Back To The Future Review: Then And Back Again

To talk about Back to the Future [in any medium] you really need to talk about the two leads. I am, of course, referring to Thelma and Louise. Oh wait! That’s the wrong time stream! And the wrong movie!

A picture of Marty and Doc, protagonists of Back to the Future.  They are having a worried conversation and are dressed in period clothing.
Marty and Doc in period attire

But my point still stands. In order to dissect anything Back to the Future, you have to start with Marty and Doc.

See, there’s really only two general ways to tell a time-travel story: most folks writing science fiction that involves time-travel will generally go for the “big” approach. They ask questions like: what if world war two never happened? Or what if no one ever worked out that the world was round?

This particular type of narrative focuses more on the world around the people – what happens to folks in these alternate time-lines is interesting, but not as important as the event that warranted the jump back [or forward] necessary.

Contrast this with the other way of telling time-travel stories: here, the focus is on the people. How they experience the new time they’re in. How what they do on a personal level interacts with who they were in the future. What landmarks and features of the world around themselves they might recognize in the past [or future.]

TellTale absolutely realized that Back to the Future is really a character-driven story and they play to that strength completely. They dig for and find the essence of the movies with a startling clarity of focus and stick to that focus like glue. The McFly family is present and correct in Marty. Doc is absolutely as zany as he ever was. The Tannen family loom large as perennial thugs. These characters are what make or break a Back to the Future – and TellTale have gotten them right.

Purists might scoff at the fact that Marty isn’t voiced by Michael J Fox, [who does an interesting cameo near the end of the game] but the voice actor who takes on his role, one A.J. Locascio does such a fine job that until you actually hear Mr Fox later on in the game, you might never know the difference.

Going in, this was one thing that worried me. I wasn’t sure if the voice acting would create a disconnect and if that would make me uninterested, but TellTale are clever and weave a new narrative that uses some of the original characters we’ve come to know from the movies, but they only use them very sparingly. Jennifer, for example, only shows up in episode three and only really sticks around until the beginning of the fourth episode. The actor playing Jennifer, Claudia Wells, reprises her role here, to…interesting effect.

A picture of the DeLorean, a time-travelling car from the Back to the Future series
Is there any cooler way to time travel?

And that’s the crux of the matter: TellTale use what they have to interesting effect. This particular story isn’t exactly like a Back to the Future movie, it is its own beast with its own set of problems and its own unique solutions to those problems. I absolutely have to give TellTale props for writing a plausible story that could have worked within the framework of the movies, but is bold enough to chart it’s own particular course.

As a result, there’s a lot to like about the game.

While graphics have never been TellTale’s forte, and while the graphics here remind a little of games in the Playstation 2 era, everything fits reasonably neatly together. Sure, it’s a little stylized and certainly the faces and areas don’t exactly look perfect, but it’s clear who everything is and it’s possible to see everything that you need to deal with when solving a puzzle.

The same applies to the sound design: it’s not absolutely perfect – while Mr Locascio does a wonderful impression of Mr Fox, keen ears will detect the discrepancy. The sounds here are often very workmanlike: serving the narrative focus on the game, from footfalls to car engines starting, it all works reasonable well together, but never blows you away.

The one exception here is the music. The theme is present and correct, but there are also various other musical strains that run throughout the game and – in a particularly memorable scene, an entertainer plays piano while a certain Trixie Trotter sings songs that could have been written in the 1930’s. But this, of course, is fitting: one of Marty’s passions is music. While you’re not likely to be humming very many of the tunes that come out of the game, the handful that set themselves apart, do so quite admirably.

A scene in Back to the Future where Marty is about to use his guitar on an amplifier
Using things to do things

This is an older TellTale game, back from when they were still making “true” adventure games, and as such, there are items to pick up and collect as well as dialogue puzzles to solve. From this particular angle, the game isn’t particularly difficult. There’s still some bad design going on [it’s not always readily apparent that you can use two things on screen at once] and the inventory system itself is somewhat clunky [pull up the inventory screen and you’re faced with a list of items going from left to right. To use an item, you have to either click on it first and then hit “use” or scroll left and right to get to that item and then press a key to “use” it] but it all does the job in a reasonable sort of fashion.

Speaking of the puzzles, there are some rather neat set pieces that drive the plot forward, and I’m quite pleased to say that there aren’t any quick time events at all in this game. Need to make a decision? Take your time. Need to think over which dialogue tree to go down? You’re welcome to do that at your own pace. This is an older TellTale that isn’t so wrapped up in making games about moral dilemmas that require you to have your finger on the trigger at every second.

This, in fact, is the true strength of the game: it takes it’s time across five episodes to tell a story that has plenty of breathing room. While it’s true that this game is less about Marty and more about Doc, it’s a wonderful testament to both characters. It shows their true friendship across time.

Would I recommend it?

Yes, with two caveats. While the plot of the games doesn’t strongly hinge on the plot of the movies, the characters that make up the game do tie back to the movies rather heavily. It is important to understand Marty’s connection to Jennifer, for example. So watching the movies – while not a pre-requisite – is very strongly advised.

The second caveat is about the voices. It might be difficult, but it is necessary to look past “how bad they might sound.” The actors who came on board from the movies did a stellar job [Christopher Lloyd reprises his role as Doc and does a superb job] and the folks who stood in for series regulars gave it their all.

So, yes. By all means, pick this up. It’ll be worth your time. [Pun completely intended.]