GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: THE TELLTALE SERIES Review: Small Action, Big Drama

Telltale captures what makes GUARDIANS great.

If you want to know Telltale Games’ approach to adapting Guardians of the Galaxy, look no further than its main menu. Greeting you with the strains of ELO’s “Livin’ Thing,” from a cassette tape labelled “Rad Mix,” it’s clear Telltale knows on which side of the property its bread is buttered. That big red Marvel logo up-front is one of the studio’s biggest licensing “gets,” and unsurprisingly, the resultant game plays things close to the Cinematic Universe house style.
 
Telltale didn’t score likeness rights for Chris Pratt and co, but it definitely follows the MCU vision in other respects. Off-the-wall action setpieces, goofy character banter, and musical sequences are all present and accounted for, as is some terrific voice work, with Nolan North predictably stealing the show as Rocket Raccoon. Even the needle-drops are air-punchingly effective: the aforementioned Rad Mix contains, in the two episodes released thus far, tracks from ELO, Sparks, King Harvest, Hall & Oates, and the Buzzcocks, fitting nicely into the movies’ just-outside-mainstream ‘70s pop sensibility.
 
Forget the MCU continuity before you play, though, because Guardians: Telltale doesn’t link up to it at all (including in one major Thanos-related respect). The story revolves around the Eternity Forge, an ancient Kree relic that causes flashbacks and can revive the dead. The Forge takes player character Peter Quill back to his childhood, leaving him with a message from Mom and a pretty dang intriguing mystery. Naturally, the Guardians aren’t the only ones interested in the relic: they’re quickly targeted by Kree warlord Hala, desperate to use it to revive her dead son - and an entire army. Uh oh.
 
Despite a concerted attempt to minimise the scale of the story, the Telltale engine continues to show its age in Guardians. The animation isn’t bad; it just lacks the flash one craves from this particular franchise. Its action scenes are well-choreographed, with Episode 2’s variable-gravity sequence standing out, but there’s just a little too much air between the punches. Even in dialogue, the seams between animation cycles are all too visible, and the timing of jokes just a little off (interactivity will fuck up any punchline you throw at it). Small complaints, granted, but together they build to an execution that does its content injustice.
 
The game’s greatest strength - its character work - doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s still eye-opening just how strong it is. Though the dialogue isn’t quite as snappy as the movies’, Telltale’s Guardians treats its characters with the perfect mixture of whimsy and gravitas. The “motley crew of misfits” works well with Telltale’s long-form episodic storytelling, with each episode granting a new character some quality time with the story’s flashback-inducing MacGuffin. I hadn’t realised how much I liked these characters until now: the interactions and characterisations just feel right, with the weirder, more exotic characters like Nebula and Rocket coming across particularly well.
 
That comes thanks to new expansions to Telltale’s tried-and-true conversation system. When onboard the Milano, Peter can walk around and chat up his fellow Guardians in a manner that’s more than a little Mass Effect-y,* while on away missions, Peter can radio out to Guardians that aren’t present to get extra perspective or advice. Maintaining Peter’s friendships with Gamora, Drax, Groot, and Rocket factors into nearly every decision in the game. I found it impossible to keep everyone happy; perhaps people with more developed interpersonal skills will fare better. Perhaps not - it might be impossible. And much like in Telltale’s Batman game, varying moral choices fit gold-hearted anti-hero Peter Quill pretty snugly. No choices feel “wrong” - they just illustrate a different aspect of the character.
 
Much like in Volume 2 at the movies, what I dig most about Guardians: Telltale is the unexpected emotional depths it plumbs. While it’s still one of the more outright comedies in the Telltale oeuvre, Guardians’ story is one of grief and loss and regret. The Eternity Forge is a clever MacGuffin, enabling the writers to delve into their characters’ pasts and explore what makes them tick. The two flashbacks we’ve seen so far - Peter’s and Rocket’s - are remarkably affecting, offering up elements of the characters and their backstories we haven’t seen elsewhere. And they’re not alone. Every character has someone to mourn in this story.
 
And look: Telltale’s goals are written on the office door. Guardians of the Galaxy is a snug fit for those goals, and unsurprisingly, Telltale does great work with it. But at some point soon, the studio will face a reckoning: keep its current engine, with its familiar development pipeline and scalability to run on anything, or create something new that can match the stellar storytelling.
 
* Aside: how great would a Mass Effect-style RPG with the Guardians of the Galaxy be? Everyone would romance Groot; it’d be hot as fuck. Preach.

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