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17 May 2017

Telltale’s Guardians Game: a Must-Play for Fans

By // Games

Telltale Games are known for their tough decisions; but here there was no question. I started kicking the corpse along with Rocket, while taunting the defeated super villain. Gamora was kinda pissed about it, but it was worth it.

From start to finish, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Game – Episode One: Tangled Up In Blue is an absolute delight. It somehow manages to be familiar to both comic fans and film fans, combining the best of both universes while also telling a story all its own; freed from continuity, Telltale is able to craft an incredible Guardians story that (for reasons I’ll get into after the spoiler bump) probably couldn’t exist in comics (much like their excellent Batman game). Additionally, Telltale itself is firing on all cylinders: bringing their wit, mischievousness (kick the corpse), and a series first style of dramatic combat that perfectly suits the Guardians, but also suggests just how far future Telltale games can go.

If you’re a fan of the Guardians of the Galaxy film you must play this game; it’s like getting an extra film (and, in many ways, handles the characters better than the film itself – specifically Gamora). If you’re a fan of the comics, particularly the original run, you’ll definitely feel the film’s influence on the style and soundtrack and yet the characters and universe are much closer aligned to their comic counterparts than their filmic ones. Regardless, the game has its own flavour and style that distance it from both its main sources and it’s a better game for it. This is a great showcase for the Telltale style (which non-gamers should note is essentially button prompts to make actions occur and conversation choices; it’s approachable enough that even if gaming isn’t normally your thing, you can still have a great time), and uses its source material to great effect. The script is great, with several laugh-out-loud moments (I’m usually a ‘bemused smile’ guy when it comes to humour in games, but I was full-on guffawing at a few of the moments in this), the soundtrack is awesome (evokes the film without simply lifting its 80s score), and it’s a really fun adventure. I loved every minute of it (aside from a gently unnecessary ‘shoot the asteroid’ sequence that felt like an excuse for an action amidst otherwise excellent story) and I can’t wait for the next episode.

My only reservation lies in the format itself: if you don’t enjoy Telltale’s style of narrative gaming (and to be fair, many people don’t; it’s essentially a movie you push buttons to and make choices during), then Guardians isn’t likely to change your mind. While I think it’s an exemplary iteration of this style of game, it is still a Telltale game. That being said, if you’re a big Guardians fan but not a fan of Telltale, I’d still recommend checking it out for how well it treats the source material.

If you’re a fan of both? This is a delight. Stop reading and go buy it. Then come back and read on.

Spoilers and Analysis

Through its franchise games, Telltale has a proven track-record of finding interesting corners of a world to explore; in its Jurassic Park, it followed the vet tech who helped Ellie Sadler with the sick triceratops (remember him? He’s around somewhere); Walking Dead followed new characters who encountered and even affected the main characters’ journey (stopping at Hershel’s farm and lending him cause to be distrustful of guests when Rick and Co. arrive); picking a named, but obscure House to follow in Game of Thrones allowing for full player agency while still finding ways to weave major events into the story; and most recently with Batman, altering the Dark Knight’s back story in a fairly dramatic way to give us a familiar but strange version of Bruce Wayne – more on that in a future post).

Guardians is no exception: Telltale has nailed that the odd-ball family dynamic is the core of this group and so they present us with an engaging hook – what happens when the Guardians’ adventure ends? Our story begins, improbably and awesomely enough, with a showdown with Thanos the Mad Titan (or, ‘That purple guy on the chair voiced by Josh Brolin’ for Marvel Cinematic Universe fans). It feels like the climax of most movies or games, and follows a similar track to the end of the first Guardians film with our heroes desperately trying to distract Thanos long enough to let Rocket use a temperamental super weapon to defeat him. The combat in this section is excellent and a huge step forward for Telltale games in general, as we are given button prompts for the actions of all of the Guardians, not just Star-Lord (traditionally, we’ve only been responsible for our character). This allows for an incredible, swirling combat, with each character diving in, all relying on our prompts; in future, this kicks open the door for great, dynamic action sequences were we don’t need to be stuck just acting as one person. It’s very exciting and something I’ve been wanting from the developer for years, so needless to say, I was thrilled to have it play out here, shifting from flying around Thanos blasting him with Star-Lord’s pistols to duelling him at close range with Gamora, to leaping onto him with Drax all in the span of a few seconds. It’s a great combat and honestly does feel like the end of the game, not the start.

