Back to the Future: The Game Episode 1 (PC) Review

Back to the Future is unquestionably one of the most beloved film series of all time. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the games that it has inspired. Though there have been multiple attempts to cash in on the phenomenon over the years, no one has come close to capturing the magic that appeared on screen. Now, 25 years after the first film, in steps Telltale. They've got a history for defying expectations by taking much beloved franchises of the past and NOT ruining them. Has BTTF: The Game kept their streak alive?

Getting Started

Back to the Future is unquestionably one of the most beloved film series of all time. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the games that it has inspired. Though there have been multiple attempts to cash in on the phenomenon over the years, no one has come close to capturing the magic that appeared on screen. Now, 25 years after the first film, in steps Telltale. They’ve got a history for defying expectations by taking much beloved franchises of the past and NOT ruining them. Has BTTF: The Game kept their streak alive?

Visuals

Anyone who has played any of Telltale’s recent offerings knows that photo-realism is not their intent. In the past that has made sense, because they’ve been producing things like Sam and Max and Monkey Island, games based on already stylized visuals. With this title based upon live action, Telltale wisely stuck to their strengths and kept with a cartoon caricature art style. If you’ve seen their other episodic games (Except Strong Bad), then you know what this game is going to look like. At first I was on the fence about it, but as you play the game you’ll quickly come to appreciate the choice. Characters from the films are quickly recognizable. Their expressions and mannerisms, aside from admirably capturing the essence of the character, are able to be exaggerated without being farcical. The mannerisms in particular are exceptional. In keeping with the series, familiar scenes and settings are repeated with eerie sense of deja vu, including the standard “A Tannen intimidates a McFly into doing his dirty work” scene. In a performance that would have been given by Thomas F. Wilson and Crispin Glover on the big screen, McFly informs him that he’ll “just run down…” accompanied by the exact motion a young George McFly makes in the first film. Well done.

The characters, though arguably the most important aspect of the visuals, weren’t the only things to be given attention. Hill Valley town square is at least as much of a character in the films as the people themselves, and BTTF: The Game shows it to us in yet another incarnation. In this case, the prohibition era 1930s. Everything from the clock tower to the stationer’s office (whatever that is) is in its place, given a make-over to fit the period. Even things that have been changed drastically still remain recognizable. At one point, the characters enter a soup kitchen. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was supposed to be, but the placement of the tables and the familiar fellow eating out of a bowl at the counter. It reminded me of one of the several diner scenes from the films, leading me to remark we hadn’t seen any version of Biff yet… and then he walked in for the aforementioned intimidation scene. The timing was exquisite, and it was very well executed.

Right from the start of the game, you get to see the loving detail put into the setting. A short section of it is set in 1980s Hill Valley, and you get to wander around into an astoundingly faithful and lovingly detailed Doc’s Lab. It is filed with artifacts from the film, and before long you get to see the equally well recreated DeLorean. Inside and out it is what you remember, from the malfunctioning displays on the inside (and the alarm clock, for that matter) to the ever-so-handy Mr. Fusion, it is there and perfectly intact… which is rather curious considering the fate of the vehicle in the film series… Even Marty’s room is detailed, including the BTTF III picture taken next to the soon to be installed clock tower and a poster for Weird Science. The Weird Science poster was done over in the game’s art style… I wonder if that’s an indicator of a future project? Oh, and speaking of future projects, we get to see some very early work done by Doc Brown, and, brilliantly, there are some not so subtle visual similarities to certain more famous projects of his.

On a final note, because we’ve been focusing our review efforts on console games of late, I was a little nervous that the ancient behemoth I do most of my work on wouldn’t be able to handle this title, but the other nice side effect about the decision to forgo photo-realism is that with a little tweaking I was able to get it running at solid 60 fps. All of the screenshots you’ll see here are taken on low graphical detail, and, honestly, they don’t look half bad.

