Sam & Max: Episode 204 - Chariots of the Dogs review
The Good: Everything that could be right with a comedic, episodic adventure game is here. It is gorgeous, hilarious, balanced, wildly creative, and brimming with fun.
The Bad: Enjoy every minute--there's really nowhere to go from here but down.
Our Verdict: It is the Sam & Max episode we have been waiting for. After flirting with elements of perfection, the elusive goal is finally attained. This is the game to remind you why you love adventure games.

It has been an interesting and mostly enjoyable ride through the first nine episodes of the new generation of Sam & Max. In writing the reviews for those episodes, I've had to repeatedly revisit the same superlatives, point out the same admirations, while carefully considering the flaws--and to be sure, every episode to this point has been flawed to some extent. Sam & Max: Episode 204 - Chariots of the Dogs is the long-awaited episode that learns from the missteps of its predecessors while assimilating their best attributes, and from the dust comes the best single adventure gaming experience this writer has had in twelve years--one that can only be described as flawless.

From the very first moments of the episode it becomes abundantly clear that the standard Sam & Max conventions have been thrown out, and you're now playing through an idea that has been seemingly rebuilt from scratch. All those standard formulas, all those dependable recurrences--don't count on seeing any of them here. There are major supporting characters who make no appearance, and there are minor supporting characters who play a bigger role than you could have imagined. And really, I wish I could explain a bit more, but so much of the story is rooted in layers of comedic surprises, there's almost nothing I could reference or quote that wouldn't spoil at least some part of the experience--and I could never forgive myself for even partially spoiling an experience this enjoyable. You'll feel immediately how much the fun factor improves when you have absolutely no sense of what's coming next, and this is a fairly unique attribute to this series.

There's very little sense in reiterating to you all the technical areas at which this game excels because the pattern has already been established quite clearly. The graphics and animation are top-notch, the soundtrack establishing new levels of cleverness with each episode (there's a fantastic variation on the standard office theme that fits the setting perfectly when you reach that point). But these elements on their own could never provide a five-star experience.

Instead, the truly impressive turn of events is this episode's perfect balance in the area of difficulty. This episode is definitely less difficult than the preceding two episodes, but still contains two of the smartest puzzles of this season. The puzzles require actual attention and deduction, rather than relying on inventory-hunting mechanics or guesswork, and as a result the constant comic momentum is sustained for the entire three hours with quite a few challenges, but always avoiding the artificial frustrations that come with miscalculated puzzles. If you're having trouble with the puzzles, the customizable hint system is in fine form, having dispensed with some of the apparent logic bugs that were present in Night of the Raving Dead. When the puzzles are solved, they are always paid off by a hilarious animation or dialogue exchange or something else to make you feel sincerely rewarded.

It's not as though visual gags or belly-busting laughter is in short supply; this is, by quite a bit, the most spectacularly funny episode of Sam & Max to date. Humor is injected into every element of the game: in the writing, in the art, in the animation, in the very timing and presence of certain characters, and in the core creativity that gives the game its foundational story. I very likely laughed out loud more during this episode than I have in the last four episodes combined, and when I was not laughing, I was always smiling, always enjoying every second of playing. Every single tiny element of this game is bursting with joyous creative energy, and it is completely infectious. When I took a necessary break from the game, I found myself genuinely eager to get back to the game and keep going, found my mind wandering toward what I would need to do next. That is an extremely rare quality in any type of game--in any form of entertainment, for that matter. That's how compelling an experience this episode is.

Those who have played through the first season will really appreciate that Telltale has now fully embraced the fact that it's okay to not have episodes be self-contained; Chariots of the Dogs picks up exactly where last month's cliffhanger left off and then conjures up an extraordinary cliffhanger of its own to take us to next month (and, for good measure, the most perfect post-credit cutscene ever created). There are many elements throughout that will be so much more meaningful (and funny) if you have been following along since the days of Culture Shock. As someone who has made that journey, I love the decision to take a Lost-style approach and devote your creative energy to rewarding the loyal fans. If you haven't joined the party yet, I must recommend playing the episodes that lead up to this one first--it is worth every minute and you will be glad you did.

This game, quite simply, sets new standards--with the diabolically hilarious script and numerous perfectly-scripted visual gags, with the fantastically balanced puzzle design, with the incredibly bizarre array of clever ideas that build on each other to form this demented plot, with its willingness to trounce on expectations and be an original adventure in a cookie-cutter setting, and with its perfect connections to the episodes before and after, Chariots of the Dogs has hit a grand slam for episodic adventures. It is now the standard, the singular perfect model for everything that a comedic episodic adventure should be. It is so much fun, you will want to play it again immediately and then you will want to go back and replay its predecessors. It feels like the game that Telltale Games has been making for four years.

