Police officers and private investigators have always had a rocky relationship. The badge comes with authority at the cost of formality - something loathed by private eyes.
Freelance police Sam and Max exude the carefree attitude of their trade proudly, even though it means their latest adventure isn't an authoritative example of the genre's best and brightest. Sam & Max Episode 1: The Penal Zone is amusing in parts, but best relegated to series followers rather than adventuresome newcomers.
The unexpected arrival of alien evil-doer General Skun-ka'pe prompt private detectives Sam and Max into action. Pledging peace and technological partnership for help in finding a powerful psychic artifact, Skun-ka'pe in fact seeks to control the universe.
Fortunately, the talking dog and bunny duo supported by your finger-tapping are enough to prevent his crazed ambitions from becoming reality.
A couple of private dicks
Puzzles are few and far between in this adventure, where conversation reigns supreme. Chatting to the many bizarre characters that populate the game drives the story forward. This focus makes for less obtuse adventuring, since you never have to deal with difficult riddles or complex contraptions, though it increases the burden on dialogue to entertain. In short, it's all about the writing.
There are some good laughs to be had, even if a majority of the jokes fall flat because of predictability or immaturity. Low brow quips about urine and masturbation are seen from a mile away, making them laughable not because they're funny but because the game opts for such easy punchlines.
On the contrary, Sam & Max embraces a breed of kooky humour that serves as a sort of inside joke for fans of the series.
This episode doesn't demand familiarity with previous instalments, but there's a sense that you've missed something if you're engaging the series for the first time. It makes establishing a connection with the game tough, despite the streamlined gameplay.
Complicated puzzles have wisely been pushed aside in favour of simpler task-oriented gameplay. Progress is made by interacting with a specific object or compiling a set of components to meet a goal.
For example, one early objective requires collecting a power core and jar of broth to reanimate a talking brain. Acquiring these items is surprisingly simple: interrogating a few characters and mindful exploration are enough for success.
Max's special psychic powers guarantee figuring out what needs to be done is never hard. Take future vision, for instance: using it enables you to see what will happen to an object in the near future. Use it on an important character or object related to an objective and you get a clue as to what you have to do to complete your goal. If that's not enough help, Max occasionally speaks up to point you in the right direction.
For all of the effort to craft gameplay that minimises frustration, it's not always clear when an object is interactive due to the lack of an indication system. Borrowing the method used in Beneath a Steel Sky: Remastered and Broken Sword: Director's Cut in which interactive objects are highlighted on the screen whenever you hold a finger down would address this. [Correction: Holding two fingers to the screen reveals hot spots in the current scene. It somehow passed me by, I regret the error.]
Most disappointing about Sam & Max is the array of technical issues plaguing this iPad release. Audio glitches caused grating sounds to pipe through the speakers on several occasions. A major graphical bug forced me to quit out of the game during one session because the screen was disassembled into a series of distorted triangles. It's also worth pointing out that the game generally runs slowly.
Technical problems are sure to be fixed, but the low brow humour holds Sam & Max back from earning a badge and being inducted into the force of top-notch touch-enabled adventures.