Gameplay

Like the visuals, if you’ve played anything else on the Telltale roster, you’ll know what to expect. This is an adventure game, focused on finding items and using them to figure out how to solve the problems ahead of you. Being based on Back to the Future, one would almost expect a Day of the Tentacle-esque time jumping adventure, but such is not the case. It stands to reason, though. In a series highly focused on the consequences of tinkering with the timeline, traveling back to swipe George Washington’s wooden teeth and replace them with windup chattering ones would be a little over the top.

Though there isn’t much effort put into making the interactive objects stand out from the background, the settings are laid out in such a way as to make it fairly obvious, and a quick sweep of the mouse will turn most of them up. Once you’ve collected an item, you can examine it in your inventory, or use it on your environment. Doing so correctly obviously moves the plot along, but failing will usually provide you with a hint regarding its intended purpose. An additional level of challenge for the game comes in the form of dialogue trees. Not every problem is best solved by duct taping a spatula to a pool cue. Sometimes just talking is enough. Aside from uncovering additional information, these discussions also provide useful hints and occasionally enable you to enlist aid that will make a formerly failed solution valid.

The puzzles are tricky, but none of them are completely nonsensical. Typically a little trial and error, mixed with a dash of intuition or simply knowledge of the film series, will lead you to the correct answer. If you get stuck, there is a multilevel hint system built in. You can either trigger a hint by pressing the appropriate button, or you can leave the hint level above the bottom notch and let the game throw a pop-up in the corner with a helpful comment to guide your searching, like “Have you looked at the model of Hill Valley?” I played most of the game with the hint system off, and the play time clocked in at just about three hours, which is pretty standard for an episodic game like this.

If I have one complaint, and it is a minor one, it is the controls. They aren’t exactly bad, but they are a bit quirky. One option is to control with the mouse, which plays a bit like grabbing a joystick and pulling it in the direction that you want Marty to move. I absolutely could not get the hang of this. The other option is to use the directional keys, which works great, but since the camera view shifts as you enter different areas, the directions you move change, too. To keep you from wandering back and forth between two shots due to suddenly shifting controls, they let the button you are pressing continue to move you in the direction you had been until you take your finger off of it. At that point, it adopts the new control scheme. Once you get used to it, it is actually pretty intuitive.

Sound

Let’s be honest, half of the people who picked up this game did so because they’d heard the voice cast already. A.J. Locascio, the person they have got doing Marty, is remarkable. There are moments when you will genuinely doubt that he is a sound-alike at all. I’m still not convinced that Michael J. Fox didn’t sneak in to record a few choice lines. His performance is nearly as good as his impression, delivering most lines with the same enthusiastic exasperation that the character is known for. Coupled with the body language and expressions of the character model, Marty McFly is very well represented. Christopher Lloyd is reprising his role, so naturally Doc Brown sounds literally perfect. His voice has aged somewhat in the quarter century since his initial performance, but he remains the same lovable mad scientist, the one and only Emmett Brown.

Actually, by the unique nature of the game, he ISN’T the only Emmett Brown. As will be discussed in the story section, there is a young Doc as well. Here and there the voice actor managed to inject a few of the mannerisms you would expect from Lloyd’s performance. The rest of the cast is made up of either characters unique to the game or reasonably good sound-alikes. No one holds a candle to Marty, but they all do a good enough job that you can tell who they are long before you need to be told. George McFly in particular does a good job channeling Crispin Glover. His “Now, Biff…” is spot on.

Aside from its memorable performances, Back to the Future had a spectacular soundtrack, and Telltale brought it back in full force. Not only do they have the iconic film score (the twinkling “discovery” sound of which was good enough to prompt a co-worker to use it as a ringtone) but they threw in the obligatory Huey Lewis and The News tune as well. The utter accuracy of the soundtrack drawn from film series has one minor drawback, though. For those rare sections of audio that aren’t taken from or inspired by the movie, there is a noticeable quality difference. For instance, as is a requirement of not only BTTF but ALL time travel films now, there is an establishing shot of the town once he arrives in the new era. This was set to “Mr. Sandman” in the 1955 scene, for instance. For the game, they had to play some suitably prohibition era big band music, and while it did the job, it was pale in comparison to the rest of the audio. That’s the chance you take when you go for broke with authenticity, I guess.

