“Chariots of the Dogs," [$4.99] the fourth episode in the Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space series is easily the best one so far. The Sam & Max series has always been tightly written and designed, but “Chariots" does two things remarkably well: it matches its narrative hook to its mechanics, and it unifies the entire series.
If nothing else, “Chariots" is remarkable for the way it brings almost all of the big questions from the first three episodes and ties them together: the Bosco and Stinky subplots are advanced, and previously off-screen bit roles come forward as major players in the series. This feels satisfying and rewarding for longtime devotees, and Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space‘s episodic structure lends itself to weaving these disparate narrative threads together. Even the intro sequence feels tighter and more cinematic, suggesting a series that is maturing with each episode.
Episodes one, two, and three were generally self-contained, but “Chariots" provides the most solid narrative link in the series thus far: it picks up the immediate aftermath of “Night of the Raving Dead" [$4.99] and ends on a cliffhanger that propels the story into episode five [$4.99]
The Sam & Max series has always been, at its heart, based on inventory items, but Beyond Time and Space seems dedicated to refining and twisting that formula as much as possible: “Moai Better Blues" [$4.99] used portals to great effect; the previously mentioned “Raving Dead" included several dialogue trees and ambient aural puzzles. Without spoiling anything, “Chariots of the Dogs" focuses on time travel.
Incidentally, the time travel mechanic was first introduced in episode one, “Ice Station Santa," [$4.99] when Sam and Max have to appease the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future. (The Ghost of Christmas Future section actually foreshadows the end of “Chariots," if you’re paying attention.)
The beauty of “Chariots" isn’t just that it’s an adventure game with a time-travel story; the time travel conceit shapes and informs every puzzle, becoming the tentpole mechanic in its own right. A lazier game would use time travel as a plot device and build a standard inventory game around it. “Chariots of the Dogs" focuses not just on matching certain items with certain solutions, but in exploring their effects through time. Like its predecessors, “Chariots" does a good job matching its story hooks with its mechanics, which makes each relatively short episode feel distinctive and full-featured.
The logic employed in “Chariots" is relatively straightforward: the Freelance Police can move forward in time to gather clues, which in turn allows them to travel backward in time and solve puzzles, which in turn affect the future. There’s a nice gameplay loop there, and the game as a whole feels holistic and natural, each puzzle mechanic and story arc syncing perfectly.
It’s no surprise, then, that “Chariots" feels intuitive and fun throughout. Making its players feel smart has always been one of Sam & Max‘s strong suits, but every episode until now has had puzzles that feel arbitrary or unfair. Generally speaking, the broad strokes of each puzzle or story arc are easy to grasp in “Chariots," even if the step-by-step puzzle solution requires some tinkering and mental elasticity. For my money, this installment strikes the right balance of deductive reasoning and old-fashioned observation.
This is, I’m assuming, another of episodic game development’s bounties: after four games (not counting Sam & Max Save the World, the previous series of episodic Telltale games), the writers and developers of Sam & Max Beyond Time & Space are zeroing in on smart, intuitive puzzle design.
“Chariots of the Dogs" is smoothly and tightly paced, and nothing feels misplaced or kludged together. It’s a charming, warm, and funny game, and it’s the best episode in an increasingly good series.