Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7, 1.8 GHz Pentium IV or equivalent CPU, 256 MB graphics card, 2 GB RAM, DirectX 9.0c, sound card
ESRB rating: Not rated at press time
Release date: Available now
Earlier this year, Telltale Games announced an agreement with Universal Pictures to create series of adventure games based on the Back to the Future and Jurassic Park film franchises. The first installments of both movie series were smash hits, but, as movie sequels are wont to do, the later ones became unfortunate footnotes to the greatness that the original films achieved. Game sequels have met similar fates (Deus Ex: Invisible War leaps to mind as an example), but Telltale brings a successful track record to the realm of episodic gaming.
First out of the gate is Back to the Future: The Game Episode 1—It’s About Time, the first of five monthly releases telling a new story featuring the 1985 film’s characters. Just in case you’re allergic to all cinema before Twilight, here’s the setup: Eccentric inventor Dr. Emmett Brown has created a time machine out of a Delorean sports car (its stainless steel construction is an integral factor in the design). Doc Brown has a young friend named Marty McFly, the best adjusted member of an otherwise unusual family. Brown decides to test his invention in the deserted parking lot of the local mall. The results of this test send Brown and Marty back in time, where any interaction with their previous selves or their families could cause massive problems in Brown and Marty’s home time.
It’s About Time uses the scene in the parking lot to introduce you to the simple controls used in the game. You play as Marty, moving him around the scenes either with the WASD keys or by holding down the left mouse button and dragging the mouse. Conversations with other characters are managed using a dialogue tree (part of the charm of the prologue is that Telltale has used the original script from the movie for this part of the game; it’s fun trying to remember which dialogue choice is the one used in the film). The screen layout should be familiar to anyone who’s played Telltale’s games in the past, with inventory management handled through an icon at the top of the screen. This time, however, they’ve made some improvements: Clicking an icon at the top left lets you see your current story objective, and a more robust hint system has been added to the interface.
Once the prologue ends, you’re off on an original adventure. The Delorean returns, but it’s empty (save for a woman’s shoe in the passenger seat), and a broken readout prevents Marty from knowing from when and from where the machine has returned. His (and your) task is to use the available clues to figure out the location of Doc Brown and find out what happened to him. Christopher Lloyd returns as Brown, the role he originated in the films. But the biggest surprise is industry newcomer A.J. Locascio as the voice of Marty, played in the movies by Michael J. Fox. His impersonation of Fox as Marty is amazingly accurate; it’s almost as if Telltale has built their own time machine to go back and record the dialogue. The visual representations of Marty and Doc aren’t quite as successful, although the artists did nail Fox’s squinty expressions and his physical mannerisms. The story, which is practically impossible to describe without spoilers, is just detailed enough for the first episode in a series, yet involving enough to put smiles on the faces of those who love the source material. And the use of cuts from Alan Silvestri’s familiar score helps to maintain the mood.
The trademark Telltale puzzle-based gameplay is back once again, only this time the puzzles are not nearly as vexing as they are in, say, the Monkey Island games. This can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon your point of view. The puzzles lack much of the imagination that we’ve come to expect from the developer; most of them involve distracting an NPC long enough to accomplish an objective, although there is a very entertaining puzzle in which you have to complete a series of actions based upon audio cues. But the overall difficulty level is not very high, making the revamped hint system almost unnecessary; I finished the episode in less than four hours, which is fast for me. Also, Telltale still hasn’t worked out the bugs in their character-movement system. WASD is still the most efficient method, while their new click-and-drag mechanic is clunky and sometimes tricky to engage. And there are a few audio glitches (mouths move but no voices are heard; you can hear a cat hissing but you don’t see the cat) that should’ve been caught in testing.
Nostalgia makes Back to the Future Episode 1 a good choice for gamers who grew up enjoying the adventures of Doc Brown and Marty McFly. The voice acting is excellent, the story is well told, and the game doesn’t have the frustration factor that many similar games have. But the comparative lack of imagination in the puzzles is the cause of the game’s low difficulty level, which could make many players wonder if they’ve gotten their money’s worth. Combined with the audio bugs and the temperamental movement system, these factors might make players pause before pursuing the entire series. It’s About Time is a good first step, but Step 2 needs to pick up the slack.