Story

I should hope by now that we all know the backstory of this game. (If you don’t, stop reading, rent all three movies, and watch them. At the very least, watch the first one. I mean it, huge swaths of this game will lose a certain magical quality if you aren’t familiar with the source material.) The first few minutes of the game are a moment for moment remake of that fateful night in 1985 when Doc first demonstrated the fully functional DeLorean with the help of Einstein. Rather than shot for shot, however, the whole of the scene is from the point of view of the handicam that Marty was manning. This continues until the moment that the DeLorean vanishes. Then you gain control and get the opportunity to begin selecting dialogue items. We naturally selected the actual lines from the movie. (Don’t want to cause a paradox, after all.) Then something curious happens, or rather, doesn’t happen. The DeLorean doesn’t come back. The conversation starts to diverge from the events of the film, and the best part is this: Both you AND the characters know that something isn’t right. One dialogue option actually remarks that they need to get moving, because the Lybians are about to show up. I can’t describe why I like this opening so much. I guess it is because, for that scene, you as they player are in precisely the same boat, wondering what happened, and knowing that it wasn’t like this last time.

When the story starts in earnest, it is May, 1986, about six months after the events of the films. Doc hasn’t been around for that time, and his things are about to be sold at an estate sale to cover his debts. Before long, the DeLorean mysteriously shows up outside, without Doc. You’ll eventually find out that Doc is trapped in the early thirties, and though he doesn’t know it yet, he is in serious trouble.

The story of the game hits all of the notes a BTTF film should. Ancestors of primary characters start to arise, those famous scenes that just keep on repeating themselves show up, and younger versions of characters must unwittingly aid their future selves. Such is the case with a young Doc Brown, who’s knack for invention evidently and fortunately started at a very early age. As usual, the McFlys, the Tannens, and the Browns are all tied up in plot that at best could end in death and at worst could end up erasing the universe. This being prohibition, and thus the age of gangsters, you’ll be facing off against “Kid” Tannen, a gangster incarnation of the ubiquitous nemesis.

Since this is an adventure game, things are obviously contrived to have an “item quest” framework, but in my opinion, they never really felt that way. Things get a BIT further from believable than the films, with young Doc producing a somewhat cartoonish invention, but that is balanced by the fact that characters can and do prescribe to the same level of occasional profanity as the films, thus bringing the tone back toward center. I was highly satisfied from beginning to end.

Summing Up

From the first moments of this episode to the end credits (and thus preview of the next episode), this game seemed to be reaching into my head and strumming the nostalgia strings. If you are a fan of the original series, you can rest assured that this is finally a worthy extension of the franchise into the world of games. I won’t go so far as to say that it would take the place of an additional film, but it is pitch perfect in every way that matters. A dedicated player will knock it off in an afternoon, and if the preview after the iconic “To Be Continued…” screen is any indication, the coming installments will continue to hit all of the notes of the series in perfect succession. Bravo.

Verdict

9.6 / 10 Back to the Future: The Game is that rarest of things, a worthy follow-up to a beloved series.


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About Decoychunk

Editor, Writer, and general Knower-Of-Words, if there is text to be read on BrainLazy, Joseph Lallo probably has his fingerprints on it. As the final third of the ownership and foundation of BrainLazy, Joseph “Jo” Lallo made a name for himself when he lost the “e” from his nickname in an arm wrestling match with a witch doctor. Residing in the arid lowlands of the American Southwest, Joseph Lallo is a small, herbivorous, rabbit-like creature with the horns of an antelope. He sleeps belly up, and his milk can be used for medicinal purposes. Joseph Lallo is also author of several books, including The Book of Deacon Series, book 1 of which is available for free here.