Game Review: Tales From the Borderlands (Episodes 1 -3)

Type of game: Point and click graphic adventure
Developed & Published by: Telltale Games
Year:  Episode 1 Zer0 Sum November 2014; Episode 2 Atlas Mugged March 2015; Episode 3 Catch a Ride June 2015
Played on: Steam

Well, I love point and click adventure games, and Borderlands is my favourite game franchise ever. But not all great tastes go well together: I also love coffee and cider but I wouldn’t want to mix them in one mug. So I bought my season pass for this new episodic adventure from Telltale Games with excitement but also – I’ll confess – some trepidation. The blackly comic sci-fi frontier world of Pandora is a wonderful setting, but in the Borderlands FPS/RPG games the main way to interact with this environment is by shooting stuff and looting better guns in order to kill bigger stuff and loot even crazier guns. I couldn’t quite imagine how the Borderlands vibe would translate into the kind of narrative / consequence-heavy experience that Telltale are so adept creating.

Only one way to find out…

Game title screen

Game title screen: clicking finger at the ready!

There will be 5 episodes in total, but here are my thoughts from having played through the 3 parts of this game that are currently released…

TL;DR version: it works and I loved it.

More considered opinion after the jump. I’ve tried to avoid any major plot spoilers here Spoilersbut this is the kind of game that it’s tricky to discuss in any depth without mentioning a few events, so consider yourself forewarned. I’d rate this review as 25% of a Rodimus on the spoiler scale I’ve literally just invented.

In Tales from the Borderlands you play as Rhys, a Hyperion middle management type who begins the game anticipating a sweet promotion only to have his dreams quickly unraveled. The old boss whose favour Rhys had been courting has been retired (the permanently and involuntary type of retirement) and new company head Vasquez has other employment plans for him, plans that mostly involve emptying bins and mopping corridors – not quite the career trajectory Rhys had in mind. This being a Borderlands game, it’s not long before the terms “vault”  and “key” show up on the radar. Rhys and his “tech guy” buddy Vaughn intercept Vasquez’s attempt to buy one and decide to hijack the deal.  Enter Fiona, a Pandoran con-artist and the game’s other player character. She and her rag-tag family are hoping to score some serious Hyperion cash by pulling off a major swindle, and yeah, you can see where this is going…

Rhys intro screen shot

Rhys intro screen shot

The dual protagonist feature works brilliantly. Rhys and Fiona both have their own abilities that give a very different flavour to the game play depending on who you are controlling. Rhys has a rather cool cybernetic eye that allows him to scan the environment, learn background information about Pandoran landmarks, flora and fauna (from a database whose tone wonderfully mashes shady corporate control with jaded employee silliness), and occasionally to hack computers and other equipment. Fiona’s mechanic is more classically Borderlands: she has a cash counter and is able to accumulate money. Collecting cash is the raison d’etre of so much RPG action. In the other Borderlands games you loot boxes, corpses and — uh — piles of Skag vomit or Bullymong dung like a kid in a sweetshop. You even empty the chests in the houses and shops in town without ever questioning if that’s your NPC friends you’re actually robbing. But Telltale’s more thoughtful brand of game play introduces just this kind of moral dimension: will you-as-Fiona rob from that dying man or not? There will be consequences either way. It’s all about consequences here.

As well as ensuring diversity in terms of game mechanics, the Rhys / Fiona dichotomy brings a great deal of humour and colour to the narrative. The tale begins in media res; the two protagonists have been captured by a masked stranger and are being forced to retell the stories that brought them to that point. Their very differing perspectives complement and often contradict each other in fascinating ways. The initial deal-making scene is experienced one way – initially as Rhys – but replaying it afterwards from Fiona’s point of view colours it entirely differently. Amusingly, the two also frequently call bullshit on each other’s narratives and scenes where one of them “recalls” acting in a particularly heroic or badass manner can look very different seen through the other’s eyes. But of course the ultimate truth of what happened is up to you, the player.

