Hold on Loosely – Guardians of the Galaxy Review

Release Date:
Episode 2: Under Pressure – June 6, 2017
Episode 3: More Than a Feeling – August 22, 2017
Episode 4: Who Needs You? – October 10, 2017
Episode 5: Don’t Stop Believing – November 7, 2017
Developer: TellTale Games
Publisher: TellTale Games
Genre: Third Person Perspective, Platformer, Action-Adventure
System: Xbox One (Reviewed),  Playstation 4, PC, Mac, Android, iPhone

*First, an apology for having written the review so late to both TellTale and Sandbox Strat. Second, thank you for the review copy!*

After finishing Walking Dead: Season 3: A New Frontier and Batman: A TellTale Series (S1), I was beginning to question whether or not TellTale could create a genuine, poignant emotionally charged video game experience. Neither of the two aforementioned games struck me emotionally from a narrative perspective. I also found myself questioning whether or not TellTale was working on too many projects and spreading itself thin to where their projects were just…ok. Playable, but not memorable. A lot of the games felt ambitious in scope but underwhelming in execution. The conflicts created felt melodramatic and forcing a contrived circumstance. Tonality of their writing felt inconsistent and sloppy.

Admittedly, when TellTale Games began announcing a Guardians of the Galaxy series, I was at a crossroad between excitement and frustration: excited because I love Guardians of the Galaxy and frustrated because the writing tone of Guardians of the Galaxy does not seem to match TellTale’s usual style. Guardians of the Galaxy was offbeat, eccentric, and different: often finding a lighthearted balance between exploring heavy concepts with comedic punch. TellTale, on the other hand, was much more heavy-handed and serious in their writing. Pairing that with my frustrations with the last two series I had just finished, I went into playing this game with low expectations and preparing for the worst.

Guardians of the Galaxy ended up shattering my expectations, providing one of my top five gaming experiences this year. Sure, the game still suffered from the usual TellTale writing traps of occasional melodramatically contrived circumstances resulting in losing the poignancy of some pivotal moments. However, the writing took risks that many would not dare to without compromising the artistic integrity of Guardians of the Galaxy. Each episode’s standalone story carries enough brevity to successfully work as a standalone entry while adding to the season’s overarching plotline.

Yet, the series works well because TellTale’s approach to writing feels mature in its approach in comparison to recent entries. Characters are given a chance for displaying their best (and worst) traits of their personalities. Motivations feel relatable and plausible, testing the already volatile dysfunction of the crew until it bubbles over. Key decisions players are forced to make have consequences that feel less absolute, highlighting that every decision being made has positives and negatives. Even the antagonist’s motivations, while still evil in nature, are something anyone can relate to. Instead of being an altruistic goody two shoes crew, Guardians of the Galaxy is about characters who are as much defined by their selfishness and their selflessness. It’s a game that’s as much about saving the galaxy from impending doom as is saving the crew from imploding on itself. It also does a careful job of exploring the heavy themes of family and death without letting the weight be overbearing. Overall, it’s a deft balance of making sure the thematic material is explored without burdening the players.

In this review, I am going to write a short review of the last four episodes for Guardians of the Galaxy before providing a final, concluding review summarization. I hope you enjoy.

Episode 2 – Under Pressure

Tangled Up in Blue, the first episode of TellTale’s Guardians of the Galaxy  was equal strong parts characterization and plot development…in a conventional capacity. That is because TellTale was having to discover the line between introducing this lovable band of misfits while also not boring those who have gotten to know them via the movies. For the most part, I loved the episode’s smart writing, particularly its ability in balancing the heavy handed moments with the lighthearted, quirky humor. There were decisions to make that felt like they meant something, maybe not consequentially in terms of plot development, but in the relationships between Peter and his crew. Tangled Up in Blue was setting the tone of the series; Guardians of the Galaxy was going to focus on examining the characters and their dysfunction as much as tell a story. Where Tangled Up in Blue had its problems was how much story was being packed into the moments between conversations, creating an imbalance of how much information was being parsed to the player. Under Pressure, the second episode into the series, decides to slow the plot down to make room for character development and does so sublimely.

Specifically, the episodes decides to focus on the always sarcastic, lovable Rocket Raccoon’s backstory that provides far more insight into his character than any other Guardians work has provided. What we find is that the barbs, insults and remarks are a coping mechanism to deal with regret and guilt. Guilt through blaming himself over a losing a loved one as if it were his fault. That, with knowledge of the Eternity Forge’s power to potentially revive the dead, he believes he can undo. No, that he has to undo no matter what. Maybe the past can be undone and the guilt can go away. It sets up a emotionally gut punching story that feels all too easy to relate to.

