, but that universe did not draw me in.

Any American pop-culture references were lost on me, in a way that they weren't when watching Arrested Development.

Beyond Time and Space is the second series of the new episodic direction that Telltale Games has taken with the franchise. Being given the opportunity to review it fairly objectively (not being able to compare it to Hit the Road, or Save the World) I wanted to give it a fair chance. My first impression was that it looked like it had been put together fairly cheaply. The voice acting did not sync and the colours seemed washed out. First impressions count.

Each episode starts off in the same location - Sam and Max's dingy office, and the street outside, which gets revisited each episode with the same recurring set of non-player characters. Once again, the characters are weird but I don't feel compelled to find out anything more about them. The humour, which is perhaps the series' strongest selling point, did not really do anything for me. The writing is very strong for a videogame but the delivery really limits its impact. Once again, any American pop-culture references were lost on me, in a way that they weren't when watching Arrested Development. Perhaps my problem with it was that the game itself manages to appear smug and knowing. Like it knew it had already earned a place in my heart and so it could afford not to try so hard to impress. It hadn't yet.

The two most important elements of any point and click are its story and puzzles. Both have to work together to provide you with an impetus to keep playing - with the advancement of the story generally being the reward for completing each puzzle, combined with the intrinsic satisfaction that anyone receives when they solve a problem. Unfortunately, with Beyond Time and Space I wasn't impressed by either. Of the episodes that I played and completed, the puzzles were simplistic, ‘go there, fetch some things, return them to a different place' and this stripped me of any satisfaction. Compounding this, the story felt like it was more or less irrelevant to the gameplay. I have never got on particularly well with plot-driven story in games anyway.

for me, storytelling is rarely any good in games and I never really feel that engaged with the experience.

A friend challenged me on this recently, asking whether story even mattered to me. This came up as he encouraged me to have a go on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves on his PlayStation 3. At various points I'd had to stop and ask him what I had to do next as I had not been paying attention during the (boring) cutscenes. I'd been playing for a while, and as a group of jungle guerrilla stereotypes descended on my position I proceeded to leap around like a madman trying to avoid their gunfire. He politely informed me that jumping doesn't make you move any faster. He went on to say that unrealistic behaviour like that completely took him out of the game and ruined it for him.

He's not interested in a game if he can't follow a story that goes along with it. With sports sims he'll make up a story to explain why his character lost his last title match and everything! I was surprised because, for me, storytelling is rarely any good in games and I never really feel that engaged with the experience. Unless a game is more-or-less completely plot-driven (as with Final Fantasy and its ilk) or draws me in through its sheer charm (confession: I cried at the end of Yoshi's Island) I have next to no interest in the characters or what happens to them, it's all about the action. I was shocked to find out that other people value realism. The realisation that I am not a particularly deep gamer (immature?) was vaguely upsetting as I like to think that my taste in music, film and literature are quite high-brow.

This conversation threw some light on my apathy towards Sam and Max Beyond Time and Space - perhaps the game's just not for me and I should just accept it and move on.

I still think it looks cheap. I still maintain that the puzzles aren't challenging. The story is bizarre - but is coherent, I just don't find enforced zanyness particularly amusing. I have to concede that the writing is excellent but I do feel that the delivery hampers its impact. In conclusion: one for the fans.

Written by Ben Butler

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Ben Butler writes the Closeup Gamer column.

"While most game reviews skim over the whole of a game, I focus on just one mode or level."

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