Back to the Future: Episode 5 - OUTATIME review
So here we are, at the end of Back to the Future: The Game. Telltale’s latest episodic series has seen some fantastic peaks and troubling lows over the course of six months and five episodes. When the storytelling was at its strongest, we were transported back to the magic of the original films with all of their time-twisting, paradox-defying derring-do. When the story floundered, we were stuck with a mediocre adventure game full of stock environments and insignificant puzzles that did little to stretch our imaginations. When the plot moved quickly it kept us on our toes, overcoming the weak gameplay and providing an engaging interactive addition to the franchise—the rest of the time, the game’s weaknesses showed through the thin narrative. Fortunately, Telltale has a habit of pulling out all the stops with the last episode of a season, so hopes remained high for a gangbusters finale.
As it turns out, for the most part those hopes were not misplaced. The final episode, OUTATIME (named after the DeLorean’s original license plate), is suitably ambitious and action-packed; while it may not reach the quality of the original films, it does do justice to the franchise. This episode also justifies some of the foot-dragging of the previous game’s plot, making Double Visions seem retroactively better in context. We last left Marty and (alternate) Doc in 1931, as they scramble to ensure (or not) that young Emmett goes through with his demonstration at the Hill Valley Science Expo, thus setting him on the path of science and correcting the wayward timeline created by Edna Strickland’s interference. Thankfully, while a significant portion of the episode takes place in the same 1931 Hill Valley we’ve spent so much time in already, it’s almost entirely in new environments, and it’s not long before it veers off from the familiar trappings of the previous installments.
The biggest failing of the series to date has been its puzzle design. Well, “failing” may not be the right word, as Telltale made no effort to hide their intention to make the games accessible to casual gamers and non-gaming movie fans. The result has been a series of simplistic, uninspiring puzzles that rarely tax the brain. That’s fine for those who would throw their hands up in frustration at complex logic or inventory puzzles, but it’s a big drawback for seasoned adventure gamers who crave some meat to their puzzles. However, this matters less when the story kicks into gear, as the player is swept along by the drama with little time to bemoan the lack of difficulty. This was the case in the best of the previous episodes (It’s About Time! and Citizen Brown) and it’s once again the case here.
The puzzles offered aren’t bad, they’re just not particularly memorable. You’ll apply inventory items in obvious ways, navigate dialogue tree puzzles and so on, though doing them at the proper time in the correct sequence is often important. Taking that point one step too far, unfortunately the game first released with a fatal bug if you performed certain actions in the “wrong” order, leaving you trapped inside a short maze, but Telltale has since released a patched version with this glitch fixed. It’s not likely you’ll get stuck otherwise, but if you do the tiered hint system gives increasingly specific hints on demand. It’s a nice touch, but you probably won’t need it. The best puzzle in the game blurs the line between an action sequence and a puzzle, with Marty maneuvering around the DeLorean on a hoverboard while trying to attach various gadgets to the exterior. As a puzzle, it’s dead simple, but it’s also very entertaining and recalls the climactic action scenes of the movies.
After the initial few scenes (perhaps an hour or so) exploring the Science Expo exhibits, things begin moving very quickly. I can’t say much without ruining the fun of seeing where the episode goes, but in true Back to the Future fashion, things work out as planned… and then they don’t. Hill Valley undergoes its most drastic change yet before Marty’s eyes, and you’ll spend the rest of the episode trying to sort out these unforeseen consequences. OUTATIME seems shorter than previous entries, but this is only because less time is spent plodding through banal puzzles and more time is spent in “action” sequences that propel the story towards its conclusion. There’s a lot to wrap up, and Telltale does an admirable job of sailing through all this material with well-scripted cutscenes. Normally the heavy reliance on cinematics over interactive portions would be a knock against a game, but in this case they feel like a reward for the completion of the previous four episodes, and generally display higher quality production values and writing than the rest of the game.
Graphics haven’t improved over previous episodes in a technical sense, but artistically this is one of the best looking Telltale games to date. There’s an impressive amount of variety in the settings and characters, which leads me to believe that the effort spent on this episode is responsible for the lackluster environments in Episode 4. The sound is--as always--fantastic, with A.J. LoCascio putting in another uncanny performance as Marty McFly alongside Christopher Lloyd and other returning voice actors from previous episodes. And yes, as advertised, the original Marty, Michael J. Fox, does play a role, or two, or—well, I’ll just leave it at that. While one of his roles is fairly forgettable, let’s just say that he does leave an impression, and it’s a lot of fun to hear him again. Besides, it just wouldn’t be Back to the Future without Fox.
The core of the franchise has always been its characters, and the finale stays true to form, putting character development front and center. Curiously, Marty develops the least over the course of the episodes, mainly functioning as matchmaker and time-interloper, ensuring that the timeline allows for other characters to develop. By the end, Doc/Emmett, Edna, Arthur, Trixie, and even Officer Parker are a heck of a lot more interesting than they were at the start—and that’s a compliment. There’s even time for some real poignancy as characters achieve their respective destinies (or don’t). The first episode had an underlying sense of the bittersweet nature of time that is so integral to the series; subsequent episodes mostly abandoned that feeling, but it returns here and lends the episode more weight than you might expect.
The game mostly wraps up the various plot- and timelines nicely, though at a few points I did find myself confused as to what exactly Marty was trying to accomplish, or how he expected his attempts to restore the timeline to its desired state. The rules of time travel have always been a bit hazy in the Back to the Future universe, but here it leads to a few real head-scratching moments, though nothing that’s unforgivable. The actual ending of the game is equally amusing and intriguing. It’s safe to say that Telltale is leaving room open for a second season. I say bring it on.
So we’ve established that OUTATIME is a good episode and a nice capstone to the series, but for those who haven’t taken the plunge and picked up a season pass, how is it as a complete experience? Well, it’s a good game, at times even great, but it functions better as Back to the Future: Part Four than as an adventure game. The gameplay rarely takes away from the story, but nor does it ever stand out on its own. If you’re not a fan of the franchise, there probably isn’t enough gameplay here to entice you. And honestly, you’ll have no idea what’s going on, and you’ll miss out on the lion’s share of in-jokes and references to the films. But fans of the series can rest assured that the game is a fine expansion to the franchise, balancing just the right amount of nostalgia with an original take on the themes and characters of the films. If that sounds like a good time to you, then I have one thing left to say: Make like a tree, and go pick up Back to the Future: The Game.
The gameplay still takes a distant back seat to the story, but Back to the Future's action-packed finale ends the series with a bang… or is that a bolt of lightning?