VR is quickly becoming the home to all sorts of genres, but adventure games seem few and far between; at least the true classic adventures I grew up with. The last authentic adventure I remember playing in VR was Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin and that was back in 2018. Now HappyGiant has stepped up to the virtual plate with their VR imagining of one of my favorite adventure game duos, Sam & Max. These adorable critters, a dog in a suit and a wisecracking naked rabbit, are part of the Freelance Police as well as gaming history, and I’m proud to say I was there in the beginning, back in 1993 working with the team at LucasArts who introduced Sam & Max in their debut adventure, Sam & Max Hit the Road.
A lot has happened in 28 years and what started as a point and click adventure running on MSDOS has now transcended into the world of VR with their latest adventure, Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual! Suitably titled for its timed-exclusive launch on Oculus Quest and future release on PC VR, this latest freelance police assignment takes place entirely within the world of Sam & Max, expertly recreated with the same art style, witty writing, and hilarious voice acting. You’ll be playing as the aspiring cadet, Lumpy, and under the expert guidance of Sam & Max you’ll try to solve several mysteries as well as complete a challenging detective training course consisting of several mildly amusing carnival games.
The game opens with you riding in the back seat of the famous Sam & Max Desoto. Here you can choose to start a new game or continue your previous adventures. You also have numerous settings and options for overall game quality, movement, and other comfort settings. Once you have everything dialed in the game starts with an impromptu battle with a giant tentacle creature just outside the office. This mini-tutorial will get you comfortable with moving around and aiming and firing a weapon. With that problem resolved it’s time to wrap up Act 1 with some mundane office intern tasks like making coffee for Sam, nuking a corndog for Max, and killing a few roaches in the closet. This section teaches you how to interact with the world and just what kind of virtual interactions you can expect with the rest of the game. There’s also plenty to do that’s not on the required list so have fun exploring.
Moving on to Act 2 you will explore three sections of the nearby theme park that Sam & Max have converted into their own diabolical training grounds. There are three mini-game challenges in each section of the park followed by an emergency call from the chief that will send you out into the field to put your new skills to the test. These nine mini-games serve as the core of the game with classic content like Simon Says puzzles, obstacle courses, a baseball challenge, an escape room, and even an aerial bombardment challenge with water balloons. All of this training culminates in the final third Act when 8 billion microscopic Aquabears threaten to break free from their micro-universe and invade the Big World.
As much as I wanted to absolutely love this game (because I love Sam & Max) there were numerous areas of concern for me, some in the design of the game, some puzzle design concerns, and even some broken gameplay, some of which was slightly addressed in a day one update. You can choose between smooth movement or teleporting. Smooth works best (for me) but there are instances where you must have teleport turned on like trying to get off the top of any ladder. Unless you can teleport off the ladder you simply fall back to the ground when you let go of the last rung. Teleport is also poorly implemented since you move the analog stick forward to show the destination arc but that same stick is also used for sideways turning but half the time you try to turn the game thinks you are teleporting and you end up somewhere you don’t want to be. This made a later level in a pirate disco very frustrating to navigate with all these elevated platforms.
Other issues were just weird game-breaking instances. Whenever you are in a conversation with Sam & Max your movement controls are locked to preserve the interaction, but on three occasions control never returned to me until I exited and restarted the game; thankfully the game checkpoints often. Other weird and random issues included a screwdriver that vanished from an escape room and cans of soda in a convenience store that stopped letting me pick them up – both game breaking events that had me restarting the level. Other annoying issues were partly my inability to figure out exactly what the designers wanted me to do. The puzzles would often defy simple logic in favor of some extreme solutions that Sam & Max might hint at just enough to get me started, but I ultimate had to seek outside assistance on at least 3-4 occasions to complete the game.
The entire experience can last 3-5 hours, and while the story parts of the game have no incentive to replay – most are annoying enough that you’ll be happy you never have to play them again – the nine carnival games in the park are scored and ranked, so some might find some masochistic enjoyment in replaying these to better their grade. Many of the events rely on classic throwing games like shooting hoops or throwing darts or other “hit the target” games. While VR controls have gotten better over the years throwing, or more specifically, throwing accurately, is still an issue and having 40% of you game content revolve around this is problematic. You’ll even experience it in the opening office level where you must throw a variety of objects at a dartboard. I ended up walking up to the board and sticking them in after too many failed attempts with the axes. Maintaining a consistent grip while climbing was also an issue in several places although this seems to have been sorted out in the most recent update. The very end of the game has a lengthy monkey bar section across the top of a crane and I was sweating bullets, but I never lost my grip. Exiting the top of a ladder is still an issue though unless you teleport. There are also two instances in the game where you are put into the Desoto, once in the front seat and once in the back. Both times I was seated looking out the left side of the car and the game would not recalibrate. I had to stand and physically turn 90-degrees for proper orientation so I could shoot/interact as required.
All of these annoying gameplay issues aside, I really loved the story, writing, humor, and voice acting. The witty repartee between Sam & Max hasn’t missed a beat in three decades. Sam still has that verbose delivery like Sgt. Friday from Dragnet, and Max never stops with the insults and hilarious comebacks. There are countless nods to previous games in the franchise as well as pop-cultural references. The visuals maintain a simple cartoonish look that hearkens back to the original point-and-click 2D games, now fully realized in wonderful 3D. While most of the game was very stable there was some horrible pop-up with street items and storefront signage during the final boss fight in the game where items just appeared/disappeared if you took steps in any direction. Hopefully this will get sorted out when the game arrives on the more powerful PC VR platforms later this year. Hopefully all these issues get addressed when the game arrives on Steam, and I hope to revisit Sam & Max when that happens and report back with some good news.
I really think adventure games can find a home on VR and despite a few stumbles Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual! takes numerous steps in the right direction. With less reliance on clumsy gameplay mechanics and quirky carnival games and a greater focus on characters and storytelling I look forward to seeing a real detective adventure coming soon for Sam & Max and virtual reality.