In Hamilton: An American Musical, George Washington is constantly explaining to Alexander Hamilton that while something may seem easy, dealing with its consequence is assured to be harder. While we might not be staring death in the face or trying to govern a new nation, that lesson can easily be applied to episodic gaming. To put it simply, episodes are easy; finales are hard.
Such is the case with Guardians of the Galaxy and its finale, Don’t Stop Believin’. Almost all of Season 1 is built on the familial bonds formed between the Guardians and the amount of tugging those bonds are capable of enduring before they break. Episode 5 finds the bonds nearly severed, and with the fate of the galaxy in the balance, the Guardians must save themselves before they can save everyone else.
I know I say this every time, but some spoilers are to be found in this review, as it would be impossible to talk about some of the issues I have with the finale’s wrap up without mentioning either them or the narrative hooks that led there.
At the end of Episode 4, the Guardians were in a pretty tough spot. With the death of Drax at the maw of a giant rock worm, Gamora laying every issue the group has squarely on Peter’s shoulders, and Mantis freaking out at the sheer amount of emotion bursting out of the Milano, the only two Guardians left together at the beginning of Episode 5 are Star-Lord and Rocket. Drinking themselves into a stupor at a bar in Knowhere, they watch a news report detailing the death and destruction that a newly Forge-empowered Hala is wreaking on the galaxy before resigning themselves to finding a way to get the band, who is already perma-short one person, back together.
It’s at this point that Groot and Mantis casually stroll into the bar. Each of the previous episodes focused in on one member of the group with Mantis providing a conduit into that member’s past. The only person, or plant in this case, left to dive into is Groot. Rather than try and force an accidental pairing between Mantis and the Guardian-of-the-month (as Telltale had the previous three times), Groot being Groot, comes right out and invites the exchange. The scene that follows is a neat reworking of the Guardians first meeting, with the five of them ending up in the same jail cell. Peter, sporting a ridiculous 70’s porn stache, identifies them as the most badass people in the cell, excluding an alien onlooker sitting behind Gamora, and proceeds to tell them his plan. Groot, in the meantime, manages to grab the key card to the cell from the guard sitting just outside it by stretching his arm through a vent.
The scene is cute and the few instances where you choose Groot’s response, only to have the result be “I am Groot,” are an absolute treat, but it lacks any kind of emotional depth, especially when compared to the other flashbacks. Not only that, but it also serves absolutely no purpose, as, despite Mantis’s dialogue to the contrary, it provides no basis for why the team needs to come back together.
Even with the scene’s lack of value, it absolutely pales in comparison to the trash fire that is Mantis’s Memory Rock Field. Using her empathic power as a kind of emotional GPS, Mantis draws Peter into a Stephen King-esque mind space, where she asks him to concentrate on his feelings when he thinks about his team. You are then asked to pick one word out of the air around Peter and then listen to a memory in the form of a single line of dialogue that has nothing to do with that word you picked. Each dialogue bit eventually leads to one of three spots where Mantis is able to divine the location of one of your missing Guardians. The whole bit feels hamfisted like they needed a simple way to get everyone back together and they felt like Mantis just didn’t have enough to do. This sequence is also part of a major reveal, relating to an absolutely heart-wrenching moment from the last episode, and it feels like the enormity of it is skipped over.
The episode improves dramatically once the band is back together, and Rocket comes up with a "this could get us killed but it’s the best plan we’ve got” plan. The subsequent heist-like invasion of Hala’s ship as well as the “final fight” are things of beauty, and they highlight the series’ big positives. Namely, fast banter, fast actions, and teamwork through large set pieces. With the focus on Peter’s work through the break-in, it even allows for some narrative shortcuts, like not having to show the others work on screen. There’s some fantastic audio work done with the team members' communication, which keeps the pace up during stretches when Peter is traveling between objectives.
I also really liked the handling of Hala herself after the battle. It offers a needed quiet moment that serves to humanize, making her more than just a power hungry, galaxy killing monster. It’s easy to forget that the driving rationalization for her actions is protecting and resurrecting her people, including her son. A powerful reminder that the ends do not justify the means. It’s a theme I would love to see built upon in whatever sequels they choose to make from this, as it seems particularly poignant when it’s the player's choice that drives the adventure narrative forward. As I've said, choosing is easy, but dealing with the consequences of said choices, especially when they don’t always work out, is a lot harder. Telltale needs to find a way, much like they are doing with Batman, to make tough choices stick within the Guardians world they're building. While the team feels a bit closer at the end than they did at the beginning, there are no lasting effects from Peter and company’s actions. Especially given the MCU-esque stinger at the end of the credits, it’s easy to see everything being back to status quo and this story having never mattered.
While the finale itself nearly falls apart in the beginning, it does manage to save itself in the end, much like the team it stars. I would love to see Telltale continue with the Guardians, but the series highlights some deeper flaws, like pacing and the ability to make emotional moments matter. These are issues that have reared their heads in other games, but seem to stick out here given the nature of the story and its structure. Overall. Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun, if slightly shallow ride, and I don’t mind having spent the time I did with this team of misfits. Saving the galaxy is one thing, but keeping it safe and staying together at the same time is another.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!