Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7/Mac OS 10.5 or newer, 2.0 GHz CPU, 1 GB RAM, 128 MB DirectX 8.1-compliant graphics card (not recommended for Macs with integrated graphics), DirectX 8.1-compliant sound card, DirectX 9.0c or better
Release date: July 20, 2010
The gleefully odd story of the otherworldly Devil’s Toybox continues in Sam and Max Season 3 Episode 4: Beyond the Alley of the Dolls, the next chapter in the tale of the plucky Freelance Police vs. aliens and occult forces bent on world domination. And while all of the stuff that makes these games so entertaining is here, you also might find yourself bashing your head on your desk in frustration more than you might have done in previous installments.
As in the previous two episodes, Alley picks up pretty much where the story left off. The irascible diner owner Grandpa Stinky and his text message-obsessed granddaughter are having a plate-throwing fight when Sam, Max and alien space gorilla Gen. Skunkape rush into the diner, followed closely by a seething horde of Max clones, clad only in colorful biker shorts. Our heroes and their reluctant companions board up the windows, block the doors and try to hold back the mostly naked dog-men. When Sam and Max finally escape, they try to figure out who created the clones and for what purpose.
Not unexpectedly, the nuts and bolts of the game have not changed since the beginning of the series. Move Sam with the WASD keys, use the mouse to move the hand cursor around the environments. The cursor changes color when it touches something that can be collected or examined. Inventory is managed by the cardboard box icon in the corner of the screen; select an item with the mouse, then move it where you want it and click again. There’s no combining of items in inventory, unlike other point-and-click adventures, and there are very few items to manage, making it easier to concentrate on the story.
Max’s psychic powers are front and center once again this episode. Along with the now-familiar teleportation, future-divining and transformation abilities, Max also finds a magic deck of cards that makes him clairvoyant. These are skills that must be put into play to progress through the story; there are several puzzles that are unsolvable without them. Alley is obviously written with a classic horror theme in mind; there are many references to films such as The Omen, Night of the Living Dead and the like. The conversation system is excellent; dialogue threads are greyed out when they are completed, something that many more sophisticated games still haven’t been able to figure out. And, as usual, the script is filled with the snarky humor that we’ve come to expect from Telltale.
But this time, you’d better have your thinking caps firmly in place. The game starts you off with a puzzle that’s so obtuse that you’re likely to stumble around for a long time before lucking upon the answer; not even the built-in hint system is much help. Once you get past that, the story moves along at a good pace, but the game’s major puzzles are the most frustrating of the season so far; even with maximum hints, it took me almost six hours to finally get to the final battle that sets up the season’s final episode. And, surprisingly, Alley still has some of the little problems that have dogged this series (no pun intended) since the beginning: typos in the subtitles, cursors that change color when there’s nothing there to interact with, and a camera that sometimes makes it tough to click on desired characters or objects, or move where you want to go.
You have to give credit where it’s due: Telltale’s writers have done an excellent job of crafting a five-episode arc that continues to build in tension and excitement. Which is hard, since the series started out with the Earth in danger of being conquered by alien apes. The writing is sharp and witty, the story is complex and entertaining, and the puzzles are still very satisfying to solve (especially in this episode, in which you’ll need a higher quotient of dumb luck than in the others). Episode 4: Beyond the Alley of the Dolls is a frustrating but involving step towards the final act in this increasingly strange and wonderful series.