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Mini-Review: Back To The Future: The Game - Episode 1: "It's About Time"

Back To The Future: The Game

It's taken twenty-five years, but someone finally created the Back to the Future video game that does the film and its characters justice.  Telltale Games announced it was taking on the time-traveling trilogy earlier this year in its unique episodic adventure style, and now that the first episode of Back To The Future: The Game is out for the PC and Mac (iPad and Sony PlayStation 3 versions are coming soon), it's time to take a closer look at the end result and see just how the world of Hill Valley past, present, and future fares under Telltale's guidance.

What most interested me about this new Back To The Future game involved how the game's story would mesh with the mythology established by the original film trilogy.  Back To The Future Part III closed everything up nicely, after all.  The DeLorean time machine was destroyed.  Marty McFly learned that his future was whatever he made of it.  Doc Brown was happily married with children and traveling through time in his amazing steam-powered time train.  Where do we go from here?  As it turns out, we go to 1986 where Marty has returned to his normal life and Doc has gone "traveling" as far as anyone else knows.  Eventually the bank declares him dead and forecloses on his estate so that the city can build a new parking garage on the site of his garage/lab.  We spend a few minutes exploring Doc's lab and engage in a little foreshadowing, then the DeLorean inexplicably appears outside with Einstein the dog in the driver's seat.  There's evidence inside the car that Doc is in trouble at some point in the past or future, so Marty has to find out where and when Doc has gone, then go there and rescue him.  Easy enough, right?

Young Doc and MartyAs it turns out, Doc is being held in jail in 1931 for allegedly blowing up a speakeasy owned by the mobster Kid Tannen, father of Biff Tannen (Kid's absence from Biff's upbringing is explained, too).  Doc's travels have taken him all over history (Clara and the kids are doing fine, by the way; the kids are teenagers about to go to college in either the 1960s or 2200s once they decide which they want).  The DeLorean's sudden appearance after its destruction at the end of the final film is even explained away by Doc, although the reason for its return is one heck of a handwave that we have to accept if we're going to have the car in the game (Doc's explanation involves a second DeLorean being created and sent seventy years into the future when the car was struck by lighting in 1955 at the end of Back To The Future Part II; yeah, I don't buy it either).  Once all of this catching up and exposition is out of the way (and it's optional dialogue for die-hard fans to pursue; casual Back To The Future players can skip it if they don't care about these details), it's up to Marty to break Doc out of jail before Kid Tannen can shoot him dead on the steps of the iconic Hill Valley courthouse as ordained by a newspaper from the future.  Marty has to enlist the aid of the seventeen-year-old Emmett Brown native to 1931 into order to get the job done as well as interact with his own grandfather, Arthur McFly, and a certain slacker-hating newspaper columnist named Edna Strickland.  Most of this episode involves setting the stage for later events, and considering how much heavy lifting the plot has to do in order to accomplish that, I'm fine with the large amount of information that must be conveyed before we can get to the real meat of the adventure.

Being a adventure game, Back To The Future features its share of puzzles.  The challenges are as clever or devious as we've seen in other Telltale Games productions such as Sam & Max, and seem to be pitched down at new players unfamiliar with Telltale products.  Many solutions are telegraphed and several puzzles can be solved in multiple ways.  An automatic hint system pops up when players take too long to reach the next goal and an on-demand assistance option is available at any time to give direct clues and instructions on what to do next.  Sometimes the characters even remark very obviously about things that they want to see happen.

Kid Tannen and and Arthur McFlyConsidering that Bob Gale is involved as the story consultant, there are lots of moments of repeated history and continuity on display.  We get a "Mom, is that you?" scene early in the game that establishes the setting, a scene where a Tannen tells a McFly "I thought I told you never to come in here" in a local diner (watch Marty's body language during that moment and compare it to the first film's parallel moment), a spoken reference to hoverboards, warnings from Doc about causing paradoxes, a closer look at Doc's model of the Hill Valley town square from 1955, the notion that the DeLorean arrives at its destination covered in ice and must be opened with one's shoe, a member of the Strickland family yelling at slackers, and so much more.  For people like me who have spent most of their lives obsessively studying every little detail in the film trilogy, all of that useless trivia pays off here in the game.  Marty's bedroom even still has out-of-place issues of Reference Quarterly for some reason (note the RQ books as seen in the first film are librarian journals that a teenager wouldn't have; they were just books grabbed by the prop staff as explained on the Blu-ray/DVD commentary).

While there are plenty of nods back at the notion of history repeating itself from the films, there are one instance I especially want to hold up for praise: the opening of the game in which the famous Twin Pines Mall scene from the first film is recreated in which Doc sends Einstein one minute into the future.  It's even possible to recreate Marty's half of the dialogue.  Everything moves along familiarly until things take a turn for the worse and... well, see for yourself:

In the end, I really only have two criticisms of this episode of Back To The Future: The Game.  The first is that it's a short episode.  I finished it in just under two and a half hours and that was with extra time to explore all of the optional expositional dialogue and walk around Hill Valley's town square (some of the shops on the street are the same as from the films, too).  I imagine that this was a deliberate decision, as Telltale seems to be aiming at bringing in new players who are unfamiliar with the adventure game genre and doesn't want to overwhelm them with hours and hours of puzzles.  Secondly, the voice actor that steps into the roles of Biff Tannen and Kid Tannen just doesn't bring the gruff meanness that Thomas F. Wilson brought to the Tannens of the films.  Soundalikes are difficult to cast, and we are fortunate that Telltale found a ringer for a young Michael J. Fox with AJ Locascio (Doc Brown is perfectly portrayed by Christopher Lloyd himself), but Kid Beyond's take on the Tannens needs some work.  It's not a bad performance, mind you, it's just that I couldn't focus on the new voice of the Tannens without continuously comparing it to the previous actor to take on the roles. 

"It's About Time" ends on a cliffhanger, of course, as well as a trailer to show what's coming up in the next episode, and from the look of things I believe we're going to move past the slow-paced introduction and get into some serious puzzle game mechanics with a Back To The Future twist.  We still have four more episodes to go in the overall storyline and I can't wait to see where things go from here.  After all is said and done, it's just great to be back traveling with Marty and Doc after all these years.  Take me away; I don't mind...

Back To The Future: The Game