Review for Back to the Future: Episode 1 - It’s About Time
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Back to the Future is one of those films I can’t remember seeing for the first time. I grew up watching it almost every day, and according to my parents, when I was two years old I could recite most of the script line for line. My earliest memory is of standing on a stool in front of my couch re-enacting the intro scene with Marty and the giant guitar amp. So you could say that I was more than a little excited when Telltale announced they were developing an episodic adventure based on the franchise. I tried to lower my expectations into the realm of human possibility in order to avoid disappointment, but after seeing how Telltale matched and even surpassed expectations with the Monkey Island and Sam & Max series, I couldn't help but expect greatness.
So now the first episode of Back to the Future: The Game is here. Has Telltale done justice to the beloved film franchise with It's About Time? Coming from someone who gets chills of nostalgia at the sight of a red puffy down vest, the short answer is a definite "Yes." The longer answer is "Yyyyyyeeeeesssssss… if you don't mind easy puzzles and very little gameplay."
The initial episode takes place after the events of the third film. Months have passed without word from Doc Brown, and Marty McFly is starting to feel melancholic. His father is presiding over a sale of Doc's property, as he’s presumed to be dead. During the sale, the DeLorean suddenly appears in the driveway outside, looking good as new. Inside is a tape-recorded message from Doc explaining that the car has been programmed to automatically return in the event that he remains missing for a specified time--which means that he's in trouble. Finding him should be easy, he says. Just go to the date and time specified on the "Date Last Traveled" panel of the dashboard. But there's one problem: the panel is blank. And so Marty must search out clues to Doc's location in time. Of course, things get much more complicated from there.
The single most impressive thing about the game is how natural an extension of the films it is. Everything from the dialogue to the soundtrack to the streaks of light when the DeLorean time travels is spot-on. I broke out into a stupid grin every few minutes as I came across some iconic detail and thought to myself "They nailed it." The story itself straddles the line between slavish devotion to the original films and finding its own direction. It always feels faithful, but never like a retread. All of the staples of Back to the Future are here: you'll travel to a different era in Hill Valley's history, encounter characters both new and familiar (and their ancestors), and race against the clock to prevent a catastrophic disruption of the space-time continuum. But there are also new characters, new locations to visit, and the promise of some intriguing twists and turns to come.
The original movies are so enduring primarily because of the characters. Marty and Doc Brown are infinitely likeable. But even beyond them are an endless supply of quirky characters: Biff Tannen, George McFly, Vice Principal Strickland. I say the supply is endless because one of the greatest pleasures of the series is the cyclical way that characters and their relationships change (or don't change) over the decades: seeing the interactions between a given era's Tannen and McFly is always a treat. Telltale clearly understands this, so most of the characters we meet are younger versions or relatives of characters we know and love, written with sly, winking cleverness. The game also stays true to the tradition of revisiting familiar scenes with new characters, such as the various riffs on Biff bullying George McFly in the diner. Seeing these scenes play out is a joy, mostly because the dialogue is spot-on. Marty talks like the Marty we remember--a good kid with a bit of a mischievous streak who will stop at nothing to help out his friends and loved ones. Doc is as eccentric and affable as ever. And Biff, as always, is a lot of fun to hate.
The films were also notable for their deft blending of fantasy, suspense, and comedy, and Back to the Future proves that Telltale’s comedic chops aren't limited to former LucasArts franchises. While many of the game's biggest laughs are nods to jokes from the films, the new material holds its own. It may not reach the absurd sublimity of Sam & Max, but Marty's attempts at blending into a new era's culture and Doc's penchant for overly dramatic exclamations are always good for a laugh. Yet as funny as the game is, it never forgets that Back to the Future has its dark side. The movies have always had high stakes and high drama. After all, these characters are often fighting to save their own existence from being snuffed out by time paradoxes. The game has its darker moments as well, upping the dramatic ante from other goofier Telltale fare, not only with the occasional gunfight or threats of potential assassination, but also in more subtle ways. When Marty visits Doc's abandoned lab and comes across his myriad inventions and belongings, the sense of bittersweet nostalgia is palpable and affecting.
All of the authenticity in the world would be wasted if the voice acting for such famous characters was butchered. But fear not. Christopher Lloyd reprises his role as Doc, clearly relishing the character's propensity for scene-stealing eccentricity. If he sounds a bit more haggard than in the movies, well, it has been twenty years, and the difference isn't so marked as to be distracting. When it was revealed that Michael J. Fox would not be providing the voiceover for Marty, many feared the worst. After all, who could possibly recreate Fox's signature puberty-straddling, voice-cracking tone? The answer is AJ LoCascio. This young newcomer with no prior voice acting experience is so good at capturing the sound and spirit of Marty that even Christopher Lloyd admitted to thinking he was listening to an old recording of Fox. If you're really listening for it, you can tell that it's an imitator, but I can't imagine anyone doing a more stellar job. The rest of the cast fares well too, with new characters delivering very capable performances, such as a plucky Hill Valley reporter and some mafia-style thugs.
The soundtrack and effects play as big a role as anything in making the game feel genuine. The sound effects are mostly ripped straight from the films: the DeLorean's various bleeps and bloops and hums are all there, which makes punching in the four-dimensional coordinates on the dashboard and turning on the flux capacitor all the more satisfying. There are few surprises here, but the sound is uniformly excellent. Better still, from the very first seconds of the game, when the familiar descending chimes play over the intro, until the bombastic fanfare over the ending credits, the musical score is gorgeously repurposed, alternating between adrenaline-pumping suspense and charming lightness, while sometimes simply magical. Themes from the original soundtrack (I know what you're wondering—and yes, there's some Huey Lewis music included) are used to great effect, mostly in cutscenes, while new material smartly incorporates cues from the film score. The soundtrack as a whole lends a welcome cinematic urgency to the game that makes everything feel a little more dynamic and dramatic than previous Telltale games.
