In its first episode, Telltale’s new Guardians of the Galaxy game features much of what you’d expect from an adventure starring the sci-fi superhero group. There are retrofuturistic spaceships gliding across colorful skies, mysterious ancient weapons with the potential to enslave the universe, and Star-Lord in a leather jacket dancing to Hall & Oates. It’s the same blend of adventure, humor, and classic sci-fi style that made the first movie a breakout hit, and the game has it in abundance. The experience excels when it emulates the movie — but largely falls flat when it puts you in control.
From the very beginning, the game wants you to know the Guardians are like a family. They care for each other, they laugh together, and boy do they fight. The first episode, called “Tangled Up in Blue,” opens with the team responding a distress beacon from the Nova Corps — essentially a police force in space — after an attack from the supervillain Thanos. Star-Lord agrees to help (while moonwalking in his bedroom), and the ensuing battle mostly involves the Guardians’ ship being pummeled by enemy fire. While their craft is about to be blown out of the sky, the five heroes spend as much time bickering among themselves as they do fending off the onslaught. That’s how you know they’re really close.
Guardians of the Galaxy is developed by Telltale Games, and much like the studio’s previous work — which includes series like The Walking Dead, Batman, and Minecraft: Story Mode — it plays out as an interactive drama. Much of the time you’re watching events unfold, but the story is broken up by dialogue selection and action sequences. The most important part, though, is the focus on choice. At various points in each episode you’ll need to make critical decisions that help shape how the story plays out. When done right, this combination of elements can make for some striking and memorable games. This was especially true with series like the gritty crime drama The Wolf Among Us and Telltale’s excellent take on Batman. But in “Tangled Up in Blue,” not all of the parts are as strong as the rest.
The game especially falters when it gets away from its interactive drama core. After the initial space battle, the Guardians crash among the ruins of an alien planet. Playing as Star-Lord, you first need to find a path through the ruins, before locating Thanos who is presumably up to no good somewhere deep inside the abandoned temple. None of this is enjoyable. There’s an investigation scene, which involves searching the corpses of the fallen Nova Corps in order to find a security code. This is followed by what should be an intense encounter with Thanos himself. You control all five members of the crew as they brawl with the brawny titan; Star-Lord fires his dual pistols, Rocket ducks behind cover, while Gamora swings blades with ninja-like efficiency.
It looks cool, but when you play it the action set-piece is devoid of any sense of danger or excitement. Instead, it’s a series of not-especially-engaging button prompts, where you’re hitting buttons as they flash on-screen. These kinds of sequences — known as quick-time events — are common in Telltale games, but they’re usually short and dramatic, forcing you to make quick, surprise decisions. In the prolonged battles in “Tangled Up in Blue,” these scenarios are drawn out and tedious. Of course Telltale games don’t have to rely on action — Batman featured clever and detailed investigative scenes, with lots of clues to gather and gadgets to use. In Guardians, similar sequences just feels like you’re wandering around looking for dead bodies in search of clues.
The underwhelming action is especially disappointing because the rest of the experience is so solid. The writing really nails the Guardians vibe, striking a steady balance between heartwarming adventure and copious amounts of jokes. You’ll see a hungover Groot, read emails from Howard the Duck, and spend time in a sketchy alien bar. As Star-Lord, one of your main responsibilities is keeping the group together. The choices you make aren’t as dire as in, say, The Walking Dead, where you’re often forced to decide who lives or dies with the clock ticking down. Here you’ll have to make choices that will ultimately anger one guardian and please another. Deciding whether to sell a precious relic to a criminal or turn it into the authorities is, presumably, a choice that will have larger ramifications later on in the series.
“Tangled Up in Blue” is just the first of five episodes, so there’s time for the studio to turn things around. But the series’s debut gets off to a shaky start. The aspects that differentiate it from the many Guardians comics and other stories out there are unfortunately the weakest parts of the experience. The humor and story are spot on — now the game needs to follow suit.
“Tangled Up in Blue” is available today on Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android.