Tales From The Borderlands: Episode 1 Zer0 Sum Review: Telltale’s Most Thrilling Game Series Yet?
With a single episode, Tales From The Borderlands shows that it has the potential to be the best Telltale series released this year.
Let's back up a second, though. The Walking Dead Season Two and The Wolf Among Us are great games. From any other studio either title would have been a highlight of their catalog, but unfortunately for Telltale they had to go and set the bar for so damn high that nothing could compare.
They first started showing how serious they were at bringing back adventure games with more comedic fare like the brilliant Sam & Max series and Tales From Monkey Island revivals, going on to make one of the most memorable games of this generation with the first season of The Walking Dead. That title was so successful that they continued making dark, gritty games, but how could anything else hope to compete?
One (valid) complaint was that things were getting too dour, too bleak. There’s only so long we want to play depressing stories full of characters placed in hopeless situations, after all. Telltale is one of the few studios around that knows how to do comedy, but it hasn't had a chance to demonstrate that in a while.
Here it does, in a game that's more laugh-out-loud funny than any in recent memory. Tales From The Borderlands is necessarily dark due to the subject matter- the series involves lots and lots of bandit murder, after all- but it’s also got that wonderfully sadistic sense of humor in place. It's also one thing Telltale games aren’t known for- action-packed. We should have expected nothing less considering the franchise but Telltale doesn’t exactly have a great track record with action sequences (I still have nightmares of that Jurassic Park rollercoaster sequence…)
Here though, it works perfectly, as long as you don't mind quick time events.
Chronologically this takes place after the events of Borderlands 2 (and thus, the original and Pre-Sequel) and is canon. Whatever happens in this game will be referenced in the inevitable Borderlands 3.
It’s told in a remarkable way, too. For the first time ever we control two characters with competing narratives. Rhys (Troy Baker) is a Hyperion company man who’s been screwed over by his job. After Handsome Jack was killed off in the second Borderlands it left a void in power in the company, one Rhys hoped to fill, but instead Vasquez (Patrick Warburton) swooped into power, demoting Rhys to Assistant Vice Janitor instead.
Rhys takes exception to this and instead decides to team up with his buddy Vaughn (Chris Hardwick) and head to Pandora and steal a deal for a Vault Key that Vasquez was setting up. They also steal $10 million from the company and even Vasquez’s car to help out- and things soon turn south when they land.
Here’s where you’ll meet the other character you play as, Fiona (Laura Bailey), a Pandora resident and long-time con artist who’s involved with the other side of the deal, the one repping the Vault Key. She has a father figure who's helping her steal the money and a younger sister involved as well, although they all look out for themselves. There's no other way on Pandora, after all- a world where she casually walks by a bunch of tiny bandits stabbing a man to death in an alleyway.
But the main story is being told in flashback. Both Rhys and Fiona have been tied up by a mysterious kidnapper who’s making them relate the story, and it’s here that we get a Borderlands-tinged Rashamon as each character tells their own version of the events, sometimes overlapping and contradicting each other. This also lets the game get really, really silly, as Rhys in particular loves to overexaggerate and Fiona loves to shoot down his stories as lies.
The dialogue is wonderful but one thing that’s plainly obvious by this time is that the Telltale Tool needs a bit of an overhaul. Character's walking animations are still stiff and lifeless, the faces descriptive but occasionally dummy-like. The graphics style has been changed around to make it look like it was pulled out of Borderlands’ cel-shaded world but no one moved quite this jerkily in that series.
The other thing that may concern some people is how reliant on Quick Time Events this game is. The action parts are full of them, and except for a few tiny areas to explore (which are never more than a screen or two large) there’s no real exploration in this game- it’s all dialogue and action, more so than any of Telltale’s titles before.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! The early loader-bot scene which so thrilled us during our early time with the game sets the tone beautifully, and things just get crazier from there, with an absolute rollercoaster of a set-piece kicking off near the end of the episode which concerns a motorcycle race, a case of money, and a villain with a subwoofer implanted into his chest. It's a perfectly executed adventure sequence, where things just go wrong one after the other. When the visuals are so damn entertaining you won’t care that the majority of your inputs are hitting left or right or jamming on a key.
Besides, the story’s where it’s at, and the first episode is clever enough to end on one cliffhanger that opens up all sorts of possibilities for where the next four episodes will take these wonderfully despicable individuals. Wherever and whenever they do, we’ll be along for the ride.
Tales From the Borderlands was reviewed from a Steam code provided by the publisher. It hits today for PC/Mac, with PS4, PS3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360 versions coming later this week. iOS and Android are also in the works. The first episode will take around 2 ½ hours to complete, upon which you’ll see how close to the other players your decisions hewed. (We all love Loader Bot.)