This review is an extension of a review of Part 1, originally published 02/22/2011 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes, and updated to take Parts 2-5 into consideration. The final score of the game has changed since the original publication.
Disclaimer: This following is based solely on Back to the Future: The Game - Episode One. A review of Episodes Two through Five are in the Update.
TellTale games has crafted themselves a wonderful little piece of fan service in Back to the Future: The Game. The game really does feel like a labor of love, as the developers clearly put a lot of time and effort into getting the details right and being as respectful to the source material as they could. Characters, environments, and props all look exactly as you’d expect them to (within the style of animation used), and the voices are mostly spot-on. The voice of Marty is replicated by the fantastic Marty McFly impressionist AJ LoCascio, Christopher Lloyd himself was tapped to return as Doc Emmett Brown, and the supporting cast all do an excellent job. Except for Biff. Biff didn’t sound quite right. At least not to me. This game will no doubt draw in any Back to the Future fan right from its opening moments, in which it replicates Doc Brown’s unveiling of the time machine and the first time travel experiment.
Great Scott! The opening sequence recreates the first time-travel experiment from the movie in order to fill your heart with nostalgic giddiness.
The gameplay consists of simple puzzle-solving that may remind some people of old point-and-click adventures in that it is a slow-paced, cinematic experience with limited gameplay that is based off of interacting with specific objects and locations at specific times in order to solve puzzles. You talk to people, use items in the environment, and occasionally pick up something into your inventory for use later in moving the story forward. It’s pretty easy. There aren’t any penalties for doing things wrong; you always get another chance to do the right thing. The puzzles are mostly well designed, and fit in fairly well with the plot, although characters do come up with some odd excuses for taking some of the actions that they take (or not taking other actions instead).
Despite the simplicity of gameplay, there are a few problems. I found navigation and the interface to be a bit clumsy. Camera perspective changes have an irritating habit of getting Marty turned around, and interactions don’t always activate the moment you press the button. Certain events sometimes trigger new interactions with objects and characters, so if you visit one character, exhaust all the dialogue options, then go to a second character, you may have to go back to the first character to use new dialogue options in order to progress. This wouldn’t be a problem except that the game doesn’t always give you an indication that you need to go back somewhere. And using the game’s built-in "Hint" feature has an annoying tendency to either completely give away the solution to a puzzle or suggest you do something that you may think you’ve already done (and so the hint is ignored). But most players shouldn’t have too much trouble solving the game’s puzzles, as the solutions are usually pretty obvious once you’ve seen all the objects that you can interact with in a given area.
The narrative itself is fairly well-conceived, except for the aforementioned "odd excuses" that characters give for some of the choices that they make. The game banks a lot of its narrative success on nostalgia, taking us back to familiar locations, and referencing familiar events (something that the films do quite frequently). The characters are where the game really excels though! Marty is as relatable and "sympathizeable" a character as ever. But the real surprise star for me is the younger, 17-year old Emmett Brown that we meet in the 1930’s. It’s great to get a glimpse of Doc’s childhood, and the struggles that the energetic and enthusiastic young inventor had to go through.
One scene that particular impressed me occurs late in the game in which (hopefully this doesn’t spoil anything), Marty must reveal to the younger Emmett that he lied to him. The animators did a fantastic job of giving young Emmett a sense of absolute elation in the anticipation of the fulfillment of promises that Marty had made, followed by an expression of rejection that is absolutely heartbreaking when Marty has to break that promise. I felt so sorry for poor, young Emmett, almost the point that I wanted to cry. Any game that can elicit such strong emotions and sympathy from the player definitely deserves some credit for it!
Lying to the exuberant young Emmet Brown was a difficult, heartbreaking game experience.
