Borderlands is a franchise built on fast-paced action, endless humor, and unique characters. The story, while engaging once you get far enough into it, generally takes a back seat to the shoot-shoot, bang-bang action while you’re off completing seemingly endless side quests and looting the world of every material possession you can lay your hands on. This is where Telltale comes in.
Telltale Games are renowned for their ability to tell stories in a meaningful way, no matter the setting. Having successfully tackled pre-established IPs such as Back to the Future, The Walking Dead, and Fables (The Wolf Among Us) previously, Telltale are certainly no strangers to growing those worlds in new and exciting ways, while maintaining the charm and atmosphere each wildly different series comes readily equipped with.
An undeniable match made in Heaven, Telltale teamed up with Gearbox Software to bring us Tales from the Borderlands. Being an avid fan of both teams, I have long held high hopes for Tales, which is always risky. Keeping expectations too high all too often brings massive disappointment, as has been the case with more than a couple games this year. To my elation, the premiere episode of Tales from the Borderlands not only met, but exceeded my expectations in every way.
Tales follows a duo of polar opposites: cocky Hyperion businessman Rhys, whose promotion has just been taken from him by his rival/nemesis/personal enemy, Patrick Warburton; and Fiona, a con artist who’s trying to seal the deal of a lifetime. The two are unwillingly thrown together in the inaugural episode, Zer0 Sum, along with their personal companions: Vaughn, Sasha, and Felix.
As opposed to the Vault Hunters of previous Borderlands titles, Rhys and Fiona are just normal people trying to get by in the world. They’ve got their own particular sets of skills which do not include phasing in and out of reality, summoning robotic or aviary allies, or the ability to just go berserk and kill everything in their path. No, they are definitely not Vault Hunters, this much is incredibly clear.
Zer0 Sum kicks off with the two tied up and forced to tell their story to their currently unknown and masked captive. Thus we begin the game by controlling Rhys in his version of how he came upon Fiona and her crew, followed by her side of the story as to their meeting. Their individual tales leading up to that point are effective in giving us some background into their personal lives and who they are, while the crossing of paths shows us hilariously opposing views of how particular events unfolded.
There is one point in particular where, playing as Rhys, you must choose one of two options, both of which seemingly indicate tragedy for one of two other characters, depending on your choice. The outcome, however, is just brilliantly unexpected and had me legitimately laughing out loud instead of sobbing at a loss, an approach that Telltale isn’t afraid to take.
Now, I find plenty of humor in many games, but Tales from the Borderlands is the funniest video game I’ve encountered in years. The last time I actively, consistently, and genuinely laughed out loud at a game like this was Portal 2, over three and a half years ago. Even the laughs in previous Borderlands pale in comparison; partly because Tales simply has more freedom of expression and opportunity for physical humor, but a huge part is also undoubtedly due to the ongoing interactions between characters. Meanwhile the missions and bosses are still left to the Vault Hunters, as is evidenced in the second half of this episode.
Once our pair have settled their differences and agreed to help each other out temporarily, they encounter Borderlands 2 hero Zer0, as is to be expected from the episode’s title. Now, do you remember playing Borderlands 2 and running into Lilith for the first time? How about fighting alongside Mordecai? The amount of depth each previously playable character gains by having an active role in the plot which allows them real character development is palpable, and Zer0’s part in Tales is no different.
He doesn’t say much, but his actions (and outstanding emoticon reactions) speak volumes. Playing as less extraordinary characters like Rhys and Fiona allows you to view a Vault Hunter at work from the sidelines. There is a moment where your rag-tag team needs to infiltrate a base full of bandits and psychos. Conveniently, Zer0 also seems to have business there, as you see him sniping enemies from afar, then launching into the base all gung-ho.
Once you have infiltrated the base by different means, you’re introduced to the arena’s boss man, Bossonova. Rhys and Fiona do their thing and avoid getting killed long enough to watch bits and pieces of Zer0’s boss fight with Bossonova, ending with Zer0 receiving ECHO communication from Mad Moxxi, telling him to come on back and pick up his reward. If I didn’t know any better, I would say that scene could have been pulled straight from a proper Borderlands title, but being told from the Vault Hunter’s point of view. It is incredibly clever.
The whole spectacle is a genius way of both tying previous characters into this new game while giving some much-needed perspective that not all playable characters are sharpshooters, lethal killers, or stereotypical “heroes.” Rhys and Fiona are just ordinary people experiencing semi-extraordinary circumstances in the completely extraordinary world of Pandora, and that makes the story so much more engaging than I would have thought possible, considering the franchise’s typical run-and-gun-and-loot mechanics. Truly, Telltale has brought their magic touch to yet another world.
So the game’s got laughs, it’s got action and excitement, and it’s got superb voice acting. Oh, have I not mentioned that yet? Right.
Gaming’s golden boy, Troy Baker, shines as Rhys. Once you realize it’s him you can’t stop hearing it, but he doesn’t sounds exactly like Booker DeWitt, Snow Villiers, or the leader of the Saints most of the time. Rhys is smarmy, dorky, and kind of egotistical, but isn’t a total Handsome Jackass (see what I did there?), and Baker pulls it off so well.
Likewise, Fiona’s voice comes courtesy of the veteran actress Laura Bailey, who expertly displays moments of heart, vengeance, camaraderie, and insanity. Cue her psycho impression, “I have the shiniest meat bicycle!” Throw in a supporting cast of Chris Hardwick, Nolan North, Patrick Warburton, and Daemon Clarke reprising his role as the notorious Handsome Jack, and there’s no denying the wealth of talent behind these characters.
If I had to find a complaint (and believe you me, it took some serious searching), it’s the sheer amount of quick-time events littering the episode. While titles like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us scattered them around here and there, it seemed like any time I wasn’t in conversation, I was mashing buttons furiously in an attempt to free myself or throw a punch or run away or some other action that can apparently only be obtained by repeatedly pressing a single button. I’m not opposed to QTEs most of the time, but by the end of the episode it almost felt like I was playing Dynasty Warriors the way I was spamming one lone button.
In addition there’s much less exploration the previous Telltale titles. In Back to the Future you take Marty McFly wandering around town, exploring the neighborhood and trying to find the right person to progress your adventure. In The Walking Dead you’re constantly mingling with your party of the week, reassuring them that everything will be alright and searching for anything that might help you survive.
Tales from the Borderlands, on the other hand, is more like an interactive movie. You watch some events unfold, you make a few choices that will be remembered, and you mash those buttons. Only a couple times do you actually have a chance to look around and move your character, and these sections feel much more restricted, like the infamous corridors of Final Fantasy XIII that strictly take you from cutscene to cutscene.
The lack of free-roam throughout isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps the game going at a steady and surprisingly near-perfect pace, but it’s a noteworthy change from recent titles developed by Telltale Games that fans may find unwelcome.
Despite these minor gripes, Zer0 Sum proved to be the most engaging premiere entry to an episodic series I have ever encountered, and before I was halfway through I didn’t want it to end. Bring on episode 2, Telltale. And while you’re at it, bring on episodes 3, 4, and 5 as well. I need more Tales from the Borderlands in my life, like, yesterday.
Tales from the Borderlands is developed and published by Telltale Games, with additional work by Gearbox Software. A season pass for the game on PC has been provided to Save/Continue for review purposes.
Tales from the Borderlands, Episode 1 – Zer0 Sum is currently available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, and iOS, with a Vita version to release at a later date.