Review: Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 – Wild Wild West
For years, Telltale Games has taken its company’s name to heart — by developing games focused primarily on storytelling. With the more recent titles coming from the company, such as the highly-acclaimed The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and the upcoming Game of Thrones, Telltale’s craft of creating engaging stories with dynamic, interesting characters has come down to a highly potent “formula.”
That by no means is any sort of insult, as even though gameplay between those titles mentioned has changed little, Telltale’s adventure game framework — where players interact with objects, choose the outcome of dialogue-based scenes, and make critical decisions that will influence the remaining episodes — lets the studio tinker, experiment, and create something new with each franchise or property they take on.
This time around, Telltale has taken its usual batch of ingredients and shaken things up a bit — by adding in some Pandorian elements, they’ve created something unique, volatile, violent, and most of all funny as hell, with their latest adventure, Tales from the Borderlands.
Taking inspiration from the universe of Gearbox Software’s Borderlands series, Telltale’s spin on the world of Pandora puts players through, essentially, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of Borderlands. Put into the roles of Rhys, a Hyperion employee looking for loot, luck, and a highly-valued promotion within the ranks of his company and Fiona, a devious con artist looking for a big break, Tales from the Borderlands whisks players through a lengthy (but well-paced) episode from Pandora and back with a wide cast of characters, plenty of humor, and an always-evolving story centered around money and glory.
In other other words, a much, much more light-hearted affair than the more serious tales encountered in The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us…though no less violent.
The game takes players through its first episode briskly with plenty of nods to the Borderlands universe that will please longtime fans of the series, but also provides a thorough and engaging story to newcomers. Even though Tales is set chronologically after Borderlands 2 and will probably appeal more to devoted fans, the title is still not a bad start if you’re looking to dive into the series for the very first time, especially given its radical departure of gameplay from the FPS and loot-centric main Borderlands games.
Even though it’s more of a spin-off than anything else, Telltale still manages to nail the kooky, cartoon-come-to-life aesthetic of the Borderlands games and world, while still maintaining the signature Telltale “look” with their own stamp of quality. Even more so, Tales manages to succeed on some fronts better than even the Borderlands titles have been able to accomplish, with its story and humor shining through more than even many moments in the franchise’s past.
Over the course of the first episode, titled “Zer0 Sum,” players are quickly (but thoroughly) introduced to some of the mainstays of the Borderlands titles: Vault Hunters seeking fame, fortune, and sweet loot have been seeking out Vaults across Pandora for their hidden (and highly-valuable) treasures. Upon Rhys’ landing on Pandora, all the elements are there from crazed Psychos to parse desert environments, to chaotic weaponry and plenty of pop culture references throughout.
In a humorous con-gone-wrong, Rhys’s acquisition (and loss) of $10 million dollars while seeking a Vault Key leads to plenty of unexpected twists and turns across the two to three hours of “Zer0 Sum.” As an adventure in the vein of point-and-click titles of the past, players will guide either Rhys or Fiona through environments by interacting with objects to uncover new paths or dialogue, or in the game’s more conversational sections, choose the next action or dialogue that will impact later episodes through the actions taken. And in the game’s more combat-heavy sections, quicktime events and on-screen button prompts can provide life-or-death moments of chaos and confusion.
While Tales doesn’t depart heavily from the previous Telltale titles, the Borderlands-inspired setting does provide some new gameplay twists and opportunities for interaction, such as Rhys’ “Echo Eye” ability that lets him scan the environment for new clues, info on Pandorians, and even small bits of humor in some of his information found. Another example is a section where Rhys must outfit a Loader Bot with weaponry and gear before engaging a group of ravenous thugs on Pandora.
Alongside the trademark absurdest Borderlands humor, Tales also boasts a fine cast of voice actors that each bring humor, charm, and a little bit of oddity to their roles. Rhys and Fiona (The Last of Us‘sTroy Baker and inFAMOUS: First Light‘s Laura Bailey respectively) are each distinct and fun, with Rhys a determined, if not entirely capable or competent, protagonist, and Fiona a hot-headed con artist not without emotions or compassion.
Likewise, Tales also brings in some recognizable voice talent to great effect, with Chris Hardwick (@midnight, Talking Dead) bringing nervous fast-talk to Rhys’ accountant buddy Vaughn, or a hilariously well-cast Patrick Warburton (Family Guy) as Rhys’ over-bearing boss, Hugo Vasquez.
Tales from the Borderlands is very much the typical Telltale tale — its episodic adventure promises twists, turns, and plenty of decisions that will make an impact on the remainder of the season, be it who lives or dies, how a story’s outcome might play out, and far more. But, even more so, Tales proves that Telltale and Gearbox are a match made in heaven, as “Zer0 Sum” shows there’s far more to Borderlands than shooting and looting with a great story and fun, wacky characters.
Previous Borderlands titles have taken us from Pandora, to the moon, and back, but the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands has already shown that there are plenty of other places in the Borderlands universe that we have yet to explore.