I was a bit disappointed that the game didn’t give me any opportunity to actually drive or fly the DeLorean, and that the game never really explains why Doc is in the 1930’s to begin with (or why he got caught burning down a speak-easy). And if you expected me to go through a review of a time-travelling game without discussing possible continuity errors, then you’d be sadly mistaken, as it’s also not necessarily clear whether the Doc in the game is the Doc as he existed at the end of the third movie, or if it is a version of him from earlier. If he is the Doc from after the third film, then where are his kids and wife, and what happened to the time-travelling train? If he is not the Doc from after the third movie, then he would have to represent the Doc from his time exploring time in between the events of the first and second movies (which is the more likely scenario considering the DeLorean still exists as it did in the second movie). In this case, the writers would have to make certain not to let Doc reference events from the second film, as that would constitute a continuity error. Maybe these complaints and questions will be resolved in future episodes? Which I eagerly await...
As a fan of the movies, I found the game (overall) to be fairly enjoyable. It had its up moments (the beginning) and some down moments (sections of the 1930s scenario). But since it’s mostly just an effort at fan service, the game is likely not going to appeal to a wider, more casual audience. So if you’re not a Back to the Future fan, or you don’t absolutely love the "graphic adventure" genre, then I can’t really recommend this game to you (at least not until more of the episode installments are released). But if you ARE a Back to the Future fan, and you don’t have this game yet, then shame on you!
ARCHIVE UPDATE October 23, 2012: Parts 2-5 maintain a high quality, and offer their own unique surprises
Since the original publication of this review, I have played parts 2 through 5, and am pleased to say that each installment maintains the quality and entertainment value of part 1, as well as providing their own unique surprises.
The additional installments will introduce the player to some new characters, as well as additional iterations of existing characters from the movie. Pretty much any Back to the Future character that you would care to see will appear at some point in the game. Part 3 also through in a hefty dose of 70's and 80's pop culture references, including Marty commenting "It's just another brick in the wall" when examining the sealed-up entrance to the old speak-easy, and several references to Star Wars (including a Trophy/Achievement name that references the movie).
You still don't get a turn at the wheel. Sorry.
As a special treat to fans, Michael J. Fox (the original Marty McFly, himself) even makes a cameo appearance in the final installment!
In addition, later installments will eventually give the player the opportunity to discover the answers to any questions or apparent plot-holes / continuity errors from part one. The team at Tell-Tale did a great job of crafting a coherent, and appropriately-silly, story that fits nicely into a little package (with one exception that I'll get to later).
Pretty much the only let-down in the entire package remains the inability to ever take a turn at the wheel of the DeLorean, although the vehicle is presented prominently in several playable sequences.
I also noticed that some of the later chapters had a tendency to misread your save file from the previous parts, resulting in the game not remembering some of the choices you had made. These never affect the story or gameplay though, so it's really not a big deal. Part 3's puzzles also became a bit too esoteric at times, and I went around in circles for much longer than I would like to admit on a few of them. I couldn't get the booze from Lauraine because just resetting the monitors to not point in her direction wasn't good enough; you had to hide her behind a statue. When trying to impress Jennifer with the guitar, I was looking all over the level for an amp before realizing that an amp would be provided by simply challenging her boyfriend to the guitar-off. Finally, I spent a large chunk of time just chasing Einstein between his hiding locations in the alley, thinking that you just have to time your search correctly; instead you have to paint a plank blue to track his footsteps. None of these ended up being game-breaking for me, but I think I did have to fall back on an online walkthrough to figure out what I needed to do, which really shouldn't have been necessary if the game had provided better information to the user.
One weird continuity paradox does rear its ugly head in Part 4. After rescuing First Citizen Brown, he suddenly becomes just like the regular Doc Brown and thinks he can repair the DeLorean's time circuits. However, this Doc Brown is a totally different person who hadn't spent his entire adult life studying mathematics, engineering, and practicing inventing things; he never put in the time to do the complicated math to make time travel work, designing the flux capacitor, modifying the DeLorean, or contemplating (and practicing) temporal causality. The writers just blow all this off and assume that even an alternate Doc Brown must be an expert in time travel. It is an insult to the player's intelligence that I was disappointed slipped through Tell-Tale's otherwise excellent story-telling.
All five parts are now available as package deals via the PSN or Steam, and they are a great addition to any fan's Back to the Future collection, easily providing 8 to 12 hours of gameplay.