Review – Sam & Max Episode 204: Chariots of the Dogs (PC)

pc_sammax204_chariotsofthedogs_box.jpgCan it possibly be true that we have passed the half-way point in the second season of Sam & Max?  Indeed, it is true – with the completion of this episode there is only one more episode to go until we reach the conclusion of Season Two.  And what a season it has been!  Telltale has managed to outdo themselves at every turn, mixing up the equation of what worked in Season One without compromising the quality of characters, writing or humor at all.  Now we have reached the fourth episode – Chariots of the Dogs – and the same amazing pace of hilarity continues without any sign of slowing!

Once again this season I will assume that if you are reading this review of Season Two of the Sam & Max series that you already have some passing knowledge of the episodes from the previous season. I still won’t pull a ‘Vader is Luke’s father’ moment that some people who hadn’t seen Empire before Jedi trailers started airing experienced (sorry if I just shocked you and welcome to 1980!), but I will likely drop some names and recurring themes and other minor references throughout. It won’t ruin the experience any more than my having said that Bosco would become a recurring character would have ruined the first episode for you. Please also forgive the repetition, which is necessary for getting readers who are new to the series up to speed – if you’ve read it all before then skip straight to the game quote further down!


For the full history of Sam & Max, check out our review of Season One: Episode 1 – but in a nutshell, the LucasArts game Sam & Max Hit the Road from 1993 was a great mixture of adventure and humor, and has become a deservedly classic milestone in gaming history. After a false start for a series revival by LucasArts and a passionate Internet campaign by the fans, TellTale Games (creators of the excellent Bone series) gained ownership of the license and got straight to work, crafting a series using their adventure builder to tell stories through a point-and-click adventure interface featuring full 3D animation. The move to episodic content was a concern, but true to their word TellTale continue to release new episodes on a regular basis, and in some ways it’s better to be forced to spread the experience out rather than wolf it down in one go.

The Sam & Max games use the TellTale tool that the company has developed and perfected over the years. Season Two looks very similar to the first season – perhaps a bit better as the artists have further refined their work processes, but everything looks quite familiar and you’ll immediately at home.  The emphasis is on storytelling rather than delivering buzzword compliant technology, so expect loads of dialog and options, rather than the latest version of pixel shader models. This is actually a good thing, because so many games focus on delivering a great looking experience that they fail to deliver a great gaming experience. The TellTale Tool aims to do some of both – the game certainly is great looking, but in a 3D comic book style. This means that the world looks much like something out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit; everything looks real but exaggerated. The 3D styling makes everything look modern and the characters are all nicely animated, to the point where lip-syncing matched the dialog. The goal isn’t realism so much as believability – I mean, how real do you expect a detective dog and his psychotic lagomorph sidekick to be?! The realism is injected into the dialog – the voice acting is superb and gets better with each passing episode! The voice actors really bring a wonderful passion and humor to their characters that makes each of them leap out of the screen and adds tremendous depth to already great stories – and the timing and delivery of the humor is spot on throughout.


The storytelling is where things really shine – the interface just begs you to click things, talk to people and try all sorts of crazy things. Quite simply, this is one of the nicest interfaces I have ever used in an adventure game. Everything is easily accessible – options and game saves are quickly located in a screen-level drop down and the inventory system is an ever-present box in the lower corner of the screen. Little things help – saves are done nearly instantly, with each one providing a clear caption and image to illustrate exactly where you were when you saved. Interacting with items is equally easy; the mouse-capture range is adequate for discerning small objects close to each other and you simply click on things to interact. This allows you to talk, flip switches, pick up items and so on – and to use an item in your inventory on another item by simply choosing the item from the box and then clicking on the desired object to interact with. It is incredibly intuitive and friendly – and allows you to focus on laughing!

“Sheesh, even bathrooms aren’t safe from natural male enhancement SPAM.”

What is it with TellTale and the number four?  Last season’s fourth episode “Abe Lincoln Must Die” (now freely available) is widely considered the best of the first season, and it appears that the fourth episode of the second season might be the pinnacle as well (we’ll have to wait another month for the fifth and final episode).  The season so far has featured a crazy episode about Santa, a rather scattered and short but fun episode about giant stone heads, and a Eurotrash vampire taking on the world with full Emo style.  There are new formulas starting to appear, new patterns in where to go and who to interact with, yet each episode also makes a point of taking you far away from the neighborhood in pursuit of this month’s case.


But wait – didn’t something happen to Bosco in Episode 203?  Sure did, and guess what – your mission in Chariots of the Dogs is to find Bosco.  Sounds simple – until you realize that he is nowhere ON EARTH!  You team up with Flint Paper, who has already been doing surveillance on Bosco – and together you unleash the combined investigative forces!  This episode tosses out a number of conventions from the rest of the season and series, yet while you miss them to an extent it doesn’t diminish the experience.  Even the omission of some characters and the very minor roles of others doesn’t take away from the episode.  Indeed, rather than feeling that they needed to include this gameplay element or that character, Telltale simply stuck to the story they wanted to tell and filled it with jokes and cool references to time and space and other random stuff.  And it all works.

As an added bonus, this is the longest episode of the season, and perhaps the longest episode of the entire series.  It can still be completed in a single (dedicated) sitting, but it is more likely to take a few days of smaller chunks.  And as with the rest of the episodes, there is no rush – just sit back and click on everything and explore every possible detail.  Because more than in almost any other episode, Chariots of the Dogs everything you click is new and fresh and will quite often make you just stop and laugh for a while.  These characters and stories have exceeded our expectations for nine previous episodes, and the tenth one continues to demonstrate that Telltale has some of the best and funniest writers in all of gaming.  I can’t wait for the season two finale … and for the next season.
Score: 5 / 5 Stars

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