Back to the Future: Episode 4 - Double Visions review
The previous episode of Back to the Future, Citizen Brown, was a dark and surprising peek into a disturbing totalitarian Hill Valley. It really felt like Telltale was delving into new territory for the franchise, with sharp writing, surprising twists, and an edgy feel that had been somewhat lacking in the series thus far. Overall, it was the best episode yet, with a cliffhanger ending that raised hopes even higher for an inspired follow-up. So what a shame that the latest installment, Double Visions, is in such a hurry to abandon this new direction and head back to the played-out Prohibition-era places and themes for more of the same old thing.
After a short introduction sequence which borrows almost too heavily from A Clockwork Orange, Marty and "First Citizen" Brown find themselves back in the past, some months after the events of the first few episodes, trying to prevent young Emmet Brown from making the fateful choice at the Hill Valley Science Expo that will set him on the path towards fascist obedience-mongering. While the "influence past/alternate versions of characters to restore the future" plotline is admittedly the staple of the series, at this point we've escaped similar fiascos with the young Emmet Brown, Artie McFly, Trixie Trotter, Danny Parker, Biff, Kid Tannen, and Edna Strickland... and I'm probably missing a few. Point is, we've done all of this before.
This is the third episode that takes place primarily in 1931 Hill Valley, with the same principal players and locations. Telltale's other series have reused locations as well, but they’ve taken more care to create a sense of diversity and discovery in each episode--when was the last time you thought "Oh great, another Sam & Max episode set on Easter Island?" The one major new location in this installment (the lawn of Hill Valley High School) isn't particularly interesting, and old sites aren't given enough of a facelift to cause much excitement. Most of all, waltzing around the Hill Valley Science Expo just isn't as fun as foiling Kid Tannen's bootlegging operation or trying to bring down Citizen Brown's totalitarian regime through rock-and-roll and making out. It's--and as a diehard Back to the Future fan this is hard for me to say, believe me--kinda boring.
In addition, the story feels riddled with design laziness. For most of the episode, the DeLorean is in plain sight of Hill Valley’s residents (albeit under the guise of a mock “Car of the Future”), and Doc routinely takes off for mini-travels through time just off-screen where, miraculously, no one notices. Similarly, we're expected to believe that the alternate "Citizen" Brown is able to perform repairs on the DeLorean while remaining more or less clueless about the intricacies of time travel. And all throughout, the rather cavalier attitude about restoring the original timeline seems skewed, blindly accepted at face value just because the plot demands it. When a major character development near the end challenges the situation and hints at the direction of the final episode, the player is left wondering why it took so long to happen in the first place.
Without a compelling story to fall back on, the gameplay weaknesses are more blatantly exposed this time. Taking the entire series so far into account, I can count the number of puzzles that took me more than five minutes to solve on one hand. This isn't a case of bad design; Telltale has flatly stated their intention to steer the series' difficulty towards casual and even non-gamers more than adventure veterans in the hopes of attracting movie fans, but what may be a smart move financially has left us hardcore adventurers in the cold. Previous episodes overcame that disappointment with energetic and dramatic storytelling. This one, not so much. The lack of challenge is all the more noticeable when the plot feels like a slow trudge.
There aren't many gameplay surprises here, just simple but logical puzzles that won't make your brain ache yet rarely give the full satisfaction of solving something challenging. Whether you're “proving” young Emmett’s popular appeal with the ladies or discrediting his reputation as a clean freak, most puzzles require little more than using one of the few inventory items on one of the few hotspots in the immediate vicinity without much further thought or finesse, though often the when is as important as the what. Timing is relevant, though not at all tricky to work out. Like the previous episodes, Double Visions has a single extended puzzle sequence that stands out in terms of creativity and effort required as you re-jigger one of Doc's experiments, but even then, a little trial-and-error will soon sort out the correct solution.
The game features the standard Telltale WASD keys and mouse control schemes, which does the trick well enough (a few quirks and invisible walls aside), while dialogue trees and a few "action" sequences are sprinkled in to spice things up. The action sequences don't really require anything in the way of reflexes, of course. They generally work the same way as the rest of the game, just with more animation--a precarious situation atop the famous clock tower is a nice change of pace, but hardly feels authentically dangerous.
Fortunately, even a mediocre Telltale offering is bound to have some redeeming features, and indeed, Double Visions is consistently polished and well-presented. The music is once again fantastic, and the stylized cartoony graphics look just as good as usual, though the fact remains that 1931 is simply not as fun to look at as its 1986 counterpart(s). The dialogue, while a bit heavy on exposition, serves the characters well, with even throwaway lines helping to round out their personalities through solid writing and emotive voice acting. By the end, a few characters have gone through some legitimately surprising changes--characters we've come to love turn out to be less-than-lovable, and some we've been trained to hate show a human side.
In all, there's nothing outright bad about this episode, but at the same time none of it is as interesting or involving as previous episodes. Telltale still has enough goodwill stored up for me to remain excited about the fifth and final episode, Outatime, though my enthusiasm is somewhat more tempered now than before. As far as Double Visions goes, its pervasive blandness makes it the weakest of the series to date, and with yet another trip to Hill Valley’s past, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve been here and done all this before.
The fourth episode feels like a trip back in time with a bland storyline that treads familiar territory and fails to overcome the uninspiring gameplay.