Fiona intro screen shot

Fiona intro screen shot

I’ve played a lot of the older Telltale games on Steam (I’m a particular fan of their episodic puzzle adventures like Sam and Max The Devil’s Playhouse and the insane world of Strongbad’s Cool Game for Attractive People) but this was the first of the newer brand of branching graphic adventures I’d tried. I was impressed by how much impact my choices made on the action, scenes play out quite differently according to the decisions I made and,  the trajectory of episode 3 in particular alters depending to the path taken during the cliffhanger ending of episode 2, where Rhys must decide whether to trust Fiona or someone else who seems rather more closely connected to him. In most interactive fiction games I’ve played, you can agonise over choices for long as you want, but here each decision point is on a timer, a feature that really increased my immersion. A couple of times I made heat of the moment decisions that I subsequently regretted. With a little more time to consider, I know I would have chosen differently, but then those kinds of quickfire choices create a very authentic experience that made me feel much more connected to both Rhys and Fiona. My primary save file is what I consider my ‘gut reaction’ play-through and my most authentic experience of the story, but the game’s branching narrative certainly encourages replays and it’s interesting to explore the different ways some scenes could have panned out.

Do you need to be a pre-existing fan of the franchise to understand Tales from the Borderlands? It’s hard for me to answer that, as LBB (Life Before Borderlands) isn’t something that really computes any more. There are certainly lots of throwaway jokes and allusions that are much funnier if you know your Pandoran history.  There are also a few moments that are probably much more tense if you’ve played the other games first. For example, much of the action in “Catch a Ride” takes place in a vegetation-rich biome. For characters who have lived most of their lives, respectively, in the clinical milieu of a corporate space station, and in a bandit-infested underground town, this leafy jungle environment can seem breathtaking – even, romantic. You don’t need to have spent long on Pandora to realise that pretty much everything there wants to kill you, so – Borderlands diehard or not – the way this particular scene develops shouldn’t be too much of a shocker but the game plays this as a slow revelation for Rhys and Sasha; whereas having played the “Sir Hammerlock’s Hunt” DLC and instantly recognised those spores, I was on the edge of my seat right from the scene’s opening. But, impressively, I think prior knowledge of the setting just serves in this way to create slightly different nuances rather to truly make or break game enjoyment.

In terms of characters, the new ones Telltale have created – primarily Rhys, Vaughn, Fiona and Sasha – are brilliantly realised – both in terms of personality and that funky steampunkish aesthetic – and I found myself hugely invested in their fates. The initial Hyperion scenes could have been set in the universe of many games, but that quickly changes as soon as the guys arrive on Pandora (running over a skag on arrival in true Borderlands intro tradition). Here – “this place is a garbage land of sand and sadness” – they quickly start to feel like canonical franchise characters slotting right in alongside the likes of Shade, Scooter and even Athena – who comes to play a major role in the story. Some of the previous player-character vault hunters also turn up (I’ve met Zer0, Brick and Mordecai so far). It’s great to see them, and they don’t feel any more shoe-horned in than they do in the FPS games where, let’s face it, after a while it becomes a bit of a running joke that the same few characters seem to run everything and do everything on the entire planet. But I think it’s a testament to the Telltale, and the great voice actors they have on board here, that I rapidly found myself more emotionally involved with the new characters than with the old favourites.

The new characters fit right in along old favourites (screenshot from Episode 2)

The new characters fit right in along old favourites (screenshot from Episode 2)

As well as making dialogue decisions and undertaking a limited amount of environment exploration / manipulation, the game includes a number of action scenes where you must dodge, push and pull your way to survival. There are some really nice touches here. For instance,  a “press Q to climb” scene requires much less effort when Rhys is pulling himself up with his robot arm than with his regular flesh one. Little details like this add so much to immersion. At times I found the combat mechanic a little clunky. I have pretty fast reactions but in a few scenes – particularly during the high-octane opening to Episode 3 –  I found myself dying because it just wasn’t clear what I had to do. Overall, though, these more action heavy elements are well-integrated: you really have to concentrate because you never know quite when you might have to dodge or respond. I couldn’t take my fingers off the keyboard or mouse for even a minute and each episode just flew by!

