Playing Sam and Max Episode 1: The Penal Zone on the iPad was like dating a gorgeous, funny woman who was prone to random crazy breakdowns. You put up with the crazy stuff because you love the highs and try to ignore the lows. The Penal Zone has gorgeous graphics and fully voiced characters. The game’s presentation is pretty much exactly what you would see on the PC or Xbox 360. Unfortunately, it’s pretty obvious Telltale Games didn’t have access to a preproduction iPad because the number of technical issues that plagued this title were abundant. Random crashes, freezes, sporadic long load times, and framerate slowdowns plagued my playthrough of the game. (Coming from a PC game “save early and often” background, the crashes never set me back too far.) I’m sure they did the best that they could to make the launch date given what they had to work with, but telling the user to reboot the iPad each time he wants to play, DOS boot disk style, is almost too much to ask. On the bright side, I think Telltale knew this and that’s why the price of the game was lowered to $6.99 (from $9.99).
I’m going to be honest and say I have never been that great at adventure games. Inevitably I’d always end up using a walkthrough for some or most of the game. With that said, I’m proud to say I completed all of The Penal Zone without looking to the internet for help. I’d like to say it’s all due to my leet deductive reasoning skillz, but it’s mainly a credit to great game design. There’s an excellent subtle hint system manifested through one of Max’s new psychic powers, future vision. With it, you can see what the future of certain items/people brings. Armed with this information, you can divine what you should do next. It’s a great way to help dense players like me get on the right track while making them feel awesome for figuring things out own their own. Max’s other main psychic power, teleportation, adds an almost Portal-like way to approach problems.
The Penal Zone is a great adventure game. You’d be hard pressed to find a more high quality 3-4 hour experience on the iPad. It’s just a shame the technical issues mar the otherwise awesome game. If you have the patience to deal with some slowdowns and random crashes, it’s a recommended purchase on the iPad since it’s only $6.99. Otherwise, I’d recommend getting it on the 360/PS3/PC/MAC platforms. It’ll cost a bit more, but you’re paying for stability.