‘Sam And Max: The Penal Zone’ iPad Review

The first episode of the third season of “Sam & Max” released on the PC and PS3 on April 15th, but it’s actual debut coincided with the release of the iPad. I’ve spent some time with the title and I’m more than pleased with the faithful transition to the new platform — but it’s not without its problems.

The Basics

In the third season’s inaugural episode, dubbed “The Penal Zone,” Sam & Max find themselves at odds with an evil alien gorilla who comes to Earth in search of fabled toys. As the grim narrator points out in the beginning of the tale, this is the usual story that features the odd duo stopping the bad guy.

What he doesn’t reveal is that the entertainment from this particular adventure stems from an unlikely place: Max’s plot arc. That’s not to discount the series’ characteristic wit, dialogue, and well-written story, but this episode is something of a change of a pace courtesy of the sociopathic rabbit-thing.

The Highs

Hitting those Story Moments Faster
Max’s transformation to a psychic bunny-beast brings in a few key innovative design elements that act as delightful and refreshing twists for the series in general. Max gains the ability to teleport (with victims) and see the future. The latter power is an important one: when using it, you’ll actually see the result of a discovery or a plot element before it happens in the game. The insight keeps the episode flowing, allowing you to hit all the plot beats without frustration. It also adds a compelling wrinkle to the story as most of the action won’t occur chronologically.

Mr. Auto-Run to the Rescue!
Navigation is the biggest boo-boo in this particular version of the game (more on that below) but an auto-run mechanic, the overall undemanding nature of the adventure game experience, and the quick reveal of interactive objects act as good band-aids. Pressing two fingers to the screen highlight what things can be interacted with, cutting the hassle of nook-and-cranny exploration. When that item is double-clicked, Sam will run to it automatically, killing much of the desire for a different navigation setup.

The Lows

Hi Wall! Fancy Meetin’ You Here
Character movement is muddied by the imprecise fingering and dragging of Sam along the game’s tightly constructed environments. You’ll slam into geometry, move in undesirable directions, and even accidentally trigger events (thereby breaking the narrative flow that you’ll want to control) instead of hitting the places you want to. If it wasn’t for the auto-run, this little bite-sized version of the adventure would have fallen flat.

Hot, Cold, Slow, and Screeching
Perhaps because the game just requires more memory than the mighty iPad has, you’ll catch spots of lag or experience more than a few loading hiccups. One platform-specific problem you’ll definitely catch are the terrible audio screeches that occur after loading screens. Keep that volume down.

The Verdict

Aside from the bothersome manual movement and weird audio screeches, this first iPad edition of “Sam & Max” is an enjoyable experience. Expect some brilliant change of pace additions that come in tow with this latest iteration and expect the same warmth, character, and a similar style of play as always. Just don’t expect perfect.