A Great Starting Point
The recent reinvigoration of adventure gaming can be laid directly at Telltale’s doorstep, and this is the game that broke through. It’s not their first adventure game, and certainly didn’t set the resurgence in motion, but it nailed the episodic nature they’ve come to be known for and provided an experience both immediately accessible and deeply nostalgic.
That being said, looking at this game with an eye towards quality and not strictly importance, it’s clear that they were still finding their footing. Episodes differ greatly in quality and humor, the first three fall into nearly the exact same formula, and Sam is a chore to move around given his less-than-outstanding movement controls. It’s a simple point-to-move system that is as adventure gamey as they come, but what worked in the ‘90s seems weak by today’s standards. There are times when he obstinately refuses to interact with the item you’ve clicked, deciding instead it would be more prudent to turn and walk elsewhere.
The biggest drawback is how much the first three episodes dig themselves into a rut. You find yourself doing nearly the exact same thing, alternating between the neighborhood and an alternate location, talking to mostly the same people to accomplish extremely similar tasks. When it finally breaks out of this rut, it does so in the episode of the season with the weakest writing, “Abe Lincoln Must Die!” Even during this span, though, the games are better than adventures games had been for years, and are full of quality puzzles and good humor.
I do not mean to sell the game short, and most of these problems get better as the season draws to a close. Episode one is clearly testing the waters for what modern adventure gaming should be, and they expand on it nicely throughout with very few missteps. Dialog gets better each episode, the only marked decline being Episode 4: "Abe Lincoln Must Die!” which I felt slipped in quality of both dialog and puzzle structure. The writing, which is the soul of every adventure game, starts good and gets better. The puzzles are generally intuitive, and frequently perfectly timed so that the player figures out exactly what to do just before they need to do it. There’s a certain feeling of accomplishment tied to figuring out a well-designed puzzle that no other genre can match, and they succeed multiple times in the first season.
The season hits a definite high point when it gets to Episode 5, “Reality 2.0.” The writing is consistently fantastic, the puzzles are smart and not overly complicated and it doesn’t wear out its welcome by dragging on for too long. The design of the titular alternate reality is wonderful, and within are some of the best jokes of the season (Bosco’s disguise, which I won’t spoil, being the best.) Were you to ask me to pick one episode that showcases the humor and interesting puzzles of the season, I would point you here without question.
I don’t mean to overlook the second biggest contribution that this title had, which was to show how to properly do episodic gaming. It is a simple matter to say “we are going to release a one to two hour game once a month for the next five months,” it’s quite another to deliver on that promise with only a few hiccups and have the titles be so consistently good. It says something that, to this day, no one has done it as well as they did their first time attempting, and they’ve only gotten better. The best thing about this title and episodic gaming in general, is how easy it is to jump in for an episode, let it fully digest, and put it down completed in a two hour span. It makes the game accessible to even the most hectic schedule, and keeps a very tight structure to each individual plot.
If you’re curious about old LucasArts-style adventure games and didn’t get a chance to play them fresh, this is an excellent jumping off point. If you enjoy the writing and the gameplay here, you can go backfill games like Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango before moving forward with Telltale’s more recent offerings. I would move to Season 2 (“Beyond Time & Space”) and move on to “Tales of Monkey Island,” leaving “Wallace & Gromit” and “Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People” for diehard fans of those franchises.