Platform: PC (Reviewed), PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One
When you have a popular franchise filled with unique characters and lore you can be tempted to make several sequels and spin-offs. With Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel launching just a month ago, Gearbox and Telltale Games have created a conundrum: either diehard fans will gladly buy all things Borderlands, or they’ll become more selective because there is a lot of new Borderlands content available. Thus, episode one of Tales from the Borderlands, "Zer0 Sum," has a tall order to fill, but it doesn't quite meet expectations.
In the orbiting Hyperion base Helios, employee Rhys is awaiting a promotion. Things seem to be going smoothly, as he’s been sucking up to the right person to finally be recognized for his work. Events take a sharp left turn, however, after the death of Hyperion leader Handsome Jack, and Rhys finds out personally how Jack's 'untimely' demise affects his future.
In an attempt to get back at those that wronged him, Rhys goes to Pandora to find a vault key, which is where he eventually bumps into Fiona, a thief looking for a good score. Unlike Telltale’s previous games, this time you’re in control of two characters, each with their own personality that you help mold. Rhys and Fiona, voiced by Troy Baker and Laura Bailey respectively, each have their quirks: one is a sheltered business man who doesn't have much real world experience, and the other is an orphaned troublemaker who's always on the run.
Despite being satisfactorily voiced, the characters themselves take some time before becoming interesting. There’s definitely potential there, but the bar’s just been raised pretty high by Telltale’s own recent game catalog.
Throughout their adventures, which eventually intersect, you encounter the typical Pandora craziness we’ve all come to know and love. That said, while it all seems familiar, for a good while the enemies and setting itself don't seem to hone into that Borderlands flare. Sure it's violent and zany, but it's not as witty as I remember the originals to be. In fact, the episode takes a while to rev up to the juicy bits. Eventually the game does veer into a crazy death match, which is where things really pick up and the Borderlands humor really shines. Watching Rhys try—and fail miserably—to knock out a guard is almost worth the wait.
As a Hyperion lackey, Rhys has access to resources normal Pandora residents don’t, such as calling upon a loader bot for help or having body augmentations. One said augmentation is his eye, as he’s able to scan items for extra information that often expand just a bit on Borderlands lore. Information given is appropriately cheeky.
Fiona on the other hand can collect cash to later use to purchase items or supposedly open more dialogue choices, however in the first episode the cash was only useful to buy a custom mask. For now the money system seems superficial, but if money plays a role in bribes in later episodes, that’s one way to really influence the story in a unique way.
Zer0 to the Rescue
As a framed narrative told through Rhys and Fiona's perspectives, there will be moments you can change the next piece of the tale. Did you try to negotiate or just go for the kill, that sort of thing. Dialogue trees make up the bulk of the gameplay, as per usual, but there were a few moments conversations were made into a memory recollection mini-game. Because both protagonists are pegged as smooth talkers, you’re sometimes tasked in fooling someone to believe your lies, and as such you sometimes have to recall what the lie is because the game challenges the details you remember. It’s a fun interaction that only presented itself a few times in the game, but it was a fascinating way to augment the dialogue interactions.
The action segments though are a bit lackluster. It made me question why I wasn’t actually playing Borderlands during certain moments. Throughout the episode you encounter Zer0, as he's on a mission of his own and plowing through enemies in the process. He often inadvertently saves you, in a really cool way.
Any time you're tasked to react, it's a short quick-time event, which is typical of a Telltale game, but as a Borderlands fan, I know what the gameplay could be — I could be playing as Zer0! — and compared it to what we were getting. That said, the few moments you interact with Zer0 are great. He’s a fun character used brilliantly in the episode, and his interactions with the protagonists were always timed perfectly.
Mentors of the Past
Telltale's The Walking Dead is about its characters and the sentimentalities those relationships bring with them. The Wolf Among Us proved to be an intriguing crime drama that amped its mystery with every new installment. Tales from the Borderlands just presents more Borderlands—so far—which is okay for the first episode, but it has to deliver more to really stand out.
Tales from the Borderlands starts off slow but shows story potential in its last minutes. While I’m not exactly sure what the game has to bring to the table, it’s still a valiant effort. Tales seems to be less about the characters and more about the journey they take, so here’s hoping the journey is a good one.
Telltale always impresses on the conversation front. When it comes to the other gameplay elements mixed in, it can be hit or miss. The season one finale of The Wolf Among Us proved they have aces up their sleeve, which they didn't necessarily present in Tales from the Borderlands, but the possibilities of the loot and money system alluded to in this episode are intriguing.
The cliffhanger at the end of the first episode promises great adventures, but the story leading up to that was a bit stale. However, the characters themselves eventually came into their own, giving momentum to the plot and the action that followed.
The music used coupled with other elements did set the stage for a Borderlands-inspired game, showing that Telltale understands its source material. Pandora also isn't Pandora without its gore, and Tales doesn't disappoint with bandit mutilation. Actually the senseless violence stands out a bit more with the removal of the Borderlands gun-play
Does it look like a Borderlands game? Absolutely. The game is drawn in the same comic shaded style the Borderlands games are known for, which makes the transition from Gearbox to Telltale flawless. That said, the fluidity of character movements is somewhat lacking, but the characters emote enough to overlook that.
Overall Score: 7/10
The first episode of Tales from the Borderlands is a lukewarm start to the new Telltale franchise, but that's par for the course in an episodic installment. Telltale hasn't disappointed yet, which is why I'm excited for what awaits us deep in the trenches of Pandora. If anything we'll get to see bandits performing insane acts of stupidity; that's always fun.