Back to the Future: Episode 5 Review

Back to the Future ends with a race against time and a harrowing climb up a clock tower to harness a bolt of lightning in a last-ditch, final attempt to return Marty McFly to 1985.

Back to the Future Part II ends with Marty narrowly evading being killed by Biff Tannen in 1955 in a thrilling hover board sequence in a tunnel.

The finale of Back to the Future Part III, which actually follows an Old West shootout, has the characters climbing alongside a locomotive rushing toward a deadly fall into a ravine.


Back to the Future: Episode 5 (PS3 [Reviewed], XBox360)
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Release Date: June 23, 2011
MSRP: $0

And then there’s Back to the Future: The Game, the conclusion of which is neither thrilling nor particularly death-defying. In fact, it’s barely a climax at all — we’ve seen more exciting moments spread throughout the game (the end of Episode 1 wasn’t bad, and the end of Episode 2 was certainly more climactic). This is the final installment, the culmination of everything Telltale Games has been building over the last several months, but rather than feel like the best of the episodes of the game, Episode 5 may well be the worst. It certainly is middling even at its highest points.

If you haven’t played any of the Back to the Future installments up to now, be warned that you’re about to encounter spoilers. I’ll go ahead and delineate those so you can skip the specifics; further on, we’ll talk about the game as a whole, moving beyond just this episode.

Begin Spoilers
It’s all come to a head. At the end of Episode 4, it was becoming apparent that the influence of Edna Strickland on Doc Brown was intense, and that Marty might have Doc for an adversary. Much of the episode takes place at the Hill Valley Science Expo, where young Emmett Brown historically incurred a massive failure but which set him on the path of science for the rest of his life. Actively trying to prevent that mishap is Doc Brown from the alternate 1986 of Episode 3, and he’s working with the (not yet evil) Edna of 1931 to push Emmett out of science for good, so he can be happy with Edna and keep both of them from heading down the dark path we saw earlier in the game.

Episode 4 touched some key themes that actually would have been great for the game to explore: namely, Marty’s meddling in the lives of the people around him through time travel and the moral implications of his actions. In Episode 4, Marty is a lying, manipulative bastard — but it’s a means to an end, and we could see it taking a toll on him as a person. Or rather, we could almost see it.

Throw all that morality noise out in Episode 5. Marty is more convinced than ever that he just has to do what he has to do, and there are a few moments when he actually acts in a not-very-Marty way. During the course of the expo, Doc actually knocks out and kidnaps Emmett, and Marty, needing to force Doc’s hand to get Emmett where he needs to be in order to correct the timeline, actually (kind of) threatens Emmett’s life. Doc knows if anything happens to Emmett, it happens to him, too, so the threat is real, but it’s totally out of character for Marty, especially because he risks hurting his friend to get at his enemy. This isn’t the Marty McFly of the films, and it’s not the Marty we saw earlier in the game, either. Marty doesn’t hurt people, regardless of the ends he’s trying to achieve — and if he does hurt them, he doesn’t just shrug it off and go about his mission.

Not that it’s all that big of a deal. Unlike earlier episodes that included gangsters and, well, Tannens in general, there’s no real danger here at all. Even after the “drama” is apparently “ratcheted up” by a “seemingly horrible situation” for Hill Valley at large, it’s still treated like a not-that-big-a-deal problem. For some reason, Doc Brown is not nearly as excitable as in the films or even earlier in the game, and Marty’s mindset is more “heavy” than “oh my god, what the hell is that?!”

Trouble is, these things don’t work for a story’s climax. Edna isn’t a Tannen-esque villain, especially as she’s portrayed in Episode 5. Maybe back in Episode 3, but here she just seems out of her element — not nearly as inherently bad guy as Biff, nor as menacing and desperate as her older self. The result is a hover board/car climax without any real stakes. It’s the same scene we’ve gotten twice before during Back to the Future: The Game, and it’s about the weakest climax the game has yet dealt out to players.

