Telltale Games bring their point and click adventure talents to one of the most beloved film franchises of all time in Back to the Future: Episodes 1-5.
Like many of my generation I remember the Back to the Future trilogy with fondness; they're the type of classics that aren't made anymore. As much as I acknowledge my soft spot for the movies I was shocked to discover just how much they still meant to me when I fired up the new Telltale point & click adventure game. It opens up with those beautiful chimed keys ringing over a black screen, the theme music teasing to take over in the background, and the second the sound reached my ears I could feel the joy swell inside of me. What followed for the next few minutes was a remake, of sorts, of the first movies opening scene. It was like coming home again.
Whoa, This Is Heavy
Telltale's Back to the Future: Episode One game plays similar to their previous titles (Puzzle Agent, Sam & Max) - a point and click adventure where you select people and objects in the environment or in your inventory to solve puzzles and move things forward. Wisely, instead of trying to retell the films, this story is an extension of the Back to the Future universe that picks up a short time after the third film. You play as Marty McFly, who's left to watch as the city of Hill Valley moves forward with plans to foreclose on the home of Doctor Emmett Brown, Marty's time-traveling best friend.
Telltale really starts strong by showing an adept understanding of what makes the series so fascinating while weaving a narrative maze for Marty to escape from. The interjection of the city in Doc Brown's affairs is a really clever choice that immediately instills the player with a sense of urgency that most games only accomplish through action set pieces. Through that tidbit of back story you get your first task; to search through Emmett Brown's home to find any evidence of his whereabouts or, at the very least, prevent anyone else from discovering the DeLorean's secrets. The games locations may work better for those able to recall the pictures but dilemma is something anyone can recognize.
Unless you're one of the three people in the world still wondering what the heck a DeLorean is, or you can't hum The Power of Love, then you know that there's some time traveling to be had. You'd be right, but things in adventure games are never as simple as knowing what's coming. You'll need to investigate Hill Valley during the present to find out when Doc Brown has gotten himself stuck, which leads you back to prohibition era Hill Valley when gangsters ruled the town. Your time is split evenly between past and present, and in true Back to the Future form, the two portions reference each other brilliantly.
All the Time in the World
Things aren't always smooth, as too often you find yourself hitting a wall on menial tasks that impart the cliched contrivance of non-logical logic puzzles, where everything requires more steps to complete than it should. Creating realistic dilemmas for the player isn't the game's strong point, and that could be a big letdown for those expecting difficult or engaging puzzles. But whether the answers are obvious to you or you have to make your brain bend over backward and tiptoe away from common sense, Telltale always leads you in the right direction and what you're doing is usually funny enough that you don't mind spending the extra few minutes.
If you're anything like me then you're checking this out for the story and characters, not the brain teasers. Back to the Future: Episode One stands proudly above other movie inspired games by knowing when to reference its past fiction and when to add to it. Thanks to Bob Gale and Michael Stemmie, story and dialogue are equal in quality to the three movies and satisfactory as canon. It's worth stopping and listening to these characters, particularly Marty and Doc, just to hear how much endearing charm the episode has packed into it. Not only is the writing superb but the voice work - Christopher Lloyd reprises his role as Doc Brown, and A.J. Locascio is a dead-ringer for the real Marty McFly, Michael J Fox - is spectacular throughout, which speaks volumes of the casting and direction. Andrew Chaikin (Biff), Michael Sommers (George/Arthur McFly), Aimee Miles (Lorraine McFly), Owen Thomas (Kid Tannen), Rebecca Schweitzer (Edna Strickland), Adam Harrington (Matches) and James Arnold Taylor (as Young Doc) all live up to the standard set by the actors over two decades ago.
For all the reasons above Episode One feels like a love letter to the creators of the series and a reassurance to fans that the beloved franchise is going to be done justice. But as much as everything feels right, it does take a little sacrifice on the player's part to enjoy completely. For starters the game is over far too quickly and even still it manages to slump part way through. This may not be the case if you get the game after other episodes are released, but as a single game it's much too brief. It's also annoying that even with the few times you may stumble, the difficulty feels trivial if you remember to always check your inventory. The quickness of the game and its lack of challenge hurts any opportunity to reward the player for his or her actions, something I really hope they solve in the coming months.
I should note that right now the only way to get the game is on Telltale's website (listed on this page) or through Steam. The series is supposed to get a release on the PS3 but there's no firm date just yet. You should also know that you can't just buy one episode to try it out. It's $24.95 (4 cents more on Steam !!) for the whole season, with the other episodes aiming to be released in February, March, April and May respectively.
Back to the Future: Episode One is a great time but it's also over way too fast. Luckily, that's a criticism that won't hold up as the next four episodes are released. It's reassuring then just how strong, funny and familiar this first step in bringing back the franchise is. Your enjoyment may hinge greatly on your interest in puzzle-adventure games and your knowledge of the movies, but as far I'm concerned that means all of you should go out and get this right away... because seriously, you're not a real person if you don't know time travel starts at 88mph.
How does it Sound: The actors sound amazing, and they didn't touch the score (rad) 10
How does it Look: Charming and fun with only minor blemishes. 8.0
How does it Play: The genre is so basic there's a limited amount you can do. 8.0
How is it Presented: A story that adds to the world framed like a love letter. 9.5
How long it Lasts: Two hours. Not enough to keep me happy. 7.5
Final Score 88%
Final Score is not an average of grades but a rating of the entire game.