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Review – Sam & Max: Night of the Raving Dead

posted on May 27th, 2008 by stefan

I’ll be honest with you. When I started writing this review, I was only doing it to get this game out of the way. I really wanted to review episodes 4 and 5, and it just didn’t seem right to skip this tale of the emo undead, no matter how mediocre I may have found it upon first playthrough. As I began writing, however, I realized that this game taught me something. It taught me why I play Sam and Max. Not a deep, meaningful life lesson by any means, but a lesson nonetheless.

To catch people up who haven’t played the game already, New York is invaded by hoards of zombies, and Sam and Max must travel to Stuttgart in order to stop them at their source: a castle-turned-goth-club called “The Zombie Factory.”

“I will go this far and no further.”

As a number of reviews have pointed out, this game should have been brilliant. The designers are growing accustomed to the new hint system and introducing more complex, interesting puzzles without fear of alienating players. The subject matter seems custom-tailored for satire, and the addition of a zombie Abraham Lincoln just can’t hurt anything, ever. And yet, poised on the brink of absolute victory, Telltale seems to have faltered. They didn’t really fail, they just didn’t really come through either.

The puzzles in Night of the Raving Dead are actually quite good. They do tend to fall into the “Fetch me the three MacGuffins” genre that the series overuses, but the solutions are clever, witty, and require some serious observation and creative thought. This is starting to be an adventure series which rewards players for discarding the assumption that it will follow conventional adventure-game logic, and I really appreciate that.

One of the puzzles that stands out in the first half of the game is the goal of defeating Jorgen (your flaming [not literally] German emo-vampiric nemesis) by rendering him uncool in the eyes of his zombie entourage. This requires a variety of approaches, including subverting his own vampiric tendencies and manipulating European pop-culture trends using your status as the stars of Midtown Cowboys, and I applaud the designers for the effort that went into it.

Overall, the puzzles are enough to keep this game interesting. The problem? I just didn’t care. I may need to turn in my adventure gamer credentials, but by about 2/3 of the way through I found myself cranking the hint meter up to the max just to speed things along, and towards the very end I went straight to Telltale’s online walkthrough. Playing through a second time for this review, I realized: I don’t play Sam and Max for the puzzles. I play it for the story and the humor.

Unfortunately, story and humor is where “Night of the Raving Dead” falls, well, dead. Both in humor and characterization/plot, I felt like I was playing through a throw-away episode. The kind of filler that networks demand be inserted in order to stretch a 2-season show to 3 seasons, or to make it more “accessible” to people who haven’t followed the storyline.

The perfect storm of subject matter may have worked against the writers in this case, as they mostly ended up going for obvious, hackneyed, and cliched jokes. With the exception of a few funny one-liners (“Southern Gothic”), and a wonderfully done “Blucher” gag, I rarely even cracked a smile. For a game series which normally has me laughing loud enough that my neighbors can hear, this is a real disappointment.

There was a lot of self-referential humor in the game, but it felt forced, and often focused on the parts of the games I liked the least (like the fetch-quests), simply reinforcing their repetitive nature. Whether joking about the stereotypes of adventure games, or the stereotypes of flaming European club-goers, or the stereotypes about emo kids, most of the jokes were ones I’d heard before, and it all just felt played out. In particular, I just don’t think it’s possible to write an original joke about how Europeans like David Hasselhoff. Even if you write it in Sanskrit and have it center around the Book of Mormon, that exact joke will have been told at least twenty times before.

As for the plot and characterization, they really didn’t draw me in. Jergen’s motivation is never really established – he’s just sort of evil and whiny. (It’s mentioned in a one-line aside in the next game, reinforcing the fact that this episode doesn’t really connect to the story arc). To Telltale’s credit, they make him a good caricature, and I look forward to his one-liners and cameos in future seasons, but he lacks even the shallow third dimension that previous villains like Santa Claus and Roy G Biv had. Honestly, even Brady Culture had more of a backstory and motivation.

Could he be any hotter?

Bosco continues to be missing from this game, and while his absence turns out to be important at the end, it results in something of a humor gap. Sybil’s plot looks like it’s building momentum, but is thrown away at the end for no discernible reason beyond a motivation for nothing to have changed during this episode. And really, nothing did. Beyond the introduction of two new characters, nothing else has changed at all.

The one new character I really enjoyed was The Creature. Offering some of the best characterization in the episode, he was the only character I really empathized with. Unfortunately, his plot is also sacrificed in order to return everything to it’s starting conditions, and in a manner which seems particularly cruel, even for this series.

Overall, this isn’t actually a bad adventure game. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a good adventure game, particularly if you play for the puzzles. The story and writing just aren’t up to the shining standards I’m used to from Telltale.

3 Comments

  1. Christian said on May 27, 2008:

    This is best review of a Sam and Max game on all of Videolamer.

  2. Stefan said on May 28, 2008:

    Not at all…I’m just standing on the shoulders of past giants.

  3. Christian said on May 28, 2008:

    No this is really good. Analyzing the characters without retreading on old ground. The analogy to midseason filler is spot on.

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