Sam & Max have had a funny old ride through pop culture, starting with an underground comic, before rising to international fame with what’s considered to be a classic LucasArts adventure game, and then a few odd projects here and there, including a short-lived kids cartoon show. It’s been over a decade now since their dry and overly verbose comedy graced our screens, after Telltale’s Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse closed the book on their trilogy of episodic adventure games, which felt sadly overlooked under the success of Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us series. Now, from Happy Giant, a new original game called Sam & Max: This Time it’s Virtual has arrived for the Oculus Quest, which brings the pair into the world of VR with decidedly mixed results.
The basic premise of This Time it’s Virtual casts you as ‘Lumpy’, a new recruit for the Freelance Police, which is looking to expand after solely consisting of Sam and Max for three decades. Your entry test takes up most of the game, as Sam and Max take you to an abandoned tardigrade-themed amusement park, which they’ve repurposed into mini-games to test your reflexes, resolve and puzzle-solving skills. In-between three rounds of three mini-games, you’ll get to assist Sam and Max in the field on one of their weird cases, whether it’s tracking down a Silicon Valley-styled supervillain, or exorcising a convenience store under siege by demons.
That Sam & Max wry brand of humour has remained intact, likely thanks to involvement from their creator Steve Purcell, as well as direction from designer Mike Stemmle, whose history with the series goes back to the original LucasArts game, Sam & Max Hit The Road. For fans of that game in particular, there’s a lot here to poke and prod at your nostalgia, with plenty of references and cute gags back to that adventure. The pair act as happy-go-lucky but violent detectives, who are sent on wacky cases by their unseen-commissioner. Sam pontificates with extended metaphors, while Max bubbles with barely-restrained psychotic energy. Sam’s voice actor from the Telltale games returns, as does Max’s from Poker Night 2, and they do a good job recreating their chemistry. Does the game match the deadpan comedic brilliance of Hit the Road? No, but it also fares better than the earlier Telltale episodes, as you settle in for a sensible chuckle every once in a while.
This Time it’s Virtual crams a lot of different gameplay types into its 5-6 hour runtime, which offers variety even if nothing ends up feeling very polished, or fully realised. One recurring test is an obstacle course, which combines basic grabbing and movement with some simple carnival games, some of which like skee-ball seem to not work quite correctly. Another one that comes up over and over is a variation on ‘Bop It’, which makes you follow commands on a severed-robotic head (that’s actually a bomb), which works well enough until it accidentally registers the wrong action or movement. Some are basic gallery shooters that work a little better, including one with lovingly offensive Australian theming, which is always nice to see. The best is an escape room set-up that is only let down by a missing level of polish that unintentionally misdirects the player (like a re-used door-prop having a word printed on its backside that seems like a clue – but is just leftover from its last use).
There’s also little niggles with basic movement and interaction. You can use standard dual-stick controls to move freely through the environment, which works fine in both standing and seated gameplay, but there’s no way to crouch aside from physically doing so – which makes picking up the many low-lying items in seated gameplay pretty difficult. Dismounting the many ladders and walls you have to climb also becomes an issue, as the game has trouble recognising or deciding whether you count as ‘on top’ or not. The many guns in the game don’t give you much in the way of feedback, and in sections where you’re swinging across distances or flying through the air, there’s no great sense of speed or motion.
Sam & Max: This Time it’s Virtual feels better when it hews closer to its adventure game roots. On a few occasions you’ll have to combine items and look for clues to get past some obstacle, and as an old-school adventure game fan, I have to say there is a specific kind of joy in actually, physically, getting to rub two unrelated things together in the hopes they’ll make something useful to advance the game. It’s here you start to see where the focus should perhaps have been, as these sections prove more engaging than mini-games throwing water-balloons or playing beer-can baseball, although their puzzle elements are still fairly light, as Sam and Max are fairly liberal with clues. It’s still the area where the game succeeds the most, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t developed and polished further.
For a Quest title, This Time it’s Virtual looks decent, with colourful graphics and great character models for our two heroes. There’s issues with pop-in, particularly in the city streets, and non-interactive props are easy to distinguish because of their low-detail textures and models. It generally looks on par with the earlier Telltale games, with which it also shares much of its soundtrack.
Sam & Max: This Time it’s Virtual provides some laughs, and it’s a serviceable VR game, but it feels almost like a launch title, like something that would have come out when developers were trying to work out what to do with the technology, so tested the waters with mini-game compilations. The gameplay itself feels unpolished and scattered, albeit with flashes of inspiration of something better. It largely skates by on the endearing shtick of Sam and Max themselves, which does indeed count for a lot and makes this worth a look for their fans, if not for VR audiences in general, for whom they’ll find a lot of ‘been there, done that’ even if This Time it’s Virtual.
Sam & Max: This Time it’s Virtual was reviewed on Oculus Quest 1 with review code provided by publisher.