Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual! review
Making the first Sam & Max game in virtual reality was always going to be a challenge, as we’re so used to the classic-styled point-and-click adventure gameplay from the duo’s highly acclaimed LucasArts debut and later three successful seasons from Telltale. Rather than simply copy the same formula, Happy Giant made a number of significant changes in Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual! Not only do players not control either the smart-talking dog or hyperkinetic rabbity thing, you’ll spend the bulk of your time dealing with VR-based minigames rather than doing much detective work or even plain ol’ adventuring. It’s a tentative first toe dipped into VR waters for Steve Purcell’s beloved creations, feeling short and gimmicky rather than something that truly builds on the Sam & Max legacy.
Loading up the game for the first time, you sit in the back of the familiar DeSoto convertible while Sam & Max drive down the street outside Freelance Police headquarters as a giant logo bearing the names of the titular duo flies right at you, accompanied by smooth jazz. This is Sam & Max, all right, except this time you’re a potential new recruit. Once inside, you’re given a bunch of simple VR tests around the office to see if you’ve got the right stuff: make coffee, heat up some food, throw darts and knives at a dartboard, and so on. This section serves as a nifty tutorial for things you’ll encounter later.
There are a welcome number of control options available. The choice of teleportation or full-locomotion movement, snap or smooth turning, and sitting or standing means you can play according to your preference even if you tend to suffer from dizziness or sickness in virtual reality. Physical actions like picking up Sam’s gun or throwing an axe are all responsive and tracked well, too, with none of the jitter or movement inaccuracy VR titles can sometimes suffer from, allowing you to interact with the world frustration-free.
On Oculus Quest, the graphics are decent but there are only a couple main locations and the technological limitations are obvious. Up close, the cartoony 3D nature of the series means the backgrounds and models generally look clean and detailed and the character animations are smooth, though aside from Max tumbling about now and then, you won’t see them do much apart from walking and talking. Viewing the environments from further away, they do start to look a bit lo-res carboard cutouty.
When you’re ready for a little field work, you’ll end up in Cap'n Aquabear’s dilapidated theme park turned Freelance Police Academy, where most of the game takes place. Here you’ll enter nine different repurposed rides, each of which involves a different theme or skill but all of them presented in the style of a time trial with their own leaderboards. One ride will challenge your climbing skills and head for heights, another is a shooting gallery, while yet another is an escape room asking you to complete puzzles. The latter most closely resembles traditional adventure game fare, but most activities are really just random minigames designed to test your VR abilities. Sam & Max Hit the Road, this is not.
These minigames can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes, but even the longest aren’t very substantial. Most are simple and easily completed, but some, like the escape room, can take far longer than they should. At their simplest you’ll find yourself playing Skee-Ball, shooting basketballs at hoops, or throwing water balloons at targets while moving; at their most artificially difficult, puzzles have illogical solutions requiring you to combine objects that shouldn’t fit together but do. You’re on rails most of the time – sometimes literally – and Sam & Max are present to observe and make snide remarks. In this respect, the essence of the series is very much alive.
David Nowlin and David Boat reprise their roles from Telltale’s Freelance Police adventures to voice our anthropomorphic friends once again, and on the whole it does feel like you’re back in the world of Sam & Max, as there are goofs and gags throughout. “Who killed the Kardashians?” one quips; “You mean the Kennedys,” the other shoots back in one sequence. At other times, the developers seem more focused on VR hijinks and it comes off as forced. The repeated use of Max jumping up and clinging to your face, filling the camera while shouting and being silly, is a great illustration of this. Comedically the experience verges on this kind of eye-rolling predictability too often to be consistently enjoyable.
After every three theme park tasks, something happens in the wider world and a bit of overarching story is introduced that conveniently uses the skills you’ve just honed. The first of these narrative sections requires you to climb onto a rooftop in pursuit of a bad guy, shooting attacking drones he sends after you. Generally these segments aren’t very hard, and if you die you just spawn at the beginning of the sequence again. One is particularly frustrating, however, asking you to defeat monsters in a convenience store, identifying their weaknesses via clues pointed out by Sam & Max, and using the surrounding merchandise to send them back to whence they came. A certain monster caused me to lose nearly an hour walking around, searching for the solution. There’s a hint system to offer help if you want it, but even with a hint and knowing what it meant, I still couldn’t figure out precisely how to implement the required solution, as the actions are finicky and entirely unintuitive. I suspect this will perplex most people, and indeed I’ve already seen a video showing someone equally confused and stuck at this same part.
These interjected story beats culminate with Sam & Max getting themselves into hot water and one of them needing rescuing, requiring you to use all the mechanical and puzzle experience you’ve gained to get him back.There are nods to previous games, like a Hellenic deity who now sells gyros, and references to a moon rock and saving the world providing a bit of fan service, but there isn’t enough narrative substance to feel really invested in what’s going on. As funny as the writing can be, by the time everything is wrapping up in anywhere from two to four hours, depending how long you get stuck, you’ll have experienced all available mechanics and activities time and time again, to the point that you’ll be glad the tedium is over.
Despite all the negatives, it’s still nice to see Sam & Max return from their decade-long hiatus. It might not be in the style that adventure fans are used to or want, but being able to walk around quintessential franchise locations in a way not possible before is pretty cool. It may only be a collection of minigames, but it’s still decently entertaining at what it does. You’ll get a chuckle out of the Freelance Police and their uniquely comedic antics, the voice acting is still brilliant, and the writing sticks to the style of what came before. The story is too slight and the gameplay too superficial to recommend purchasing a VR headset just to play This Time It’s Virtual!, but die-hard series fans looking for a new way to enjoy the Freelance Police will get a kick out of being able to experience the world first-hand. Let’s just hope this is merely a warm-up act for a meatier case load to follow.