Getting the balance right
When Tales from the Borderlands was first announced it was easy to feel a bit skeptical as to whether or not Telltale Games could deliver as far as spinning a yarn as grand as The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. Don’t get me wrong; while the Borderlands titles have always featured some enjoyable writing, the underlying story itself is usually buried under mountains of bullet-riddled bodies and shimmering loot. In the dangerous, bandit-filled wastelands of Pandora, the story has always taken backseat to wholesale destruction, the pursuit of bigger, badder guns and even bigger, badder psychopaths to blast into mountains of twitching meat.
Having said that, I’m happy to report that my introduction to former Hyperion executive Rhys and the feisty thief Fiona renewed my interest in the lore of Pandora and the glorious maniacs who inhabit the perilous planet. While the main cast eschews the series’ staple gunplay in exchange for a gripping tale full of more wannabe con-men, blood-crazed killers, and wanton devastation than your average Guy Ritchie flick, the end result strikes a skillful balance that is sure to please fans of both Borderlands and Telltale’s mountain of masterful narrative adventures alike.
If you’ve played any of Telltale Games’ previous releases over the past few years you’ll know exactly what to expect from the gameplay of Tales from the Borderlands. Players will spend an equal amount of time scouring locations for clues and items in typical point-and-click adventure fashion to progress the main story, as well as engaging in extensive cutscenes which feature oftentimes game-altering dialog choices. Each character has their own opinion of you. If you slight a potential ally they’ll remember it, and there’s a chance they won’t come to your aid when the shit hits the fan in a future chapter. Sometimes these decisions can create quite the moral dilemma, and you’ll be tempted to play through the game multiple times to see just what turns the story can potentially take. Additionally, the game features some delightfully cinematic QTE segments. These sequences require some quick thumbwork, but often reward you with some fantastically choreographed sequences. The last of which is a completely off-the-wall death race that has to be seen to be believed.
The events in Tales From the Borderlands are set three years after the Vault Hunters defeated Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2. Hyperion’s upper-crust have been fighting to take over the former maniacal corporate despot’s place. In Tales from the Borderlands: Zer0 Sum you’ll spend your time in the shoes of two protagonists, Rhys and Fiona. Rhys is a former Hyperion executive who has the ability to scan and interact with high-tech machinery through his cybernetically modified eye. While Fiona doesn’t have the level of tech-savvy as Rhys, the crafty crook is able to get business done with her quick wits and cold, hard cash. After a chaotic series of events involving a bungled heist, the two of them form a fragile truce for the sake of survival. Each of the chapter’s stars is exceptionally well developed, and the characters offer some superb and often hilarious dialog to drive the story forward. Fiona and Rhys make yet efficient and endlessly entertaining pair during the game’s roughly 2.5 hour introductory chapter.
While giving the cast of Tellatale’s latest narrative epic a proper introduction is obviously the intention of Zer0 Sum, it’s somewhat disappointing just how little effort went into implementing any worthwhile puzzles into this episode. Apart from a sequence when you select the armaments for a Loader Bot as he defends you from an onslaught of bandits, there isn’t really much going on apart from making your way to the next cinematic sequence or QTE. Even still, the action sequences are more plentiful than in any previous Telltale adventure, and the numerous exhilarating moments, like manning the aforementioned bots heavy weaponry as you reduce raging psychos into puddle of pulpy meat, along with more than a few hilarious and brutal bouts involving a handy stun baton offer some memorable moments that are sure to pull you into the action, and make the lack of puzzles forgivable this go-round.
Another thing worth noting is the game’s performance. While the game generally performs quite well, we experienced stuttering and looping audio issues with our Xbox One review copy of the game. While not a game breaker, this always seemed to happen at some of the more dramatic moments in the story, which served to break the immersion in some otherwise poignant moments. Additionally, while the game looks fantastic, with bright and vibrant locales and well-animated character models that look right at home in the Borderlands universe, the Telltale Tool engine may be getting a bit long in the tooth. Animations during the game’s exploration sequences come across as quite janky and unnatural at times, but this hardly impacts your enjoyment in the grand scheme of things.
One area where Tales from the Borderlands truly shines is the soundtrack. The game features the signature twangy, tumbleweed-infested wasteland blues the series has become known for, interspersed with a handful of soul-crushing dub step tracks that hit you like a blast from a fully-loaded Conference Call shotgun to the chest. If you’re a fan of the tunes from previous entries in the series, you’ll no doubt love Telltale’s aural offerings this time around.
Ultimately, Tales from the Borderlands is a superb entry into yet another episodic epic for the master storytellers at Telltale Games. While I went into the game not knowing what to expect from this adventurous offshoot of the fan-favorite multiplayer shooter series, Telltale’s Pandoran debut is a resounding success, pulling players into the dusty wasteland like never before. While the next chapter would certainly benefit from some more involved puzzles, this introduction captures the flavor of both Borderlands and Telltale’s previous adventures remarkably well, which is one hell of a feat in and of itself. Tales From The Borderlands: Zer0 Sum is a tale worth telling, and serves as a strong start to what’s sure to be another must-have saga in Telltale Games’ adventure game repertoire.
Final Verdict 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Mac, iOS, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, Playstation 3, Vita; Publisher: Telltale Games; Developer: Telltale Games; Players: 1 ; Released: Nov. 25, 2014; Genre: Adventure; MSRP: $4.99
Note: This review was based on Xbox One retail code provided by the game’s publisher, Telltale Games.