I guess the strongest sentiment I can make is this: I've been an adventure gaming journalist for more than ten years now. At some point along the line, playing adventure games became largely a job, a responsibility, a duty. Even through the first season and a half of Sam & Max, a series that should cut through the stone hearts of even the most jaded, I have mostly played with detached critical admiration. Chariots of the Dogs sucked me in and completely immersed me with the joy that comes from playing a special adventure game. With this series, it took a few tries and there were a few wrinkles to be ironed out along the way, but it has all led up to this three-hour jewel you'll find here--a flawless adventure gaming experience that will be treasured by all. The only negative to be discussed is really the ultimate cliffhanger--how exactly is Telltale supposed to follow this up?





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Game Info
Releases
Territory Date Publisher
Download March 13 2008 GameTap
Download March 14 2008 Telltale Games
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About the Author
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Evan Dickens
Staff Writer
Evan Dickens is the former editor-in-chief of Adventure Gamers. Now semi-retired, he meanders about on his front porch firing his slingshot at passing cars and griping about "the old days". Full Bio

Comments

Harald B Harald B
Mar 13, 2008

Not to mention that release date-wise, this is the first 5-star game in over 10 years! Happy days are here again!
(Ooh, I’m psychic. I’d say I can only imagine what Season Three will bring, but I’m not sure I can do even that much.)

fajerkaos
Mar 13, 2008

Then funny thing would be if episode five topped this.
Then, what would you do?

Still can’t play the season 2 episodes, so I shall probably stop reading reviews now, don’t want a cliffhanger spoiled ^^

Dale Dale
Mar 13, 2008

Roll on tomorrow then.  To impress Evan that much is no small feat.

fajerkaos
Mar 13, 2008

Oh, no, it’s not like that… It’s more about me, not having a computer (and being to cheap, to get one). =P

But I have bought the games, and I’ll definitely play them through once I can.

eriq
Mar 13, 2008

oh my. I may need to start playing Season 2 before it’s completed! Smile Great review Evan. I am salivating. Can’t wait to play!

HieroHero
Mar 13, 2008

Wow that is some kind of review. Can’t wait til tomorrow.

Erwin_Br Erwin_Br
Mar 13, 2008

Wow. I still have to finish the previous episode. It’s going to be a great weekend!

Zach055
Mar 13, 2008

I don’t have a gametap account so I need to wait until tomorrow to play it. After seeing this review I can’t wait.

Ouroboros
Mar 17, 2008

What happened after the credits? I didn’t watch and already uninstalled the game. Smile

Jackal Jackal
Mar 17, 2008

That’s really not a detail that can be shared here, as it would be a major spoiler for anyone who hasn’t played the game.

Ariel Type
Mar 20, 2008

Don’t take personal my “scepticism”, but I found this episode to be the weakest in the whole 2 seasons - both in puzzles and humour. It is very easy - so easy, that most of the puzzles are almost invisible. At the same time the design is of “running from one separate room to another” type, somewhat primitive and tiresome.
The idea of “past influence the future” was already used in Ep201 (and I’m even not talking abou DoTT or TimeQuest), with much better results. It’s just not interesting. And the level of humor was the most disappointing thing. Not a laugh through all the short adventure. Banal, cliche jokes, which are too often in touch with “sex” and “ass”. And the villians are by far the most irritating characters, along with Soda Peppers (three of them, again!).
It’d give the game 2.5 stars, and that’s just because it is cheap and distant from adventure genre.

RappScallion
Apr 5, 2008

wow 5 stars. i’ll have to work through series one when it comes out on the wii

zdubius
May 5, 2009

I have to agree with Ariel Type to some extent. It’s a very good episode, but not the greatest, and surely not a 5-star material. Somewhere around 3.5-4 would be suitable.  The past-changing concept has been implemented far better (and funnier) in DoTT (which deserves 5 stars), and I also didn’t find the constant running through the same locations too amusing.
Aside from that, it’s a good Sam&Max; episode, those who like the series can look forward to this one.

wielandsmith
Feb 1, 2010

I agree with the review - totally dug this episode!

MoonBird MoonBird
Mar 1, 2011

Still can’t get past the awful wax-doll-character models



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