That is what I love about this episode, and the Guardians of the Galaxy story line; nothing is trying to be too complex, and as a result nothing feels contrived. Rocket’s plight is something that I think many, if not all, players can relate to; wanting to change the past to “right” the future even though it is impossible to know how that would turn out. Even if we had the power for undoing what has already been done, no one will ever know how that affects the future or what else may happen.  It’s also an examination of embracing our pasts and learning how to get past it. For Rocket, the whole episode is about him having to relive his past again with the exact same outcome, and embracing that he cannot change what has already happened.

Sure, the episode does have some bits of the plot here and there, but not enough to stray away from letting Rocket have his time in the spotlight. For that, I am grateful and find it refreshing because the emotional investment I have in Guardians of the Galaxy is beginning to feel similar to how I felt playing Walking Dead: Season 1. Ultimately, TellTale’s handling of Guardians of the Galaxy feels very mature and consistent in its approach, and organic in its development. This is shaping into the type of Guardians of the Galaxy experience I did not know I wanted, but now I do.

Episode 3 – More Than A Feeling

Without trying to insult TellTale, their ability to write a solid mid season episode has been inconsistent. Recent series’ episodes seemingly have difficulty transitioning from building the story to moving towards resolution. Oftentimes, the sequence of events are jarring, contrived, and unnatural. The rough transition serves more of a distraction and comes off as uncertainty of how to change the tone moving forward. Essentially, the episodes are lacking the natural build up and payoff from previous episodes.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, TellTale seems to have solved the riddle of delivering an effective, compelling mid season episode. From beginning to end, More Than A Feeling finds ways to deliver proper payoffs to the stories being developed within the slow build of the past two episodes while building anticipation for what is to come.

Where TellTale succeeds with Guardians of the Galaxy is in the characterization and plot design that takes creative risks. Instead of forcing the crew to go through contrived circumstances to create tension, Guardians of the Galaxy has been a series focusing on the emotional dysfunction of each character and the crew as a whole. This allows for decisions to be made that have less of an impact in a concrete way, and more on our emotional investment in each character and their dynamic with Peter.  At first, it is easy to question the point of these “important choices” to make when the galaxy was in peril because of the device known as the Eternity Forge, a device that could bring people back from the dead. It felt like TellTale was emphasizing the flashbacks too much, even if it was refreshing and unique.

However, with the big reveal in More Than A Feeling of the power and consequences of the Eternity Forge, everything now makes sense. The emotional investment developed between players, Peter, and the Guardians now has heavy significance. The themes at play no longer are feeling like the “misfits against the world” that players come in expecting and more of an examination of mortality and what it means. It becomes less of a derivative sci-fi superhero story and more of a true blue ethically challenging sci fi story examining the consequence of death.

More importantly, it places stress two fold on both the player and Peter: would you bring back what is already dead, and if so, would you be willing to live with the consequences? Second, will this divide the Guardians based on the decision to be made? Depending on player’s choices, it is easy to see who would – or would not – want to use the Eternity Forge.

Not only that, knowing the consequences of utilizing the Forge further stresses the significance of Hala’s plight in acquiring it from the Guardians. It also adds another layer when making the pivotal choice: will Peter be any different from Hala if he uses the Forge?

And this is why Guardians continues to impress me as a TellTale game; the importance of a singular choice actually has meaning and purpose. It has significance that is not being forced on the player through some contrived circumstance. It’s a natural progression from everything that’s been happening from the beginning.

If there are any complaints to be made about Guardians of the Galaxy, is that the writing feels way too true to the source material, and less to the objective in TellTale’s usual game design. What I mean is this: the choices players are asked to make are easily discernible from what Peter would do versus a decision that is questionably something he could do. Looking at the statistics unto this point, majority of gamers have made the same choices, myself included. There was a little more divide at the end of More Than A Feeling but not enough for convincing most players away from doing what the Guardians of the Galaxy would do.

 

It’s both a testament to the firm handling TellTale has done with Guardians of the Galaxy and works against their normal “choose your own adventure” like story writing the studios relies on.

My only other concern is that the game has taken half a year already, with two more games on the way. Guardians of the Galaxy feels like it should have been finishing up by now, and it raises questions on whether or not TellTale has taken on too many jobs at once. Otherwise, More Than A Feeling is certainly the best episode written yet in the franchise, and a great mid season episode from TellTale.

