WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Telltale's Guardians of the Galaxy
It's far too early to say that after a string of hits, Telltale Games has missed with the Guardians of the Galaxy. But with the first episode down, the results are underwhelming enough to make us wonder: is this a case of a successful property simply being a poor fit to the Telltale experience? Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe simply hoping to see more stories feature the likes of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot may be satisfied regardless of the story. But at some point... they'll need to actually take over control of the game.
And while Telltale's house style of drip-feeding plot, encouraging slow exploration, investigation, and pondering of moral dilemmas shone when applied to The Walking Dead, Fables, and even Batman, it's a poor fit here. There are bright spots for fans to enjoy, but at its core, the first episode delivers an experience that is, arguably, the opposite of what players attracted by the characters or title would hope for - or rightfully expect.
On paper, the game should be as successful an adaptation of the comic as Batman: The Telltale Series was, leaping into the kind of action fans of the Marvel film would hope for. Star-Lord fields a request from the Nova Corps to help defend an attack from Thanos himself... after an amount of bargaining or instant heroism that's left up to the player. No time is wasted, dropping the Guardians into a space battle with Thanos's personal ship, eventually sending them damaged onto the surface of an alien world where Thanos is on the hunt for something important enough to warrant his personal attention.
The chemistry of the heroes works well enough from the start, mimicking the broad tone and personalities of the comic books and movie. Star-Lord is the kind of smart-aleck rogue that Telltale craves, Drax falls easily into the lovable lunkhead archetype, while Rocket is abrasive and opinionated to an extreme. Gamora suffers the worst of the adaptation, becoming a self-confident, respectful, morally upstanding partner and conscience to Star-Lord (since the team needs an advocate for the 'right' path). Since the audience is likely to feel that they already know these characters, the rough spots or thin characterization isn't a problem - not right away.
The same goes for the game's "action," with the team pursuing Thanos to a distant temple complex but finding their way blocked by massive doors. Star-Lord, equipped with rocket boots, makes his way through an upper fault in the temple to solve the problem from the other side - encountering the carnage in the Mad Titan's wake. Carnage composed of three layers of Nova Corpsmen, crashed Nova ships, and crumbling stone. Carnage that, true to the game's format, players must walk through one point of interest to the next, cuing pre-recorded sound bites of little relevance to the problem at hand, until - hopefully - they notice a Nova ship's gun pointed at the doors in need of firing.
Forgetting the obvious frustration in the game design, and the lack of contextual clues or intuitive camera controls that led to this issue... this is Star-Lord. The roguish, smartass space outlaw now divided from his teammates, plunged into silent exploration, slowly picking his way through prescribed icons for the only solution to a fairly simple problem. When players really just want to get this over with and get back to the fun.
The ensuing action scene that follows - pitting the Guardians against a superpowered Thanos - should scratch that very itch. And on one level, it does, swapping the action between Gamora, with her devastating sword attacks, and Star-Lord, firing with twin pistols. It's a chance to see the heroes do their stuff as Rocket attempts to complete his secret, oversized weapon. And yet, as one chain of QTEs leads to another with no sign of damage inflicted, progress made, or that players should actually be expecting anything but "superhero fighting" with no real reward... the action, too, seems to be a hollow experience.
That's a criticism some leveled at Telltale's Batman game, too, but at least there players were winning the fights. And in the case of the investigation, Batman's crime scenes fit his character, were given extra attention, and infused with his unique brand of gadgets. Guardians still equips Star-Lord with a device allowing him to see what events took place before the Corpsmen were killed, but with no explanation ever offered, and it not really making any difference to the sequence of events, it's an attempt at a greater, unrealized idea, if anything.
Starting the game experience with some of its weakest elements, and some hollow combat sets an odd tone, but the outcome of that Thanos fight is likely to keep players in their seats. That relic that Thanos pursued becomes a main plot point going forward, but not at all for its impacts on gameplay. The secrets it contains within quickly overshadow even the decision-making hook of Telltale experiences, where the choices will obviously matter, but lack any - if not all - of the nuance of the system and writing at its best.
What's worse, the dialogue options are at odds with the very heart of Star-Lord, the player's character. It's not a criticism of voice actor Scott Porter, by any means, but the sheer challenge of living up to previous writers of the Guardians and their leader. Movie fans will expect Peter Quill to be well-meaning, if juvenile. Or at his best, romantic or sentimental in a scripted, Hollywood sense of the term.
The game offers neither, really, instead allowing players to choose between lines that one would expect a game hero to choose, and an easy, throwaway one-liner. The investment in this "family" is hard to see, and the conflicts oscillate wildly between bravado and overblown, team-ending angst (when Star-Lord points out that he was the one who took Thanos down with Rocket's weapon, instead of giving him all the credit, he responds by stating he will leave the crew after such blatant disrespect from someone he saw as a friend).
Other choices include telling Drax that since he didn't actually kill Thanos with his hands, therefore didn't really avenge the murder of his wife and daughter - a choice so puzzling in every sense, it's no surprise to see over 90% of players ignored it (at the time of this writing). And that's really a condensation of the problem: players of differing walks of life and moral compasses are likely to feel that they played the exact same experience-- no, the exact same story as anyone else. Follow the bread crumbs because they must, hit the button prompts, and choose the obvious path forward until the end of the first episode.
That does a disservice to the potential interpersonal storylines and choices that are present at times, including the aforementioned story unlocked when Star-Lord snatches up the relic Thanos pursued. Moments of real, solid, Telltale-brand storytelling follow, as well as nods to the larger Marvel Cosmic Universe. But those are merely offered as a hook to keep players interested in the game's final act - asking them, in a sense, to ignore the fact that the first episode wasn't all that fun to play. To watch, sure, but the Guardians of the Galaxy animated series and films already exist for that urge.
We'll still keep our fingers crossed that it's merely an awkward start to a series that soon locks in to the most promising aspects, but for possibly the first time since Telltale began its large-scale adaptation of third-party properties, Guardians of the Galaxy fails to show why it fit this formula of video game at all. Other than the appeal of Marvel's hottest commercial property, of course.
Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series' first episode, "Tangled Up in Blue" is available now for Android, iOS, Windows PC, PS4, and Xbox One.