Back to the Future PC Review
We all know that licensed videogames based on current film or television tend to be met with critical disdain, and for good reason: most of them are crap.
But with licensed games based on older properties, the odds are slightly more favourable. The last attempt (Ghostbusters) received positive acclaim, so it was only a manner of time before someone else dusted off an ancient franchise in the hopes of luring in older fans. And what better franchise for demonstrating how a past property can make a present success than Back to the Future, the time-traveling trilogy of which every thirty-something internet dweeb has written a thesis based on it at one point of their life (be it a school paper or a blog post).
Like Ghostbusters, Telltale Games decided to write their own semi-official sequel to the classic films, rather than a straight adaptation of the original films. Taking place after the third film’s conclusion, time-traveling teenager Marty McFly has resumed his mundane life in 1986 while pondering the fate of Emitt “Doc” Brown, who was last seen taking a trip across history with his wild-west wife and two sons. While Marty tries to keep Doc’s estate from being foreclosed due to his absence, a reunion with Doc’s beloved dog Einstein and a familiar-looking Delorean officially kick starts a new adventure in the year 1931, where Doc Brown has been wrongfully convicted of arson while setting off a chain of events that threaten both he and Marty’s original timeline once again. The threads of fate become more and more tangled with further dealings with Hill Valley’s past patrons, from Marty’s grandfather to a young Doc Brown, and legendary mob boss Kid Tannen, further proving that no matter what era or continuity, the Tannen family is forever a clan of buttheads.
Following the format of Telltale’s past and present games, Back to the Future involves lots of pointing and clicking across Hill Valley’s different timelines. People and items are the primary targets of your mouse, from townspeople to seemingly everyday items; interacting with both results in one of two outcomes: clues for moving the story forward, or exposition to bring players closer to the story. The latter can occur from simple observations around town (including a few in-jokes, such as the Law Offices of Gale, Zemeckis, & Fine) or engaging in one of several dialogues with principle characters.
Speaking of whom, the game tosses in nearly every character from all three Back to the Future films, including all new time-specific iterations (or alternate timeline-specific) that bring these classic icons to a new light. One show-stealer in particular is the young teenage version of Doc Brown, who is keeping his scientific curiosities in the closet, away from his disapproving father. Having Mary help shape young Emitt’s career (in order to keep his future in check) brings a whole new light into the pair’s relationship. As expected, things don’t go quite as planned, opening up a whole new set of history-altering headaches. There are also a host of new characters that help shape the history of Hill Valley and its residents even further, but it wouldn’t be fair to reveal them all here.
As for items, Marty must have some sort of backpack from the future to be able to carry so many at once; it’s up to the player to figure out what item (or combination of items) works with what circumstance. Most of the puzzles can be deduced through the extended conversations or from Marty’s own observations, but there are a few situations that do require a bit of Ruth Goldberg-esque logic in order to advance through them. In what may be a case of good or bad news, depending on what sort of gamer you are, it’s impossible to ever get a Game Over in any of the episodes. While this essentially allows players to engage in trial-and-error without the need to reload a save, it does result in a few unintentionally silly moments as the characters are seemingly caught in an endless loop (one character involved in a shootout, for example, never runs out of bullets nor stops to reload). The number of areas are limited as well, with the center of Hill Valley serving as a “hub” of sorts across each episode. On a seasonal release, this would be considered disappointing, but with all five episodes available from the get-go, it actually works in the game’s favour to better establish the different changes the town goes through in each time period.
On a technical level, Telltale has done a great job recreating the look and feel of the original films while sticking to a more cartoonish aesthetic (without drawing inspiration from the short-lived animated series). The sound design plays the biggest role in the game, with nearly every character represented by a sound-alike. Christopher Lloyd still delivers a spot-on performance in his most famous role, but James Arnold Taylor deserves equal props for his perfect imitation of Doc Brown’s mannerisms and speech patterns with his role as Young Emitt. Newcomer AJ LoCascio also does a good job as Marty, though Marty’s father sounds a bit on the forced side.
For anyone who enjoyed this classic series of films, Telltale’s adaptation is by all accounts the proper sequel that fans have waited years for. It delivers on nearly all accounts with its excellent writing, charming characters, and time-travelling shenanigans. For those who would prefer a more action-oriented adaptation where getting Game Over is a possibility, there’s always the NES version. Have fun with that.