Back to the Future has not been treated kindly when it comes to video games. And take it from us, we've played all of them. From the weird NES Back to the Future that saw you skateboarding and collecting clocks with awful controls, to the impossible Master System Back to the Future Part III, which only had four levels because they knew nobody could pass the first one. Telltale Games are looking to change all that. With the blessing of series' writer Bob Gale, Back to the Future: The Game is an official continuation of the story from the movies, in an episodic adventure game identical in style to Telltale's past Sam & Max and Monkey Island titles. Has Back to the Future finally caught a break in this Christmas-time release, or is its flux capacitor on the fritz?
This first episode, It's About Time, picks up in 1986, about six months after Back to the Future Part III left off. For those unfamiliar with the movies (which we expect after the number of times these films have been re-run on television to be infinitesimal), teenager Marty McFly has been on several time-travelling escapades with his best friend, and wizard scientist, Doc Brown. Together, they mixed up the space-time continuum for better or worse as they ensured Marty's birth, the safety of his future kids, and found time for a Wild West adventure in amongst it all. The last time Marty saw Doc, the iconic DeLorean time machine was destroyed and he was leaving the timestream with his new wife and kids aboard a time-travelling locomotive.
At the start of the game, Marty's missing his bromance with Doc something fierce, which is worsened when he learns that the bank is selling off Doc's possessions due to his many debts. After saving Doc's notebook, which contains all of his work on creating a flux capacitor (and thereby a time machine), Marty finds the DeLorean mysteriously awaiting him outside Doc's house. Set for 'automatic retrieval', and with a message from the Doc, Marty learns that he needs to travel to the 1930s to rescue his friend from being imprisoned, then murdered, for a crime he didn't commit.
The story is the largest part of the game, which we'll explain in a bit, and all in all it's OK. There's a lot of things the story does right, with clever callbacks to the previous films and a great intro that we won't spoil (although it does contain portentous previews into what will no doubt become future episodes). The one other triumph of the game is that the 1930s setting allows us to meet Doc as a teenager, and the central story of him standing up to his parents to follow his dream of becoming a scientist is great stuff. Unfortunately, there's a lot of bland stuff here, too. Despite the game's really brief length (3 hours unless you dilly dally), there's a lot of talking endlessly to uninteresting characters. Fans of the series will know that we always meet members of certain families in every time period, and Back to the Future: The Game is no different, as you'll get to meet the 1930s representatives of the McFly, Tannen and Strickland gene pools. The thing is none of them are that interesting, or even that funny. Kidd Tannen is about as bog-standard a mob boss as you can find, Artie McFly is hardly seen and only Edna Strickland fares slightly better, although her self-righteous tone gets old real quick.
Fans of the Back to the Future, who will be the ones buying this game, will find plenty to love with all of the callbacks and nostalgic moments found within it. But the pace of this first episode is slow, and the 1930s setting is uninspiring. There's no real pep or flavour to 1930s Hill Valley like there was in its 1955, 1855 or 2015 versions, which were explosions of the culture and silliness of those eras. Without giving too much away, apparently the next episode will revisit this setting, so we hope Telltale are able to give us a bit more of a reason to want to explore this time period a second time around. The explanation for the existence of the DeLorean is also pretty weak, even by Back to the Future's silly-science standards.
It's About Time follows the traditional adventure game format of point-and-click adventures long past, except there's not much pointing and clicking. The game still uses the frustrating 'hold-down-a-mouse-button-to-move' or 'WASD' set-up that Telltale has had in use since Wallace & Gromit. It's obviously supposed to work better on a gamepad, or on the PlayStation 3, but with the constrained spaces (abounding with invisible walls) for Marty to move in this episode, which at times border on two-dimensional, there's no need for this system when pointing and clicking is actually the much better option.
As is always the adventure game shtick, Marty has to run around talking to characters and collecting items, which he can then use to advance to the next puzzle which requires more talking and more collecting. The thing is, the puzzles in this game are really very easy. Some even have the same solution, for instance Doc's dog Einstein comes in very handy for the same purpose at least three times. And if you do find yourself stuck, there's a wealth of hints and information to see you through with minimal frustration. At any time you can access your current goals, get several levels of hints (the last level usually detailing almost exactly what you need to do) and read a summation of the current story through the menu system. It's almost too much help, and if you utilise these features sparingly, you'll have a lot more fun. There is one puzzle that is slightly different, relying on recognising clues being given to you, but it's repeated several times making it a bit wearing by the end. At least it shows some variety, as despite what you may be expecting, there are no driving or skateboarding (or even hover boarding) sections. Also, despite sections which offer multiple dialogue options, their outcome never changes. Mass Effect this is not.
So, with this episode so easy it can almost be finished on autopilot (especially if you indulge in hints), the game becomes much more of an interactive movie, which is why we said the story moves to the forefront as the most important piece of the experience. If you're one for a good yarn, and you've got a love of the franchise, then you'll get some enjoyment out of it. If you've never seen a Back to the Future before, just wait for the films to be shown on TV this weekend and once you're converted, give this a shot.
Back to the Future: The Game's presentation is miles ahead of anything Telltale have done previously, except possibly Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse. The game looks fantastic with the detail and resolution pushed way up on PC (except for a weird border around shadows), and the stylised looks of Marty, Doc and all your favourite characters are great. The problem is that their animation just isn't there to support them, as they jerk around waving their arms around in poses that often don't really match the tone of what they're saying. This is a case where perhaps we've been spoiled by the excessive motion capture of more expensive games, but when you've seen real-life incarnations of these characters, you instinctively know how they should move. That said, they've got Marty's neck-rub down pat very nicely.
Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox-impersonator AJ Lo Cascio are fantastic as Doc and Marty, and play off each other really well, which is one of the most important parts to get right about Back to the Future. Likewise, the soundtrack has some of the best music cues from the films, from the main theme to the tinkling-magical introduction that prefaces the game, as well as loading a saved game. In fact, the way the game loads saved games is actually pretty fantastic, as it sees the DeLorean race into the past in a first-person view, then gives you the time and date of your save game in classic Back to the Future fashion. It's just a shame most people won't see this, since the game can be finished in one sitting.
It's really great to see Back to the Future, well, back. And It's About Time hits the ground running with a great introduction, as well as a great pair of protagonists in Marty and Doc (as well as his younger version). Unfortunately, the setting of this first episode doesn't inspire, nor do the supporting cast which you'll spend so much time with, and the game really is far, far too easy. However, it is the first episode, and one fifth of a much larger game, which we hope gives the developers time to tell a much more interesting, funnier and challenging story. Right now, it's a nice revisit for Back to the Future fans, of which we are card-carrying members, but not really worth a look for anyone else.