By the end of combat, Thanos is dead – which, again, is tricky in something tied to continuity; hell, even the first Guardians film had to be rewritten to feature Ronan the Accuser instead of Thanos because he’d been picked up by the Avengers film to be the big bad of the MCU. But herein lies the joy of Telltale: while they are in-continuity in Game of Thrones, The Wolf Amongst Us, Borderlands, and The Walking Dead (comic, not show), here they are free to use the elements provided by the source material as they see fit, without having to worry about anything but the story before us. It’s refreshing, in a world of interconnected films and comics to have a standalone like this and it sets up a great Guardians story: now that their big threat is gone, do they stay together as a team? I remember being super bummed as a kid when I realized that Legolas and Gimli wouldn’t just be hanging out all the time anymore after the defeat of Sauron…but the adventure was over and they returned to their lives. It’s a great set up, with some of the crew wanting to stay together, feeling a sense of family, and others, like Rocket, wanting to retire and enjoy the riches and fame that come with success. The central problem becomes: how do you, as Star-Lord, keep them together? Or do you? It’s a really meaty, engaging way to kick off a story and immediately makes for a fascinating team dynamic which, regardless of your fore-knowledge of the film or comics, is immediately and delightfully well-established in the first few minutes of the game. I was left wishing Mass Effect: Andromeda had been so efficient.

The action shifts to a bar celebration where you’re given plenty of chances to brag or support your friends and having the ever lovable Chris Pratt in my head as a base, I found myself trying to balance my desire to chuckle against my real objective of keeping the band together. It’s a funny, neat, compelling sequence.

Our heroes’ main problem then becomes a rather large bar tab, which can be paid by selling Thanos’ corpse to either the space cops (The Nova Corps) or the shady Collector (Benicio Del Toro, in the film); this ends up being the main choice of the session, with reasonable consequences amidst the Guardians for either choice. You’re also in possession of a major space McGuffin (the Eternity Forge) which provides possibly real visions of lost loved ones. All good stuff. Bad guys are after the Forge for entirely understandable reasons (resurrect their dead race…but then conquer the universe) and we’re off to the races.

While I was initially worried the Eternity Forge was going to be another mystical space relic of little import beyond some vague sense of power, they’ve actually set it up as the perfect foil for the Guardians, which again, speaks to Telltale’s incredible ability to identify what makes its’ characters ticl: the Forge, from what we can ascertain from the first episode, seems to have the ability to return lost loved ones to life. While this would be a potent plot device in any narrative, it’s particularly effective here since almost all of the Guardians are marked by tremendous personal tragedy: Star-Lord’s mother – who we spend some time with back in 1987, thanks to the Forge – died of cancer when he was young; Drax’s wife and daughter were murdered by Thanos; Gamora is responsible for many innocents’ deaths during her time as Thanos’ assassin…Rocket, meanwhile, will no doubt see dollar signs and demand his share as well. Groot is still Groot. And he’s as much a delight here as he was in the film, though who knows, maybe there’s a super mournful ‘I am Groot’ about a lost love or something forthcoming. In any case, the Forge is the right kind of McGuffin; it’s one that all the characters will desperately want for different reasons, and although this hasn’t come into play yet, it’s a great hook for the rest of the season.

The flow of action is also well thought-out here, as making the question of keeping the Guardians together the core issue of the episode makes theoretically low-stakes scenes like a celebration at the bar actually mean something. I was acutely aware of my need both as Star-Lord and as the player, to take care of my crew and keep them together. It was a fun, intelligent scenario and further proof of Telltale’s narrative mastery.

And finally, though it’s a small thing, Telltale has made a major change to its ‘Next Time On’ which plays at the end of each game; rather than spoiling moments of the next episode (I usually skip these for that reason), they’ve borrowed the device of interviewing the Guardians. This is great because it builds suspense (as it did in the police interviews in HBO’s recent Big Little Lies, or in True Detective and The Usual Suspects) without explicitly spoiling anything. It’s a small thing, but further proof that Telltale has really hit its stride on this one.

All-in-all, Guardians hit all the right notes for me: great style, engaging plot hooks, hilarious script, and improved dramatic combat. Fans of Guardians should absolutely keep an eye on this one and fans of Telltale will likely already own it. Either way, it was a helluva ride and I’m hungry for more. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a dead Thanos to kick.

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