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Review: Back to the Future: The Game

Steve Butts | 30 Dec 2010 13:00
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I'm generally suspicious of games that say "The Game" somewhere in the title. I mean, it seems almost desperate in its attempts to avoid confusion with "The Movie." But in the spirit of true objectivity, I decided to look past this bias and really dive into the first installment of Telltale Games' latest episodic adventure series, Back to the Future: The Game. So without further ado, I present to you, Back to the Future: The Game: The Review.

Popular though it might be, Back to the Future is not exactly what I would call a hot property here in 2010. Yes, we're celebrating the 25th anniversary of the original film and, yes, it is on TV every weekend, but Telltale's not exactly striking while the iron is hot. That said, there's nothing about Back to the Future that can't work as a videogame. It has the challenges, humor and a relaxed reality that work perfectly for adventure games. Unfortunately, this first installment in Telltale's new series doesn't quite get the tone right and fails to offer up much compelling gameplay.

If you're not familiar with the film trilogy, Back to the Future features the time-traveling adventures of Marty MacFly and Dr. Emmett Brown. Each installment has the pair scrambling to intervene in a crisis without upsetting the time continuum. Sometimes it's as simple as making sure Marty's parents get together. In other cases, well, it's considerably more complicated. Along the way, there's lots of fish-out-of-water humor as Marty's 1980s perspective clashes with past and future societies. The game picks up where the films end, with Marty and his father George going through Doc's stuff now that he's gone. Not long after, the stylish DeLorean time machine appears along with a note from Doc. Turns out he's stuck in 1931 and on trial for a crime he didn't commit. Marty hops in and heads back in time to help his friend.

The developers seem to understand the basics of the franchise, and even had help from the films' creator and writer, Bob Gale. The association makes it particularly confusing that this first installment doesn't really deliver in terms of style or story. Yeah, there are a few small gags built around Marty's unfamiliarity with his surroundings, but the jokes are few and far between, and the settings and situations themselves are a bit bland. You spend most of the game going from an unremarkable town square to an even less remarkable soup kitchen. Even when you get to the laboratory, there's just not much going on. It's cute that Marty passes himself off with some 80s aliases, but that's not really enough to make this feel like Back to the Future for me.

The characters are just as bland. To be fair, I really like the teenage Emmett Brown, and his characterization is great, but most of the rest of the characters are cardboard nobodies. Biff's related to a 1930s mob boss who is as forgettable and as clich├ęd as they come. The only purpose he or most of the other characters serve seems to be to advance the plot. Compared to them, Marty and the past and present Doc Browns are as deep and interesting as Hamlet.

At least the acting is good. In some cases, like Marty and both Emmett Browns, it's quite good. On the most basic level, the actors sound like the original characters, which would have been a deal breaker for most fans. Of course, it's probably no great stretch for Christopher Lloyd to do an impression of himself, but the other actors are almost as good. The stylized designs are charming and help sell some of the exaggerated animations while still giving the characters a sense of real life. It's not to everyone's taste, I'm sure, but I like it. The only downside is that the vibrancy of the characters makes the environments and situations seem even blander.

You may notice I've gone for some time now without even mentioning the gameplay. That's usually a bad sign and this time is no exception. Moving around and interacting with the world is a bit stiff, but not unforgivably so. What really brings the game down are the puzzles. For a few years now, I've been complaining that the puzzles in many of these Telltale games simply aren't challenging enough but I think the bigger complaint here is that the puzzles just aren't interesting enough. There are some exceptions, like the two rocket fuel puzzles towards the end, which combine story and gameplay in a single experience, but for the most part, you're just using bit A on bit B to get to the next bit of story and that's just not enough to me motivated.

Bottom Line: There's definitely some potential here but it feels like a tentative step in a new direction. It's less sure of itself than Telltale's other premieres.

Recommendation: Unless you have an overriding fascination with Back to the Future or happen to be the mother of a person who worked on it, wait to see how the rest of the series shapes up.

As long as we're going back this far, Steve Butts would like to suggest a game based on The Breakfast Club.

This review is based on the PC version of the game.

What our review scores mean.

Game: Back to the Future: The Game
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Release Date: December 22, 2010
Platform: PC
Available from: Telltale Games

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