This March has been a big month for Borderlands fans — plenty of new content both expected and unexpected has been announced for several titles in the series, from a Claptrap-inspired romp through Dance Central Spotlight to the release of Borderlands: The Handsome Collection only a day away.
The Borderlands series has always maintained a strong fan base with its addictive gameplay loop of shootin’ and lootin’.
Yet, surprisingly enough, Telltale Games was able to capture the kooky world and wild characters of its story at the end of last year with Tales from the Borderlands, sometimes even more effectively than the main series titles have been able to so far.
Setting its protagonists Rhys and Fiona on a wild goose-chase of loot and luxury, the second episode in the series, “Atlas Mugged,” picks up right where things left off and never misses a beat.
As we described in our review of the series’ first episode, episode two differs from Telltale’s usual stable of titles.
Although it still retains the familiar “Telltale formula” of quick-thinking decision-making and exploration in the adventure game-realm, it’s a stark departure from Telltale’s more recent titles like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.
Where those titles focus heavily on survival and deliberation during every moment on who will live or die, this title eschews that instead for more intimate character moments, some genuinely laugh-out-loud comedy and some of the best writing that the studio has produced yet.
This is thanks to comedy that heads into screwball territory, as well as a cast of lovable misfits contained in a wild west theme. Luckily, Episode 2 picks up perfectly where the series debut left off and propels Tales from the Borderlands to even more exciting territory in Pandora.
Following the first episode, “Atlas Mugged” almost immediately sets players on a different kind of ride by splitting up Rhys and Fiona with the hilariously-neurotic Vaughn and determined Sasha, respectively, leading a large degree of this episode’s arc split between two stories.
In particular, the second episode also notably brings in an extended appearance from Handsome Jack himself… sort of. As the infamous villain was introduced at the conclusion of the first episode in hologram form, only Rhys is able to see and communicate with Jack directly, while everyone else just sees Rhys appearing as if he’s talking to a ghost.
Aside from the typically ludicrous Handsome Jack banter we’ve come to know and love from previous titles, Jack’s presence in Episode 2 turns into one of the highlights of the episode.
While the mystery behind Handsome jack only appearing to Rhys will surely develop over the rest of the season, it nevertheless leads to some genuine intrigue in the story, alongside several hilariously-crass jokes involving Jack’s hand and Vaughn’s crotch (I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination).
Following a wonderful opening sequence with a soundtrack I still can’t get out of my head, Episode 2 starts off with Rhys and Vaughn abandoned on their own while Fiona and Sasha venture out looking for the boys.
Most of the episode revolves around the two groups looking to find each other once again, but it effectively makes each story unique and filled with wonderful story beats and set pieces all their own.
It especially works with Tales from the Borderlands‘ strength of providing two unreliable narrators that play off each others’ recollections wonderfully.
In particular, Rhys’ disbelief at one of Fiona’s retellings, where he exclaims “Obviously there wasn’t a GEYSER of blood” made for one of the many laugh-out-loud moments I had during the episode.
But, for all the laughs that the second episode provides (of which there are many), Telltale effectively pulls back and never forgets the heart of the story, and most of all, of making us believe in its characters.
The episode is chock full of laughs, from a hilarious exchange about Vaughn’s appearance when shirtless to an epic “bro” off between Vaughn and Rhys. More importantly, “Atlas Mugged” really began to dug into its characters now that the series is past its first episode — the story set-up and world-building is (mostly) done with, and now we can really begin to delve into where this season is heading.
While the first episode showed us the primary goals for Rhys and Fiona — seeking a Vault Key for fame and riches — the second spends its running time well between pushing the story forward while also giving more development on Rhys and Fiona (while Vaughn and Sasha also get their share of the spotlight, as well).
Even though Rhys and Vaughn bro-fist and share some laughs together, they also delve into a significant gap in their relationship, forcing the player to decide whether to continue loyally trusting Vaughn or keeping a more watchful eye over him.
Likewise, Fiona and Sasha delve deeper into their past by exploring their father’s home, leading the player into new details and aspects of their relationship not only as sisters, but as partners-in-crime.
Both are smart and resourceful but their experiences in the episode also show them to be vulnerable and real — a compliment to Telltale’s masterful abilities as storytellers and character-creators, and more importantly, crafting dialogue that gives great exposition on the characters without feeling “written.”
Instead, the various conversations between Rhys/Vaughn and Fiona/Sasha come off naturalistic instead of screen-written: real, instead of calculated and planned.
Aside from Handsome Jack’s appearance, which provides a majority of the episode’s laughs (and some of its key plot points), “Atlas Mugged” also rings in more familiar faces from the Borderlands universe that continue to add to the game’s story organically, rather than just being superfluous cameos for a cameo’s sake.
In particular, the charmingly-aloof Scooter encounters Fiona and Sasha at his repair shop, tying it back to the main Borderlands canon in a fun way (if not particularly exciting or thrilling).
Likewise, Borderlands 2‘s ruthless assassin, Athena, also makes an appearance in a high-octane chase scene that is a little lighter on the story side but provides an exciting set-piece to the episode.
While the episode still falls well into the familiar gameplay of previous Telltale titles, it still manages to take on some unique challenges thanks to its more diverse gameplay mechanics, such as Rhys’ Echo Eye that allows him to see hidden objects in the environment and solve puzzles.
Though not particularly challenging, the Echo Eye still brings some welcome freshness to more of the stale aspects of Telltale’s particular brand of gameplay; the only real weaknesses come down to a lack of truly meaningful decisions and outcomes (other than a strikingly-tense ending) and, in particular, a decision that mostly comes down to a cosmetic choice more than anything else.
Continuing with its rapid-fire pacing and playful story structure between Rhys and Fiona’s often-conflicting retellings of events, Tales from the Borderlands has, thankfully, shown no signs of slowing time at its breakneck pace.
With this episode, Telltale Games wonderfully balances character development, story progression, and a hearty amount of good laughs all in one 90 minute to two hour session, setting it as a bit of a double-edged sword for the series as both its highlight (so far) and a tough bar to reach for the subsequent episodes.
Even though Episode 2 leaves Rhys, Fiona, Vaughn, Sasha, and Jack in a bit of a tough predicament, “Atlas Mugged” more than anything will have me tuned in to see where things are leading in this ever-unpredictable tale. Whether that involves more “bro-fists” though remains to be seen.