“Back to the Future” is a timeless classic. It’s destined to be remembered with great fondness for a very, very long time. But turning it into a video game must’ve been a relatively difficult process, simply because we’re not looking at a concept that would offer a lot of action or platforming. In short, I had difficulty envisioning the memorable film as an interactive quest, but Telltale Games probably executed the only game plan that might work: build a true-blue adventure game. And so, this episodic series is a story-driven experience that has the player do a bit of sleuthing. One must be clever and think in a variety of problem-solving ways, all the while following an entirely new plot. Our favorite characters are back but this storyline stands apart from the movie series; in this way, it makes its own mark by giving us an unpredictable look at Marty, Doc and Hill Valley. It has some control issues but it’s still great for fans.
As I’ve mentioned before, downloadable games are really starting to up the ante in terms of visuals. The graphical presentation isn’t technically supreme, but it’s consistent, stable, and colorful. In short, it fits the atmosphere, because there’s some decent character detail and facial animations and while the environments aren’t exactly jam packed with intricately designed objects, the overall palette is most pleasing. It really reminds me a lot of the way old adventure games on the PC used to look, and that’s not a bad thing. I think the developers were forced to sacrifice a certain level of refinement and added textures, and the result can feel a tad bland at times. But this is only a minor complaint, especially considering the fact that this isn’t a big-budget production. For what it is, it looks pretty darn good and is perfect for the “Back to the Future” theme.
The sound gets a big boost because they were able to use much of that great music from the film, so all aspects of our virtual adventure are immediately recognizable. Plus, although we have sound-alikes for most of the characters, Christopher Lloyd lends his voice to Doc and that helps a great deal. And whoever they got for Marty (Michael J. Fox), George McFly (Crispin Glover), and Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) are all pretty darn good, and they have solid writing to back them up. Remember, the original film writers assisted with the script, and that much is obvious within the first few minutes. There isn’t much in the way of sound effects; most of it exists for the purpose of background noise or ambiance. But between the signature soundtrack, the good lines for the characters, and the great voiceover work, this is one game that excels in the sound category. Any complaints would be almost trivial.
As I said, Back to the Future is most reminiscent of an old-time adventure game, where one wanders around searching for clues, talking to characters, and utilizing a basic inventory. For instance, at one point you have to convince the young Doc to admit he’s into science, and he won’t talk to you unless you have “something in common.” It just so happens that the 1986 Doc is also in the same time (I won’t explain; that’s spoiler-ific) so you dive into your inventory, select your tape recorder, and follow the young Doc as he’s mumbling something about a formula he can’t remember. You bring the tape to the 1986 Doc and he fills in the blank, thereby allowing you to fool the younger Doc that you are indeed a scientist. …okay, I know that sounds confusing but the story really isn’t convoluted at all. I just don’t want to give anything away.
And besides, time-related stories can be a little confusing by default, right? Anyway, that’s the gist of it- there are many areas, some of them as large as the town square in Hill Valley, and some of them as small as a single room. You have to advance the story by achieving different goals; some of which involve hunting for clues, while others are based on a particular action or mission of some kind. The camera is fixed and a selection icon bounces around, letting you examine anything from a pet bowl to a store sign (and a whole lot in between). You can hold some valuable items in your inventory that can help you solve riddles and point you in the right direction, and the key is to combine what you’ve already learned with what you’re carrying around. Combine this with environmental interaction and you have the crux of the gameplay. It works quite well, for the most part.
However, I do have a few complaints. Firstly, the control is iffy throughout. That arrow icon can be very erratic and in tight areas with a lot of selectable objects, it can be difficult to choose exactly the right thing. You can also miss various parts of your surroundings, too. Secondly, controlling Marty is okay, but depending on the situation, it can be difficult to move him about. It seems to conflict with the fixed camera. In this way, it once again reminds me of a PC adventure game…one that seems best suited to the mouse/keyboard setup, and sort of flounders when it moves to the gamepad configuration. Thirdly and lastly, I will say that a few of the puzzles and goals seem a little obscure and can be a touch frustrating. I’m not a stupid individual – I don’t think – but there were times when I’d feel kinda lost and when I stumbled on the solution, I just went, “…oh, really?”
But in general, this is a suitable addition to the BttF universe. Most of the gameplay features plenty of cleverly created puzzles and missions, the storyline is very good, the diverse environments are a plus, and you always get that glowing feeling of satisfaction upon successfully solving a conundrum. You can ask for hints if you’re lost but it’s more fun to figure things out on your own, and the stand-out characters and compelling mystery really keeps you playing. Telltale does a fantastic job of capturing the very essence of “Back to the Future,” and that’s by far the most appealing aspect of this title. See, the movie was about lighthearted drama with carefully defined characters, a healthy dash of nostalgia, a lot of well-implemented comic relief, and even a bit of philosophical probing. Just about all of that can be found in some form in the game, and that right there is reason enough to give it a try.
No, you won’t drive the DeLorean or the hoverboard, and you won’t play “Johnny Be Good” on the stage with a Guitar Hero -like mechanic. At least, I don’t think you’ll do that in future episodes… But that’s hardly the point; Back to the Future is a well-done, rewarding adventure game that pays homage to one of cinema’s greats. It starts off a little slow and those who have to have something blowing up every two seconds will have to pass. But I will freely recommend this to anyone who is a big fan of the movies (especially the original), and to anyone who misses the days when pure adventure games were popular. The control is a little off and I get this feeling the whole thing would be better on PC but either way, Telltale, Christopher Lloyd, Bob Gale (writer), and the rest of the crew haven’t disappointed their fans.
As a reminder, if you pay $19.99, you will purchase all 5 episodes and receive them when they become available.
The Good: Captures the singular, pleasant essence of Back to the Future. Good story with solid writing. A lot of great voiceover work. Cleverly designed puzzles and goals. Consistent technical presentation.
The Bad: Control – for the character and the selector icon – can be irritating. Some environments seem a little bland. A few seemingly obscure solutions.
The Ugly: We have to wait for the second episode to see what happens next…