I mentioned in the opening that I had some reservations about how it might feel to explore the world of this sci-fi shooter-looter from the perspective of characters who don’t really shoot or loot all that much. The answer is refreshing and surprisingly engaging. The plots of the original games are, let’s face it, paper-thin, the wonderfully quirky characters and interesting environments are what really make Pandora such a fun place to go on a killing spree. Telltale, wisely maintain the sarcastic, characterful flavour of the original, and build up plot and emotional investment in the place of endless targeting and reloading (or not, if you happen to have an Anarchy-build Gaige). Indeed, Tales from the Borderlands actually allows a deeper appreciation of all the wonderful incidental details. Running around with my level 40-something Axton it’s easy to develop something of a god-complex and my girlfriend turret takes out many enemies before I’ve even seen them. But for Rhys, equipped with a stun rod and a severely malfunctioning Loaderbot who has to be coaxed rather than commanded; and for Fiona, armed with a one-shot derringer and (primarily) her wits, it’s imperative to really survey each scene. Standard psychos who are just turret-fodder for Axton become individuals here: I’ve only got one shot so I need to understand what differentiates each of them (meat bicycle, or bicycle made of meat?) so I can really make it count. This idea of anticipation counting for more than just fast reflexes becomes especially key for Fiona as she considers her goals and she develops her skills (potentially) under Athena’s tutelage. I’ll never get tired of the wham-bam-slag-you-man FPS chaos of the other games, but the Telltale treatment does provide a satisfyingly complementary experience.

Screenshot from Episode 3

Screenshot from Episode 3 “Catch a Ride.”  Did I mention how fabulous this game looks?
You can tell I’m emotionally invested because this image is my current desktop wallpaper

This being an AddAltMode review, I can’t sign off without mentioning the game’s robots: ROBOTS!  I was delighted to find that Rhys’s Hyperion tech rapidly makes the transition from being a “a Loader Bot” to being Loaderbot (LB), a full party member who responds to your decision making (and holds grudges, oh how he holds a grudge) just like the human characters do. Episode 3 also makes two significant bot-related developments. Firstly, it introduces a quick change station that finally allows you to spend some of Fiona’s hard-pilfered cash to dress LB in a tuxedo (there’s probably no actual benefit to doing this but it makes me very happy). Secondly, and with marginally more significance, “Catch a Ride” introduces a second Bot to the cast. Saying too much about her could ruin the surprise for anyone yet to play but suffice to say she is freaking adorable and if Tales From The Borderlands’ consequence-focused game play is the antithesis to the smash and grab mechanics of the other games then her wide-eyes naivety and utter lack of cynicism is the antithesis to, well, just about every other character in the franchise.

In short, Telltale + Gearbox is a union far more satisfying than any marriage Mad Moxxi has ever made. Tales From The Borderlands succeeds in bringing a fresh but coherently-on theme perspective to the Pandoran frontier.  If you like narrative adventures of any kind, there’s plenty to enjoy here. If you’re a Borderlands fan not averse to a change of pace you never knew you needed, I reckon you’ll love it.

Come on, what's not to love about a bot in a tux?

Come on, what’s not to love about a dapper Bot in a tux?

Bring on Episode 4!

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3 thoughts on “Game Review: Tales From the Borderlands (Episodes 1 -3)

  1. I love cider too. Although I am not a big Borderlands fan (because I am useless at FPS titles) I am looking forward to playing this game, due to the setting and humor. I’ll wait for all the episodes to come out though. I learned my lesson after having to wait so ling between Wolf Amongst Us installments.

    Like

    • Cider is my alcoholic beverage of choice, I was born and raised in cider country after all. 🙂

      I think you’ll enjoy the tone and humour of this game a lot. You’re also wise to wait and play right through. That would probably be the most satisfying experience. I was going to do that myself but then I didn’t have enough willpower in the end. I hold out with comics but not, it seems, with games.

      Liked by 1 person

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