Marvel’s films dominate the global box office, but, after a series of abortive Sega-published games around the turn of the decade, the company put a moratorium on further licensed projects. The idea was to stop the trend of poor-quality titles and instead focus on forging partnerships that would ensure Avengers games are as respected as the movies. Insomniac Games is working on Spider-Man with Sony, Square-Enix is putting together The Avengers Project, and the first title to emerge from Marvel’s new initiative is Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series. While the style and structure of this incepting effort will be familiar to fans of Telltale Games, as a sign of things to come, the game heralds an exciting future.
The immediate impression the series provides is that of a conscious break from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rather than follow the established storyline of the films, Guardians of the Galaxy begins with the eponymous heroes killing Thanos, with considerable interpersonal drama springing from this event. Furthermore, after slaying The Mad Titan, protagonist Peter Quill (Star-Lord) picks up a mysterious artefact that is sought by another tyrant, a Kree warlord known as Hala the Accuser. The threat of Hala heightens the tensions amongst the team and raises the stakes for the player’s choices.
As is standard practice for Telltale’s projects, the gameplay is approachable for even the most timid of consumers, ensuring that almost anyone can experience the full story. Player agency stems primarily from decisions, which can range from minor dialogue options to key action moments, with each choice affecting the way the story plays out. However, those options seem curiously weighted, with low-key character moments often having a larger impact on the course of the narrative than major scenes that appear far more important. While this structure does not hamper enjoyment of the story, the disparity is jarring. The illusion of choice is undercut further still by the limited number of final outcomes, but given Telltale’s proclivity towards franchising each property, the design is sensible. Nevertheless, the pedestrian point-and-click-style gameplay almost demands a narrative depth that Guardians of the Galaxy struggles to deliver.
The story is shortchanged by being slave to two masters. Telltale clearly aims to put the Guardians’ team dynamic front and centre to show the conflicts and contradictions that exist between the members. This side of the narrative is strongest, forcing players (as Star-Lord) to choose between the suggestions of different characters, aided by emotional connections formed through flashbacks. The central hook of the contrasting personalities is enough to overcome the occasionally uneven portrayals and sketchy dialogue, but the same cannot be said of the other half of the story. Hala’s appearances increase the pace and urgency of the game, but she is too convenient as an antagonist. Rather than being an obstacle, she acts as a diabolus ex machina, appearing only at the most inopportune moments to make things more difficult for the Guardians. These issues recur throughout the series, robbing each subsequent entry of emotional resonance until the player becomes numb to even the most tragic events. Increasing tension is one of the key elements to effective storytelling, but the scope of Guardians of the Galaxy grows too large too quickly for the plot to feel satisfying. Thankfully, these narrative shortcomings are not exacerbated by a subpar presentation.
By far the most accomplished aspect of the game is the audio, which matches excellent performances with a stellar soundtrack. The main voice cast comprises veterans including Scott Porter, Emily O’Brien, Nolan North, and Courtenay Taylor. The ensemble ensures that each emotional moment carries the gravitas it requires, but even the best efforts are incapable of covering up the sometimes corny and flat dialogue. Thankfully, such moments are sparse and usually easily overlooked. Backing up the voice work is a series of hard-hitting 1980s rock tracks that are used to capture and enhance Star-Lord’s flippant, devil-may-care attitude. The licensed songs typically bookend each episode, acting as highlights to the atmospheric original compositions that play beneath the remainder of the scenes. Although the soundtrack elevates certain moments, it is never quite enough to make up for the emotional void, the fault for which lays, in part, on the visuals.
Over the past five years, Telltale’s distinctive comic-book-inspired graphical style has become incredibly familiar, and it is used in Guardians of the Galaxy with mixed results. The exaggerated character design and bold lines meld wonderfully with the garish colours of the game. However, the benefits are offset by a peculiar rigidity in both facial and bodily animation that looks unnatural and seems to prevent the characters from emoting realistically. Additionally, the heavy scripting of Telltale’s efforts makes the clipping of objects through each other off-putting, whereas the issue could be overlooked in a more traditional game. Nothing is inherently wrong with the visuals, but a certain sparkle is missing that would elevate them from competent to spectacular, and that sentiment, unfortunately, encapsulates Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series as a whole.
Telltale Games has built a legacy on adaptations, exploring such recognisable properties as Back to the Future, Game of Thrones, and Batman. The glowing reception to these titles has allowed the developer to grow, tackling ever larger and more complex media universes, but scale can become burdensome. Guardians of the Galaxy is best in its quiet moments when the spectacle of explosive action and world-ending threats falls to the wayside. In such periods, the emotions are sharper and the decisions tougher, but they cannot last. The show must go on, and the series marches forward into amateur storytelling and the squandering of an emotional build-up. A second season could build on the events of this first to great effect, but without further development, the game stands as one of the lesser of Telltale’s recent offerings.
Reviewed on PC.