Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy return to theaters this week. I’m already a fan of the first movie, and of the comics — both old and slightly less so — so it didn’t take a lot of convincing to part with five bucks American to download the first chapter of Telltale Games’ Guardians of the Galaxy on my iPad.
I’d noodled around a bit with Telltale’s Walking Dead Game, and admired the conversational interface and the emotional stakes of that game, but I wasn’t especially eager to dwell in that dour world, and the game never grabbed me.
Guardians, though … Guardians is something different.
This game is frankly irresistible. You’re on the spot right from the opening screen, with ELO’s “Livin’ Thing” pouring from your speakers over an image of the Guardians punching each others’ lights out. It’s just a main menu, but it’s buoyant, happy, and demands your affection, like a puppy that’s jumped in your lap. And the game that follows is every bit as engaging, masterfully capturing the spirit and tone of the film, whisking us away on an adventure that promises a battle with Thanos, but is really more about the relationships at the heart of the not-so-dysfunctional family that is the Guardians.
The set-up could come straight from the comics — the Nova Corps calls in the Guardians to help run down Thanos, and after squeezing the Corps for future favors (or not, as you wish), we are off on an interstellar treasure hunt. There’s an alien enigma, and the Kree show up, and of course Thanos is there to chew the scenery. The game also takes a couple unexpected swerves that I won’t spoil, save to note they are completely in character and reinforce the story’s core theme of families and what makes them tick.
The interface is simple and easy to use — at least on touch screens. Back in the day we would have called this a point-and-click game. Now it’s about swiping and touching, but really, these kinds of controls haven’t changed all that much since Dragon’s Lair. Most action scenes are navigated with “Quick Time” events. Shooting and punching baddies is accomplished by tapping targets on the screen before they disappear. You dodge danger by swiping the screen when prompted. It’s pretty hard to fail, though I still managed it a time or two.
Sometimes you tap or swipe the screen to move things around. Sometimes you walk around and explore places. Star Lord flies around a bit, which was cool. There was a walking mechanic that required incessant screen-swiping that I could have done without, but for the most part, the game’s interaction economy is spot-on: not so much that you can’t appreciate the story, but not so little that you can afford to take your eyes away from the screen.
Even more engaging than the action scenes were the conversations, which don’t seem to find their way to different destinations so much as they unfold with differing tones — you can be thoughtful as Star Lord, or a dick (or both!), it is up to you. Sometimes the best response is to just let the timer run out and say nothing at all. I appreciated how the game let me do things my own way, even while guard-railing my characters — at one point, Gamora said that she’d never heard me talk this way before, causing me to reflect that, yeah, Peter is more self-centered than I was making him out to be. Gamora had rightly detected that it was me who was chatting her up, and not Star Lord! Cool.
And it is Star Lord that you control in this game. Aside from throwing a punch or two on behalf of other characters during the Thanos fight, it is Star Lord’s thoughts and actions that you will steer through each scene. Star Lord’s voice performance is probably the poorest turned in by the sound-alike voice cast, but that’s mostly down to Chris Pratt’s unique range — he really is a master at sliding between sweet and smarmy. The supporting voices are pretty strong, with Rocket being especially on-point. I would love to see succeeding chapters put other members of the Guardians in the driver’s seat, if only to see how Telltale handles a conversation tree when all I can say is, “I am Groot!”
The game’s technical performance left a bit to be desired. I played on my iPad Pro, and the textures still swam around on me from time to time, and a few of the load times had me tapping my toe. Prompts didn’t always respond to my first tap, despite hitting a static green bullseye dead-on. Based on this performance, I’d hesitate to recommend this game for lower-end mobile devices. I would expect console versions to run crisply, but fumbling for buttons on a controller doesn’t sound like a lot of fun compared to tapping screen prompts.
The art gets the job done. The ships and space scenes are tight, and the environments are adequate. The character models have kind of a second-tier CG animated series look to them, but they work — Telltale’s animators do a fine job of wringing sometimes subtle emotion from them. Body animation is about what you’d expect, though I found Star Lord’s walk cycle a little stiff (and he walks a lot in this game). Lip synching is (usually) convincing. Scenes are well-lit, somehow giving us clearly-visible characters even inside the murkiest spaceport dive bar.
But this isn’t really a game that’s going to win you over with screenshots. The heart of the game is … well … its heart. There’s plenty of derring-do in abandoned fortresses and Kree battlecruisers, and the game does deliver with a Guardians vs. Thanos beat-down that works in an Intergalactic Wrestling Federation sort of way, but the real action in this game comes through the conversations and the relationships between the characters. In this, the game reaches back to the core of comics storytelling. After all, in the long run, there’s little doubt our heroes will defeat the big bad … but will Gamora be able to deal with her daddy issues? That’s harder to predict, and its a unique pleasure to play to find out. Yep, it’s all about the feelz, and I welcome it. I already have plenty of games where you solve everything by shooting at it.
I also enjoyed the little touches and side-gags. Rocket and Drax both got off some zingers that were entirely in character. Helping Groot ride out a hangover was appropriately gross (and all I did was listen to it). I loved that a random piece of email from the Universal Church of Truth was helpfully flagged as spam.
The chapter was just long enough for me. I didn’t clock it, but it felt like it took a bit less than ninety minutes to play the whole thing. Content felt equivalent to about three issues of a comic series. The ending came at the right time and didn’t leave me hanging so much as feeling intrigued. Some of the asides clearly set up later chapters — like Gamora’s communication with her sister, Nebula — and I think I saw Moondragon in the bar, but for the most part the chapter can stand on its own, and in this it does a better job than your average, decompressed modern comics issue.
One area where this game was more setup than payoff was in development of emotional relationships. By the end of my play-through, I’d pissed off Rocket, softened-up Gamora, forged a strong bond with Drax, and sealed an alliance with the Nova Corps, but none of that mattered in a major way in this chapter. Given that this game is scheduled to run five chapters, I can’t blame Telltale for deploying their chess pieces for later, and if I wasn’t allergic to pre-orders, I might have opened my wallet for the season pass upsell that followed the closing credits.
Once I’ve cooled off a bit I might even go back and replay the game, to see what happens if I zig instead of zag, and I can see where a player might dive deep into this thing to ferret out the different permutations of every scene. The closing score screens provide a roadmap for where I took the story, compared to the community at large, hinting at the different outcomes.
But I don’t much care about multiple outcomes — for me, I was just glad to while away a rainy afternoon with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and feel a part of their family and their troubles. Emotional reactions of any stripe are difficult to elicit with games, so hats off to Telltale for not only accomplishing this rare feat, but also making it the center of their game. If I come back for the second chapter, it won’t be to learn more about the MacGuffin that permits Peter to speak with ghosts — it will be to see if I can continue to win Gamora’s trust, and to learn if Rocket really means it when he keeps acting like I’m driving him out of the group. The game-making side of my brain tells me the actual number of outcomes isn’t that large, but my illusion of control is such that it is easy to believe my decisions created a unique outcome.
I am happy to suspend my disbelief to ride along with the team. I wasn’t much interested in investing this kind of time and emotion in Telltale’s Walking Dead or Batman games, but this Guardians of the Galaxy game really was delightful. As an experience, it was a bit more than a comic, and a bit less than a movie, but thoroughly unique and enjoyable. I hope I walk out of the theater after seeing Guardians 2 feeling half so positive! Recommended.
NEXT MONTH: #168 Wonder Woman: All All-Star Sensation