This is a review of the full 5 episode season of Tales From the Borderlands. Ye who enter here will find few spoilers! Maybe a couple, but not too much.
Telltale Games Company has made a name for themselves in the video games market in taking on the mantle of decision based adventure stories left behind by the 1990’s. If you were to approach a gen-X’er who fell out of touch with video games after the old days of arcades, the words “It plays like Dragon’s Lair, but actually has a story” perfectly convey what Telltale achieves in their episodic series’.
I’m going to take this moment to break the fourth wall about my reviewing Tales From the Borderlands (considering the game itself has no trepidations with being meta on its own), this is frankly my first attempt to write a review for a video game, despite playing them for as long as I’ve watched films. That being said, I find Telltale’s format is found by many gamers to not qualify for the “video game” medium. Having previously played the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, I have a habit of telling people that Telltale’s format is an “interactive story,” but it’s important to realize that the definition of a video game is immersion and interaction from the player, who Tales From the Borderlands irreverently keeps involved in the plot for the duration of each episode. My point is: yes, this is a video game. Let’s move on.
The fascinating thing about entering the world of Borderlands through Telltale is, very similarly to The Walking Dead, no prior knowledge of the franchise surrounding this story you’re following is required to understand the world and its plot, as it starts fresh with 80% completely new characters in the case of Borderlands, and even those familiar faces for fans of the series like Zer0 and Scooter the Mechanic, are introduced here in such a way that new players can enjoy their company just as well. This move is smart on Telltale and GearBox’s part considering the Borderlands franchise has enough lore built into it that last year’s third installment was titled a “Pre-Sequel.”
If you’re uneducated on Borderlands’ lore, it look more complicated than it actually is. It’s a science fiction western where mindless bandits and insanely powerful mercenaries hunt for treasure, the most valued of which are the riches within several mysterious Vaults, on a hopeless rock of a planet called Pandora. In contrast to Pandora’s planes of death, survival and Eastwood duster coats, a space station lurks above called Helios, where a bunch of corporate desk jockeys try to reassemble their company after the death of their leader Handsome Jack. Also, it’s a comedy.
Tales From the Borderlands is the first fully complete season after Telltale’s very successful two years of the dramatic Walking Dead series. Comparatively, the Borderlands franchise is naturally crass, irreverent, tongue in cheek, and all different kinds of euphemisms you can think of to just say that it’s funny. As a result, it takes your expectations of the decisions you make throughout the story, and flips you on your head with the results. Not only do all five episodes, which amount to almost two hours each, move at a breakneck pace with its humor, but it keeps things fresh by having you to play as two separate characters: Rhys the corporate pencil pusher, and Fiona the down to earth con artist, both of whom have completely separate motivations and skills to make the quest for the Vault that much more dynamic and interesting to keep up with. Between these two leads and their supporting cast, the story evolves from a simple Office Space style heist, to an epic science fiction Mighty Morphin’ Robot adventure with the goal of making you attached to every character.
More often than not, the game will rely on the player to decide between three or four replies that Rhys and Fiona can make to the characters surrounding them, and the kinds of actions to take. These decisions can be as trivial as thinking of something quippy to say, to making integral decisions that will change the character’s direction in the plot, and affect how their friends and enemies perceive them down the road. Most of the time, this is what keeps a player immersed in the tale, but there are moments where you’re pulled away from the experience either because you couldn’t keep up with the speedy timer before you could decide, or some replies feeling calculated to all convey a similar emotion in a very serious moment of the plot, seemingly taking complete control away from you. It’s baffling to consider how many different possibilities can be made in a single episode of a Telltale game, and the whole package makes it feel like your own experience, but when the end-game moment comes, I had wondered how unique it really was compared to other people’s time with the game, and how much was left to set up a potential second season.
A fun feature at the end of every episode is the game allowing you to see how your major decisions stacked against the statistics of everyone else online, but more often than not the decisions listed as “major” surprisingly didn’t feel that way.
In regards to the actions sequences, this is where the Dragon’s Lair comparison comes into play, because they requires constant motion and quick button mashing, and if a movement takes too long, or you hit the wrong button, you get a Game Over screen. While Quick Time Event sessions are generally frowned upon in today’s game industry, I find they’re well suited in this interactive story genre, as it’s much more of a cinematic package in the first place.
The style of the environments and characters of this game are vibrant and detailed, particularly in the character’s facial expressions conveying subtle emotions to break up a lot of exposition heavy dialogue. Much like their other ongoing series’, the 3D modeling used by Telltale appear like ink and color on a comic book page. The direction of this series feels more immersive due to dynamic and zany choices to make Tales From the Borderlands feel more cinematic in its perspectives shown on screen.
However, for any points awarded for the game’s visual successes, the voice performances here have earned double. Between game and animation veterans like Troy Baker (The Last of Us), Nolan North (Uncharted) and Laura Bailey (Fullmetal Alchemist) and recognizable comedians like Patrick Warburton (Family Guy, Seinfeld) and Chris Hardwick (@Midnight, Nerdist.com), the character types in this game are diverse, witty and every single one of them are charming, including the villains.
While the overall package is successful, Telltale still has work to do on some technical hiccups like the occasional rigid character animations, slightly off lip-syncing or pacing issues, and some spotty audio mixing with the dialogue, but with the possibilities as complex as those found in the Mass Effect games by Bioware, and being produced by a small company on a wide variety of digital platforms, it’s very little to make a complaint about.
Ultimately, Tales From the Borderlands is my favorite thing by Telltale so far. While the successes of The Walking Dead are undoubtable, I find that the quippy sense of humor and quick pacing work in the favor of Telltale’s potential for dynamic storytelling, and kept me excited to return for each episode. If you’re willing to give it a shot, Telltale has made the first episode “Zer0 Sum” available for free on console and mobile platforms. You might find yourself having a really good time accidentally killing people for money.
Tales From The Borderlands [Episodes 1-5]: 8/10
Available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Android phones and the Apple Store
Also available on Steam for Mac and Window