Back to the Future Reader Review
Point-and-click adventure games are divisive little things, bringing hours of unadulterated joy to the curious fidgeters of society, whilst drawing hoots of testosterone-laden mirth from the infinitely more masculine fans of shooters, beat-em-ups and genocide simulators. Do you want to know what else is divisive? Probably not, but Iíll tell you anyway. Games based on pre-existing film licenses, thatís what.
You might have thought, therefore, that intertwining a 1980s sci-fi/action/comedy box office extravaganza with a gaming genre that involves about as much pulsating interaction as a game of chess with a narcoleptic accountant would appeal to a mightily diminutive audience. Not so, my friend. Not so at all.
The reality is that Telltale Gamesí Back to the Future series serves as an ornately wrapped gift of fan service to fans of the films both old and new, die-hard and passive. Combining clever, witty writing with vibrant settings and environments and a series of set-pieces drifting right on the sweet cusp of bombastic ludicrousness without destroying oneís suspension of disbelief, this episodic saga is a worthy addition to the revered lore of the time-travelling epics of yesteryear.
But letís not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Voyaging through Back to the Future: The Gameís twists, turns and sudden barrel rolls may be akin to the orgasmic rush of unravelling the box of your brand new plasma screen behemoth of a television, but it also comes with similar downsides to test your sense of gleeful, utopic cockiness. You know how your excitement falls just a notch or two when the television is prised from its packaging, only to result in your floor being showered with tiny polystyrene balls and overly elaborate manufacturer warranties? Well, itís those kinds of minor irritations that prevent Back to the Future from truly providing an out-of-this-world experience.
For starters, the game follows the conventions of the point-and-click genre to the finest detail, saddling you with the same awkward control system and clunky pathfinding mechanics that the kind hand of Father Time evidently forgot to rectify. Thankfully, Telltale offers you an alternative system that does away entirely with the antiquated point-and-click formula, instead replacing it with a more contemporary scheme controlled by the keyboard or game pad, depending on your personal gaming implement of choice. I say ďthankfullyĒ, but it must be said that itís the same sense of artificial gratitude youíre forced to express when your dictatorial grandmother forces you to attend the local pantomime. Providing players with the alternative may sound like an act of kindness, but any ounce of warmth felt towards the gracious developers is rapidly undone when you experience the system first-hand, cursing in vain as your on-screen avatar stumbles in each and every unwanted direction like a drunkard in a clown costume. So much for breaking new ground, then, and, in all likelihood, youíll soon settle back with the devil you know, the clinical, yet tried and tested point-and-click procedure.
The awkward control scheme may be a staple of the genre, but that doesnít make it any less irritating, especially when youíre contending with some of the more long-winded puzzles. Without diving too far into the dreaded spoiler territory, the last of the five episodic games contains a scene in which youíre tasked with activating a series of switches and mechanisms positioned in various regions of a congested, claustrophobic lab. This could prove tedious enough at the best of times, but directing your cursor to your desired location in such a cluttered workspace leads to enfuriating results, with your dim-witted character bumbling hopelessly around piles of completely unnecessary obstacles in a desperate attempt to reach his destination. And thatís not even mentioning that this is one of the longest, and easiest, puzzles in the game, making the entire process all the more tedious and laborious.
Quite honestly, calling this puzzle one of the simplest in the series is saying quite a lot. Most of the challenges can be solved within seconds with the merest shred of thought involved, and the in-game hints system further consolidates Telltaleís apparent insistence that nobody should be challenged. On the rare occasions on which youíre stuck for ideas, clicking on the prominent ď?Ē icon at the top of the screen will uncover a range of helpful clues, ranging from cryptic pokes in the right direction to the somewhat less subtle advice of ďPress the third button the left, you cretin.Ē While Iíll readily admit that such generous accessibility is something of a welcome turn-around from the maddening lack of intuity demonstrated by most point-and-click games of the past, destroying any element of thought can easily unearth some of the tedium that comes along with these types of games, and I can only imagine that this sensation will only be intensified on further playthroughs.
And thatís another problem. Perhaps itís just as much a symptom of other point-and-click adventure games as it is with Back to the Future, but the gameís lasting appeal is undoubtedly a subject for concern. Once youíve solved all the puzzles, riddles and brainteasers, going back and doing it again seems to hold as much appeal as completing the same crossword twice or robbing the same house you broke into last week. You might have had enough fun to keep yourself occupied the first time round, but revisiting the experience is rather unlikely to yield any significant treasures. I suppose you might want to re-engage wit the story, but that would mean having to navigate the same series of mindless tasks in order to view the cutscenes, meaning that you might as well just look for one of those ďLetís PlayĒ videos narrated by adolescent motormouths on YouTube.
Iíve been far too negative so far, though, and that really makes me feel more like a pedantic philistine than usual. For all its little flaws, Back to the Future: The Game delivers in more or less every area that ought to matter to its target audience, and thatís something to be celebrated. The graphical style is nice and detailed, but without ever being so realistic as to undermine the idyllic, cartoonish aura that gives the game its characteristic sense of personality and charm, and itís all elegantly backed up by a storyline worthy of the iconic Back to the Future logo.
And if you want to talk about storytelling, it would be amiss to overlook the success with which the episodic structure of the game has been set up. The first couple of episodes remain more or less self-contained, but their climaxes present the types of cliffhangers that raise as many questions as were answered throughout the rest of the adventure, whilst the brief previews of the next episodes offer tantalising glimpses into whatís so come, an efficient narrative hook if ever there was one. Reach the last three episodes, though, and the whole thing starts to take on a more sombre, frantic tone, serving up a more continuous story arc that provokes both thought and confusion in equal measure. Yes, itís convoluted nonsense at the end of the day and, yes, you could probably pick out more than a couple of plot holes along the way, but whatís important is that it all seems to make sense in its own world, the world that Telltale have worked so diligently to recreate through a colourful montage of sights, sounds and any other sensual nonsense you can think of.
And then thereís the dialogue, the piŤce de resistance that keeps the ship afloat. Telltale certainly went balls-out on this front, securing the services of the one and only Christopher Lloyd to reprise his role as Doctor Emmett Brown from the films, as well as tracking down some nobody with an unnerving talent for impersonating Michael J. Fox in the role of protagonist Marty McFly. Almost every other character is voiced with the gusto befitting the legacy forged by the Back to the Future series, and itís left quite clear that no stone has been left unturned in the attempt to convey Back to the Futureís enthralling capacity for immersion from the big screen and into the zany world of video games.
Back to the Future: The Game just feels right. Thatís about the best way I can think of putting it, if only because fans of the series will know what Iím talking about and those who hated it will probably have stopped reading by this point anyway. Whether itís the rich attention to detail, the faithful commitment to fan service or the innocent atmosphere that so effortlessly invokes that feel-good sensation of a summer movie, Back to the Future should have a place in the collection of any budding time-traveller. Donít expect to be whisked away to parts unknown, but you can rest assured that where weíre going, we donít need roads. And thereís your inevitable Back to the Future quote to raise a groan or two. Youíre welcome.