The issue is mostly that Back to the Future doesn’t seem to know what it wants to accomplish. Whatever story was being built for the first half of the game has vanished by the end; now it’s time to tie up loose ends and make sure everything ends happily. By this point, we’re expecting the game to really push things, and for there to be danger for the characters, but there really never is. Even when the world effectively “ends” for Hill Valley due to time travel, Marty and Doc have to go through a slow-moving puzzle to figure out the ins and outs of it, and then find themselves in a Mexican stalemate situation that, again, doesn’t really seem all that worrisome. Abstractly, we know there’s a lot at stake — the dissolution of the existence of Marty, Doc and everyone they’ve ever known — but the characters don’t react with any kind of real worry; why should we?

End Spoilers

Back to the Future as a Whole
With the whole experience finally wrapped up and the hindsight view finally available, it’s clear that what big promises Back to the Future makes (or suggests), it just can’t deliver on. I’m hesitant to fault the inherently slow and methodical nature of point-and-click adventure games, because I still think Telltale had the right idea for this being the vehicle for telling a Back to the Future story. And I can’t fault at least a portion of the writing and none of the acting, because the game’s production values are strong enough to match the feel of the film world beautifully. The whole game experience fits well into the Back to the Future canon.

It’s the script, I think, that’s lacking, and that may just be a function of poor planning. Way back when we first heard about Telltale’s game, the developer put out a survey to fans asking what kinds of things they’d like to see in a Back to the Future game. That survey included the ideas that actually made it into the game — the Prohibition setting and alternate 1986, namely — and is also probably indicative of what went wrong in creating the game. There was never really a full understanding of what the story would be for Doc and Marty, and that’s why Doc and Marty never really change as characters through the course of it.

This is a story about “what would be cool to see in Back to the Future,” and the ending of the game is a great indication of that — and how wrong it is. The films find Doc Brown realizing almost immediately that time travel is too dangerous to be allowed to continue; the goofy ending of the game takes the opposite stance. It’s just more “haha, wouldn’t that be funny?” rather than “Here’s a story about these people.”

In the end, Back to the Future dreams big but thinks small; or maybe those big dreams belonged to us, the players, back when we didn’t really know what Telltale had in store for us. Perhaps it was my expectations and my love for the source material that artificially inflated what Back to the Future could have been and my conception became what it should have been. And that’s not really fair.

But at the same time, Back to the Future had potential to have been much deeper than it ever actually ended up being. It grazed some exciting and harrowing moments and opted out of them. It downplayed its own stakes in favor of a goofy overall feel. We got the Citizen Plus program — brainwashing for a baffoonish Biff Tannen rather than a scary one — when we should have gotten a law-and-order version of Biff Tannen’s Pleasure Paradise.

All I feel for the middle of Back to the Future forward is disappointment at what might have been achieved. I had fun with the game’s puzzles, with hanging out with the characters once again, with AJ Loscascio and his brilliant turn as Marty McFly. But it’s not a journey I want to take again, and though it pains me to say so, taken together, there’s largely just not enough reason to care. There’s more excitement in one three-minute climax scene from any of the films than there is in the total 10 hours of the game; that’s a long time to be waiting for lightning to strike or Doc’s DeLorean to hit 88.

Pros:

  • Same strong production values
  • Michael J. Fox’s cameo, even if it’s only so-so
  • Fun puzzles that won’t stump players
  • Contains at least one of the game’s best puzzles about midway through
  • One of the more inventive episodes of the series, with an interesting and unique set of problems to work through

Cons:

  • Seriously lacks stakes
  • No real character arc; story pushes on without asking much of the characters
  • Total game concludes without really ever having a climax
  • Puzzles, while fun, are really easy this go-round
  • Ending loses the “Back to the Future” feel the game has maintained all along
  • Final Score (Episode 5): 50

    Final Score (Total Game): 65

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