 

Episode 4 – Who Needs You

Who Needs You?, the fourth episode of the Guardians of the Galaxy, has some of the best writing TellTale has produced in a long time. Particularly, in the second half of the episode; the pacing is phenomenal, allowing the moments needing time to sink in versus knowing when to pick up speed. Dialogue is carefully crafted to keep players on the path TellTale wants players to take while providing just enough to make it feel personal. Nothing is trying to do too much or too little, instead the writing allows the circumstances to build up naturally. That is because the writers decided to let go of the reigns, no longer trying to create contrived, melodramatic conflict. As a result, the second half of the episode reminded me of The Walking Dead: Season 1. In fact, the who episode was reminiscent of the first time playing a TellTale series, both good and bad.

Before focusing on the good, I want to discuss something that is consistent across all TellTale experiences that has become a major sour spot when reviewing the games. Every TellTale game experience tells the players that the game is tailored to the choices players are making. Some of the choices feel major, the “God-narrative” telling you that the character will remember what is transpiring. In a way, it creates an illusion of complete player agency over what they are experiencing, providing a personal story tailored for the player. Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that most decisions have two branches that often lead to the same path with slightly different circumstances.

At the end of More Than A Feeling, there is a big decision that has to be made that feels like a proper pay off of everything the player has been done before. TellTale’s writing had felt refreshing, risky in the way it was building its characters and storyline. All decision I was making as Peter Quill in all the episodes felt like they were leading up to this moment. Unfortunately, as if clockwork, the conflict having been building between Peter and his friends is collapsed by the antagonist, completely constricting players into only choosing from two paths to move forward. It makes the conflicts that were bubbling up through the series feel pointless in the amount of time spent focusing on them. I was getting ready to see the contrived situations begin to overpower the story’s natural progression. For a fleeting moment, it feels like the TellTale storytelling formula was going to override how good Guardians had been in working against it.Then the second half of Who Needs You? begins, and TellTale begins justifying the need for their writing style because it shapes a beautifully poignant second act.

I want to avoid delving into spoiler territory so I will try framing what makes Who Needs You?, and Guardians of the Galaxy’s writing so far work is its ability to make actions and decisions feel meaningful in both concrete and abstract ways.  Decisions that will “be remembered” do not necessarily make an impact on the path

With Guardians of the Galaxy, TellTale has done a fascinating job of exploring our motley crew’s background, the group’s dysfunctional dynamic,for providing strong characterization. In these flashbacks, and current internal conflicts, we find that the choices players make have meaning. No, it’s not in the same vein players are accustomed to, the meaningfulness is found in how the decisions frame the characters and their significance both the players and Quill. It’s what makes the hardest moments have major significance on not only how the story plays out, but what drives each character as a Guardians of the Galaxy.

As a result, the dialogue decisions have both concrete and abstract meaning. There’s more subtext within what’s discussed, impacting the significance key decisions to be made. For this episode in particular, how players have interacted with Drax will impact the meaningfulness of his moment to shine in both the flashback and second act of Who Needs You? The brevity of the situation is all in the characterization, something that I felt recent TellTale have tried to do with mixed results.

What I also love about What About You? is that Drax’s moments are both allowed to be built naturally, Drax’s memory driving the story and not the writers. In the end, when players are forced to make a pivotal choice, the effectiveness depends on how players perceive him.

Inevitably, the ending for the episode is effective in setting up a very interesting conclusion. It puts the Guardians in a situation that will test them as a family and as characters. What makes it unfortunate is that the cliffhanger is pigeonholed into two concretely distinct endings. In that way, the writing fails the players but makes sense for the story TellTale is telling.

Who Needs You? is a fine example of TellTale’s sharpest writing, and it’s worst. The illusion of player agency that plagues every TellTale game is exacerbated because of the risks within their storytelling in the previous three episodes. However, the subtext and context within a decision’s meaningfulness is given more abstract and concrete meaning, resulting in an emotionally powerful second half that overcomes TellTale’s writing. Under TellTale’s writing, Guardians of the Galaxy is finding its characters being tested and challenged harder than recent iterations. Within the conflict the dysfunction is exemplified. Yet, if there’s anything Guardians of the Galaxy has shown, is that strength can be found in unity.

 

Episode 5 – Don’t Stop Believing

Guardians of the Galaxy easily sits as one of my top TellTale series to date, having found ways to redefine the meaning behind significance in choices and their impact. From beginning to end, the story has found ways to allow characterization to be the driving force behind the plot, providing a layered, complex story. The themes of family and mortality, two often heavy-handed concepts that can drag a story down with weight, feel lightly and delicately discussed. The story has heart and earnesty, something that feels lacking from other recent series. It is unfortunate that a series so sharply written has to go through an order of operations to close out, even if the payoff is perfect. For an episode that’s glaringly obvious in its motions, Don’t Stop Believing ensures a thrilling experience tying up loose ends while setting up for future episodes. However, at the same time, I cannot help but feel that the ending does not do the Guardians of the Galaxy justice in how everything wraps up so neatly in a little bow.

