It’s been a while since the Freelance Police graced our presence with their unique brand of slapstick humour but Sam & Max are back again and this time in their own virtual world full of puzzles, escape room challenges, skill-based mini-games and classic point-and-click-style action in Sam & Max: This Time it’s Virtual.
For those unfamiliar with the Dog & Rabbit duo, Sam and Max started out in Fishwrap Productions: Sam & Max Freelance Police in 1997 but hit the video game scene in what is likely their most beloved outing in 1993’s LucasArts classic Sam & Max Hit the Road. Sam is a hat-wearing dog whilst Max is a hyper-kinetic rabbit who also likely has a mild case of ADHD.
Kicking off in the cordoned off street directly outside Sam & Max’s downtown New York office, a large hydra-like alien is terrorizing downtown and you are thrown directly into action to defeat it, assisting the Freelance Police and restoring a modicum of order. The pair obviously spot some talent and suggest you should join them and join the Freelance Police. So far so good, but before the pair will train you in the secret arts there’s a few quick tests which Max uses to put you through your paces which range from making lunch to some simple dart throwing.
Once completed, Sam suggests a trip to their training grounds. Upon arrival it is clear the duo have appropriated an abandoned theme park as a base of operations. Expecting the story to take off from here; it was a sharp left turn to find that what followed was a collection of assault course mini games and not the story heavy detective like adventure fans of the series will most fondly remember.
At first only three mini-games are available and completion of each batch of three allows you to progress to the next set. There’s nine mini games in total available in Sam & Max: This Time it’s Virtual including shooting galleries, wall climbing, and other fairground-like takes on a situation. Although they are fairly entertaining it feels like a far reach to call this a Sam & Max title.
After each mini-game, Sam & Max give you an A-F rating so you can come back again to improve, if you really wish to, with no progression penalty no matter your rating but it does mean there’s some replay value and players can jump directly to any unlocked game from the pause menu
After completing three mini games for the first time, Sam takes a call from the police commissioner and a short scene plays out. This is more in line with what players and fans of the series will expect as you hunt down one of the Freelance Police’s adversaries whilst engaging in some light puzzle solving and plenty of banter.
Most of the mechanics previously mastered within the theme park are at play but it’s disappointing the whole game isn’t quite like this with one overarching narrative and interconnected cases instead of what amounts to a fairly light story and a set of repeatable activities.
Most of the solutions to the cases in Sam & Max: This Time it’s Virtual are fairly explanatory but there are moments where they can be a bit of a head scratcher, even where there’s only a small area to explore. The developers have kindly popped a hints section in the menu but you’re best off listening to Sam & Max who’ll provide decent clues through their chatter and in-between all the banter if you pay attention.
It’s great to see both David Nowlin and Dave Boat, who’ve voiced Sam and Max previously in a number of other titles, reprising their roles as the vigilante detective dog and bunny duo. Without them it just wouldn’t be the same and adds another depth to the immersion in the Freelance Police’s dilapidated, cartoony take on New York City.
Nostalgia can unfortunately leave you with rose tinted versions of your memories. If you’ve fond memories of something from your childhood, there’s a good chance it won’t live up to that memory and unfortunately Sam & Max: This Time it’s Virtual doesn’t.
Whilst the banter and quips are great and actually being in the presence of the zany duo feels immersive, the exploration is somewhat slow and lethargic whilst the mini game package which forms the majority of the actual gameplay seems like someone fired the merch-cannon at some carnival games. Whilst the titular pair are front and centre in the games, it’s almost forced and feels more time on the wider world exploring and solving cases would have been a better use of the beloved licence
Whilst the content may not be the strongest on offer the humour and writing is; and it’s what will keep fans of the dynamic duo playing to the bitter end.
Sam & Max: This Time it’s Virtual is available now on Oculus Quest and soon to be released on PC VR.