Back to the Future is by far the best-looking Telltale game to date. The cartoony, stylized animation allows Telltale to capture the spirit of the movies without relying on the kind of photorealism that their engine wouldn't do justice. The protagonists look great, and even minor characters are instantly recognizable. The animation is mostly excellent as well. Many of the cinematics look like they could have been cut from an animated Back to the Future movie, and Marty's trotting walk is especially endearing. One thing I appreciated was the lack of obviously recycled animations, with most actions here having their own custom motions. Facial animation, however, is a mixed bag. The characters' faces are very expressive, but lip-syncing leaves a lot to be desired. Occasionally it seems as if a person's voice is saying one thing while their mouth is saying something different altogether. It can definitely be distracting, but it's really the only thing tarnishing an otherwise spotless presentation.
As a continuation of the franchise, It's About Time is a resounding success. But this isn't Back to the Future: Part IV, it’s an adventure game. So how does it fare in that regard? Not quite as well. It's the gameplay that keeps this debut episode from being a bona fide modern classic. Don’t get me wrong: the game is a joy to play, but there are definitely a few complaints worth addressing.
The gameplay itself is nothing terribly new. In order to find and save Doc, Marty will have to explore the older Hill Valley (and a little bit of the current one), engage in conversations with multiple dialogue options, and solve inventory-based puzzles. Movement is handled exactly the same as in Tales of Monkey Island, with awkward-but-passable roaming through 3D environments. Navigation is controlled either by using the WASD keys, a gamepad thumbstick, or by holding down the left-mouse button and steering the mouse in the desired direction. While I understand that this better caters to consoles, it's cumbersome on the PC, and the cinematic trade-off this format supposedly allows doesn’t outweigh the simplicity of the standard point-and-click movement of the first two Sam & Max seasons. Interaction with the world is more traditional, with hotspots denoted by descriptive labels at the bottom of the screen. Large icons across the top allow you to access your inventory, the game's hint system, and a recap of the game's story so far (which I'm sure will become more useful in later episodes). It all works just fine, and will be easily accessible to anyone who's played an adventure game before.
But now it’s time to be blunt: this game is easy. Really easy. Anyone looking for a meaty adventure full of hair-pulling puzzles that test lateral thinking skills won't find what they're looking for here. You won't be stumped. There is only a single sequence that may take a while to figure out, as a particular puzzle in a soup kitchen involves some rather arbitrary triggers. There are a few reasons for this simplicity: First, there is a notable lack of any kind of math, slider, or spatial puzzles. Almost every obstacle in the game is solved either by using an inventory item on the correct hotspot or by selecting the correct dialogue option in conversation. Second, the game is rather linear, which means that you're only faced with one or two puzzles at a given time, so you never have to juggle priorities or remember details for a puzzle to be solved at a later time. Finally, there simply aren't very many inventory items, which means that the solution to most puzzles is simply choosing between one of three or four objects in your possession at a given time.
That's not to say that the game isn't fun or that the puzzles aren't interesting--it is and they are. One of the strengths of the game is how dynamic several of the puzzles and conversations are. Many include timed elements and moving objects, like one conversation with a character constantly walking around the Hill Valley Town Square, or an extended sequence that takes place in and around a moving vehicle. Rather than add frustration, these are integrated well and serve to make the puzzles feel more natural and dramatic.
That said, there's definitely room to grow for the upcoming episodes. Few of the puzzles make much of an impression, so they could stand to be a bit meatier in the future. It doesn't have to be Riven, but a little bit of head-scratching is kind of expected and desired by many adventure gamers. It's likely that Telltale is intentionally making the game more accessible for fans of the movies who might not have experience with adventure games, and if that's the case, more power to them. But they probably skewed the game a little too far in that direction, particularly given the presence of a hint system to help out anyone having problems.
This review has mostly been about how the game fares for hardcore fans of the movies. But what if you only kinda sorta remember the first one, or if you've never seen the movies at all? Well, when creating a successor to a 25 year old film franchise, it's expected that the nostalgia will be laid on thick. That's definitely the case here: It’s About Time relies heavily on knowledge of the films, not only for its jokes but for the coherency of its story. If it's been a while since you've seen the movies, you're still in good shape. You might not get every little reference, but the story and characters are strong enough to stand on their own. If you're a total newcomer, you will probably still find the game entertaining, but there's a lot going on that will fly over your head. Certainly the game will still be enjoyable, but you'll be missing out. Either way, my recommendation is to go rent or buy the trilogy and watch them first. Not only will you have more fun with the game, but also, come on--it's Back to the Future.
I never thought that I would get to play a legitimate Back to the Future game, let alone one that did justice to the charm and fun of the films. There are so many ways that this project could have gone wrong, but thankfully none of them came to pass. Like Telltale's other episodic games, the ending does seem to come too fast, as the game can be completed in about three hours. Yet the fact that I finished the game starved for more should be taken as a testament to the quality of the narrative rather than a criticism of the game's length. It’s certainly light in the gameplay department, but this is just the first episode, so there’s still time to ramp up the challenge in the four episodes to come. Overall, It's About Time is an excellent start to the series, and I can't wait to see where Telltale takes Marty and Doc next.