The biggest problem is that the conflict driving Don’t Stop Believing should be the start of another season because off its significance. Essentially, without spoiling how or what drives the final nail in the coffin, the Guardians crew is fractured. This is the crew’s lowest point, a moment where all the dysfunction has bubbled over, resulting in fractures feeling too big to heal. All of the conflicts within the crew need time to be explored, providing a lot of characterization and further depth. It would also remain consistent with the slow, emotionally-based strong writing that Guardians of the Galaxy has gotten to enjoy.

Unfortunately, because this is the concluding episode, everything feels rushed and out of sync. Resolutions to fix the cracks feel to easy and lack the emotional punch they deserve to have. Each personal heart to heart that occurs between characters feel short, and flat in order to fit the normal two hours each episode takes to finish. The time constraints is easily overpowering the weightiness of the writing, resulting in an unfortunate disconnect between the intent and delivery. There are hints of the writing that has made Guardians of the Galaxy fantastic of the series, but it’s in segments few and far between. There’s a stress on what is going on in the current conflict versus what the Guardians are going through. It does a disservice on both ends.

In fact, Don’t Stop Believing made me wish Hala had more time as an antagonist because of how complex she was as a character. While playing the game, I found myself sympathizing with her as much as understanding I had to stop her by all means. As a player, it was easy to see her pain from loss and the obsession that consumes her. It’s an obsession that all of us go through when we lose someone or people so close to our hearts, a desire to want to see them again even if it is only for a moment.

And that’s where Don’t Stop Believing, as well as the whole Guardians of the Galaxy series is its strongest; examining the pain of loss, mortality, and what it means to us. TellTale does not relent in putting the Guardians through some tough, emotionally provocative moments. Throughout the series, loss has been a theme hanging over everything, shining spotlights on every Guardian during their most vulnerable, raw moments. These moments are written with delicacy and finesse, providing a moment that resonates with the character to produce an emotional investment. They are power, poignant, and paint a picture of how each character has taken the pain of their loss and turned it into a strength. That by not letting their loss become an obsession, it made them stronger. Conversations have context in how players should be approaching them.

At the same time, Guardians of the Galaxy shows that strength also comes from finding those you consider family, blood related or not. No matter how stressful things can get, and the difference in opinion, the crew will always have each other’s backs. In their losses, they have found each other and in that a whole new reason to keep fighting and living for. Even when the crew is at its lowest point, there’s always a reason to come back.  

Inversely, Hala is a perfect example of how loss can consume us to the point of madness. Her grief and anger driving every decision she has ever made regardless of the consequences. Inevitably, like any antagonist, her blindness from obsession inevitably becomes her downfall. And while her actions may seem dark and menacing, her final moments serve a reminder that all of us aren’t inherently good or evil. Instead, she is serving as a reminder of how we choose to react to outcomes is what defines us. In her final moments, we are reminded of someone who once was warm, who was just as flawed and human as Quill and the rest of the Guardians. The only difference is found in her choices.

Where Don’t Stop Believing shines is also where it falls flat. Every final moment ends up feeling way too nicely wrapped up instead of taking the time they deserve. The fractures that drove the beginning of the episode feel like they were mended way too quickly. Hala, as a villain being undone by her obsession, deserved far more time to be explored and understood. Don’t Stop Believing begins feeling more procedurally driven and less narratively driven like the previous four episodes. It’s forgiven, however, because Guardians of the Galaxy is a series worth playing.

Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is a wonderful, smartly written series that shows off TellTale at its best. The writing is refreshing, different, taking creative risks that many other series needed but never received. The focus on redefining the significance of choice was powerful and meaningful, allowing the conflicts to arise in an organic matter instead of feeling contrived. The examination of loss, family, and mortality are handled delicately and balanced with the comedy Guardians of the Galaxy is good at. TellTale gets Guardians, and does so almost too well to where most players ended up picking the choices that feel obvious to how the characters are written. The only thing that holds this series back is that it is only five episodes long. In the end, the story is wrapped up nicely while setting up new storylines that could be explored in the seasons to come. Guardians of the Galaxy is a series worth picking up and playing, deserving to be in the top 5 games I played in 2017.

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About

The moment he was born, Terry Randolph knew he would play video games. Okay....not the exact moment he was born, but definitely at an early age. His affinity for video games was cemented in the multiple tantrums he threw while being dragged away from playing Sonic the Hedgehod at his daycare when his parents came to pick him up. Since then, Terry continues to enjoy all the experiences gaming provides. He also loves to write short stories and ambitious novel projects. Last Token Gaming was born from both his love of writing and video games. Twitter: @wanderinganbu Email: terry.r@lasttokengaming.com

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