During the first five minutes of this episode I thought I was about to witness something witty and ingeniously satirical – you know, what we’ve come to expect from Sam & Max games. Episode 4 opens with our heroes fleeing in terror from wave after wave of mindless Sam clones (“Dogglegangers!”). From that point onwards, the zombie apocalypse references are just itching to burst forth with typical Sam & Max flair, but they never really do. In fact, this entire episode seems to be a continual string of fizzle-outs, missed opportunities and anticlimaxes.
So far, Season 3 has kept true to the Sam & Max ethos and has been an exceedingly quirky and utterly insane take on the whole adventure game genre. That being said, the episodes to date have managed to maintain genuine intelligence amongst the madness specifically with regard to the puzzles. Having a plot, characters and events dripping with absurdity is one thing, but when that absurdity overflows into the puzzles, that is when the point-and-click adventure element starts to take strain. Beyond the Alley of the Dolls frequently falls victim to this and what adds to the frustration is that you are never really certain what it is you are supposed to be doing. Too often the puzzles whittle down into trial and error situations. The most infuriating of these is the puzzle that leads you to finding the Cthonic Destroyer in the Realm of Skittering Ingestion – don’t be fooled by the setup, it’s not nearly as entertaining as you think. I did not discover the required piece to this particular puzzle by being led to it, but rather I found it by complete accident. Furthermore, once discovered, the additional requirements for solving the puzzle were so intensely obscure and seemingly haphazard that I was left randomly trying various combinations. This is the worst possible situation one can find in the adventure game genre; it is damaging to the overall experience and does little more than foster a sense of resentment towards the developers for utilising cheap tricks in order to stump the player.
While there are immensely funny moments found scattered about this episode (the interaction with the self-aware arcade machine cabinet from Season 2 in particular), they are not enough to make up for the fact that the overall plot and puzzles leave much to be desired. The ending is no different and you will, in all likelihood, have to repeat the same sequence of events over and over, each time furiously clicking through the same inane dialogue in an attempt to finish the scene – which, I might add, finishes in a completely predictable manner. Here’s hoping the concluding episode can pull something amazing out of the bag because up to this point I have really enjoyed the season.