Telltale Games has become one of the bigger names in the industry in a relatively short amount of time. Known for making compelling “movies you can play,” the company has amassed an impressive catalog of games from a wide range of intellectual properties. So where does Telltale’s newest series stack up to the rest of their work? After the first episode, it’s hard to say where it will land in the end, but it’s off to a pretty strong start.
We’re Getting the Band Back Together
A movie can crumble without strong characters, and when you’re making a game that has such strong ties to that medium’s way to tell stories, the same rule applies. Luckily, Telltale was given a team of strong characters from the movie and comic books to begin with, and had only to stay true to those characters in a new story. Clearly, that’s a lot more difficult than it may sound, but in this regard I think Telltale performs admirably.
The player is put in control of the lovable main character Peter Quill (also known as Star-Lord), a smart-mouthed human from Earth intent on smooth talking and punching his way around the galaxy with his friends. The rest of the team – comprised of Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot – serve to create hijinks in the group that force the player to make some quick, tricky decisions. As an ensemble, the group works quite well. The writing for each character feels distinct and interesting, especially when bouncing off each other, and the voice acting feels very close to the casting in the 2015 movie. All told, it’s too early to give anything other than a passing impression as to the characters thus far. If they stay on track with the quality of the dialogue in this first episode, they will end up with a pretty compelling team of Guardians.
Dodging Some Tired Tropes, Embracing Others
Again, since this type of game is mimicking the presentation and story structures of film and TV, it lives and dies by the same principles they do. With regards to the plot, I can say up front that I was impressed by how this first episode was presented. Without venturing into spoiler territory, the plot starts in a way many others do: our heroes are poised to take out a big baddie right off the bat, equipped with a blatant overconfidence in their abilities. But instead of losing, being humbled, and then returning to beat the baddie in act three like many other stories of this type, the Guardians actually succeed. This was a pleasant surprise, if only for the novelty, but Telltale then carefully plants the seeds for a much more interesting story in the wake of that victory.
Being able to be an active participant in the direction dialogue takes means crafting multiple compelling branches of the story is tough. So while I can’t speak for every branching path (especially because of the continued divergence they might take in future episodes) I can say that I enjoyed what I saw so far. The plot of the first episode is long enough that you don’t feel short-changed in terms of exposition, it also knows when to bow out and set up for another episode. I do have some minor complaints in terms of pacing, and events that are used to incite conflict. Some of the choices they player is are forced to make feel somewhat contrived. Internal strife in the team seems to crop up at moments of real camaraderie, leaving the encounter feeling arbitrary and a little cheap. Despite some of these moments, the interactions and decisions feel meaningful and interesting, and the story as a whole feels intriguing–as any good first episode should.
Movie Magic, Point-and-Click Problems
While the story has left me excited for the rest of the season, the gameplay has done little to contribute to that. In fact, it’s working against it. The most fun I had playing this first episode was in dialogue moments and scripted fight scenes, even with Quick-Time Events being the main method of play. The least fun I had playing, was when the game became a point-and-click type adventure game. The pacing is not the issue, as the story needs moments of downtime to lend importance to its action/story heavy sequences. The problem largely lies in the controls and camerawork found in these moments.
When the game opens up a little environment that the player can walk around in and interact, that playstyle should warrant the kinds of camera and character controls we’ve come to expect. Instead, the camera is often locked into a corner, or placed a rigid track to follow the player. This, on its own, is not necessarily problematic, but in combination with the fact that the right analogue stick simultaneously controls the camera as well as a pointer on the screen, makes for some incredibly clunky moments. What should be a moment of freedom and exploration, is marred by a control scheme that feels deeply unintuitive.
A Few Too Many Bugs
In a game that is only a couple of hours long thus far, I was surprised by the number of bugs I saw. Audio bugs ranged from missing lines or uncomfortably long pauses to odd spikes in volume that pushed the limits of comfortability with headphones. The visual side of the game’s engine seemed to fare better, though there was still at least one instance in which a character completely vanished from screen, leaving an oddly comical scene in which other characters moved and spoke nonsensically. Thankfully none of the bugs lasted more than a handful of seconds and none could be considered game-breaking. Even still, for a game so tightly scripted and limited in visual scope, it feels excessive to have experienced that many technical missteps in just a couple of hours. With so few mechanical moving parts, it seems out of place.
That said, the few mechanical design choices as well as the engine’s implementation of them is generally enjoyable. I was especially impressed with the timing that choices fit into, that allow for a remarkably natural flow in conversation while allowing adequate, though limited, time to do so. The facial animation is also decent, though not particularly impressive, and image quality on top of Telltale’s art style is admirable. The visual side of the experience is unique while also feeling true to the characters and the world.
In sum, Guardians of the Galaxy Episode 1 is a confident and enjoyable first step into an intriguing story. The plot is unique enough to grab your attention and the dialogue is mostly compelling. If the rest of the season can maintain this level of quality (despite the technical hitches), then I think we’ll have an interesting saga worthy of the fascinating characters in it.