Telltale Games saw major success in its highly stylized adventure games, The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. But it took a huge risk in adapting a spin-off of not only an existing video game IP, but 2k Games’s best-selling game ever. Three games in, the Borderlands franchise established its brand of humor and mythos across the desert planet Pandora. As a huge fan of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us video games, I felt a cautious excitement when it was announced; this was, after all, a game based on another video game. But this is what you need to know: they freakin’ nailed it.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about Tales from the Borderlands is watching Telltale flex its pedigree. Diverting from the traditional “shoot everything with lots of bullets” mechanic while radiating the Borderlands ethos is nothing short of masterful. The game progresses via far more talking than shooting, and having a quick wit will serve the player well. You don’t have to be a Borderlands fan by any means. Tales will likely bring new fans to the series, as it is completely self contained and wholly enjoyable for loyal followers and newcomers. However, fans will recognize some familiar faces.
Tales from the Borderlands takes place after the events of Borderlands 2. The story opens as typical to Borderlands with Marcus (Pandora’s gun merchant) narrating against watercolor animations. We soon meet Rhys, a Hyperion (kind of) jerk in search of Fiona, a con artist only concerned with getting her payday. Rhys is vying for a promotion to be the company’s next president, but not all goes as planned. His nemesis (and new boss), Vasquez, forced his way into the corporation’s presidency following Handsome Jack’s demise and demoted Rhys. But Rhys stumbles onto Vasquez’s secret: he’s about to acquire a Vault Key – arguably the most valuable commodity to the Hyperion corporation. Rhys decides the only way to reclaim his position and dignity is to snatch the Vault Key before Vasquez gets to it. The rest is an account of how the deal went awry and the ensuing scramble to clean up the mess. Encounters with bandits, psychos, and Vault Hunters follow, full of hilarity and classic Borderlands.
If you’ve played Telltale’s most recent games, you’ll be familiar with the gameplay mechanics. It’s a mixture of dialog trees, point-and-click to investigate and interact, and quick-time events. One thing that sets Tales from the Borderlands apart from Telltale’s other adventure games is the new two-sided storytelling mechanic. You aren’t ever actually playing the story (at least in this episode) – it’s a retelling. Rhys tells his side of what happens, Fiona tells hers, and there are some embellishments and variances between the two. More interesting is that this approach allows for multiple perspectives on the same event, as well as concurrent but different story lines for when Rhys and Fiona are separated. Each character is well-fleshed and it’s clear they hold their own motivations and loyalties. The same goes for secondary characters. The tried and true humor of the Borderlands universe is alive and well in this iteration, and I found myself literally laughing out loud every few minutes.
Player choices throughout conversations carry weight, as is signature in Telltale series. A notification is turned on by default, which will let you know when a decision you made (such as lying your way out of a situation, or handling an interaction through clever wordsmithing or more physical means) has an impact, displaying a small message in the top left corner along the lines of “So-and-So will Remember That.”
As far as player interaction goes, dialog trees account for the majority of gameplay. Puzzles are fairly short and focus primarily on exploration. Fiona has a cash inventory mechanic enables bribe options in dialog, as well as purchase items at different story beats. It’s not immediately apparent how this will impact the later episodes, other than knowing that spending money earlier on may limit options later, but for now its significance is forgettable.
When it comes to “shooty” action sequences, Rhys can deploy a Loader, a Hyperion assault/defense robot, and the player gets to choose its loadout. This does a good job of including player choices into the action, but will hopefully be expanded upon in future episodes as it’s fairly limited. Quite honestly, the Loader is in the running for my new favorite accessory character in the Borderlands universe. Rhys is also equipped with some cybernetic enhancements, including an ECHO-Eye and arm. The eye is used to scan areas and objects to facilitate puzzles.
While the Telltale Tool engine is getting on up in age, it doesn’t show it. The cell-shaded look of Borderlands actually appears a bit sharper here, probably because the engine is not tasked with rendering a 3D open world. The comic book style graphics are right at home. The character models look even better and more cinematic in Tales than Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, though their movement is sometimes a bit stiff and robotic.
Where The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us tend to start their respective series at a meandering pace, Tales keeps it’s momentum to the very end. The action, humor, and events not only fit well within the Borderlands universe, but truly stand out, capturing the interesting lives of the rest of Pandora. I’ve become a huge fan of Telltale’s episodic delivery format. The shorter nature along with stilted releases makes each episode something I crave. They are perfectly sized chunks of content, with Zer0 Sum clocking in right around two hours.
I couldn’t be more excited for the second episode. I’ve already started a second play through of the current one, something I almost never do. Tales from the Borderlands is an almost perfect marriage of two vastly different genres. Zer0 Sum set the stage for potentially the best Telltale game series to date. There really isn’t anything I can complain about, and the minor nit-picks mentioned above don’t detract from the game in the least bit. Telltale has hit its stride and the formula for its brand of adventure game feels totally dialed-in. Fans of either Borderlands or Telltale owe it to themselves to check it out.
Tales from the Borderlands is available on Windows PC, Mac, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, iOS, and Android. The PC version via Steam was reviewed.