Penultimate episodes are a tricky proposition. On the one hand, you've got to set up the story for the big finale in the next instalment, but on the other, you can't promise or give away too much or the coming climax might wind up feeling, well, anti-climactic. Telltale's Guardians of the Galaxy - a series that has such little narrative heft so far that the entire story could be summed up in a haiku - bafflingly attempts to avoid the problem altogether by not advancing the overall plot one iota, ignoring it entirely in favour of a standalone episode that strands the titular Guardians in the nest of some deadly space worms, with only passing mentions to the overarching storyline involving Hala and the Eternity Forge. It's weird, but once it gets going, it actually results in the best episode of the series to date.
Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. While the hit to miss ratio for the gags in the series so far has always been leaning tentatively toward the latter rather than the former, Episode Four - Who Needs You's clunky, desperate attempts at raising a chuckle verge on the embarrassing. There are some crummy fart jokes and about forty mentions of the word "colon" which we guess is supposed to be funny because the colon is a part of your bum. The one liners still don't land effectively, and the dialogue, even when it's not trying to make you laugh, feels contrived. The quick time events that make up the action scenes still seem superfluous, the puzzles go on for too long and just involve clicking on things randomly until you click on the right combination of things to progress, and the lack of any connection to the previous episodes or, presumably, the final one, in terms of the overall storyline makes the episode feel somewhat inconsequential.
What redeems Who Needs You is the second half of the episode, which moves in some genuinely surprising directions in terms of what happens to the various characters and in some of the decisions made by the Guardians. While some of the choices made in previous episodes felt like they might not actually go anywhere of consequence, the fate of the Guardians of the Galaxy by the end of this episode seems to tie directly into how you've treated each member in the past, and how much they trust Star-Lord as a leader. There's also some fairly touching moments shown in flashbacks dealing with Drax and his family before they were killed, which set him on the path for revenge that led to him becoming a Guardian in the first place. It's not quite as likely to set bottom lips quivering as Rocket's dour flashbacks in episode two, but it goes someway to giving Drax more of a personality than being the big, dumb guy who uses increasingly tenuous literal translations of phrases in order to try and garner a few laughs.
The final moments of the Who Needs You, seemingly tied to your choices throughout the four episodes, come together nicely and leave the series feeling like it could go in any direction when the final episode hits. Presumably, some of the more surprising narrative choices taken by Telltale here could be retconned with a little space magic in the series finale, but that doesn't stop the events of Who Needs You having the emotional punch that Guardians of the Galaxy so critically required heading into the endgame. While the banal end-of-the-universe storyline flounders, it's the touching moments of character development that remain Guardians' strongest hand, played deftly enough here in the final hour of the episode to make up for the lacklustre first half.
Nolan North is still doing a wonderful job voicing Rocket, and Ashly Burch has made Nebula about as compelling as she can with the material she's got to work with, but the other Guardians still come off as bargain basement versions of what we've seen in cinemas. The series is still trying to recreate the vibe of the Guardians movies with the inclusion of '60s and '70s pop songs, too, and like the previous episodes these moments are jarring just as often as they're inspired. The opening credits work well alongside Jackie DeShannon's 'Put A Little Love In Your Heart', but a later action scene backed by Queen's 'Stone Cold Crazy' feels awkward. Presumably they couldn't afford the rights to 'Don't Stop Me Now'. Either way, comparisons to the James Gunn Guardians movies rarely shine favourably upon the Telltale series, but then that's wholly expected given the video game doesn't have a $200 million budget.
Episode Four - Who Needs You showcases the best and worst of the Guardians series so far. The jokes repeatedly fall flat, the story is largely irrelevant, and the characters are still pale imitations of their big screen counterparts, but after a fantastically dull first hour, the episode manages to conjure up some surprisingly poignant moments in order to make the second half the highlight of the series so far. While it's by no means a home run, or even on par with much of what the studio has done in the past with other properties, the ending of Who Needs You has enough emotional weight to make it the best episode so far, leaving us with some hope that the upcoming finale might stick the landing for the series.