Review: Tales from the Borderlands: Season One – Once Upon a Time in Pandora
(Reviewer’s Note – This review for Telltale Games’ Tales from the Borderlands covers the entire season of the series, reviewed as a whole. For our reviews of all five episodes individually, you can follow the links below):
Going in to the debut episode of Tales from the Borderlands, I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect.
Having played some of the previous games in the series (though far from calling myself a Borderlands fan), the idea of a story-heavy game in the universe made me a bit hesitant that I wouldn’t get all the references, follow the exact story beats all the way through, or even expect a stellar story, given that’s not necessarily one of the series’ strong-suit compared to its addictive shoot-and-loot gameplay.
To my surprise, I didn’t need to worry at all as in the hands of Telltale Games, the studio has easily created the strongest story told in the universe yet.
Tales from the Borderlands knocks it out of the park (or galaxy) with its deft combination of humor, action, and tons of great characters.
And, you know, the inclusion of a gun-pooping horse, adorable robots, and action sequences that made me laugh as much as they made kept me on my seat. Those helped too.
Taking its cues, inspiration, and style from the Gearbox Software series, Tales from the Borderlands unfolds the story of Rhys, a bumbling but amiable suit, and Fiona, a confident and skilled conwoman, as they go on the hunt for a particularly fabled Vault on the Borderlands world of Pandora.
Along the way, that initial quest snowballs into something much bigger once new adversaries make an entrance, complications arise, and a host of faces both new and old aid Rhys and Fiona in finding their riches from the Vault.
Even against some of the nastiest creatures, mercenaries, and big bads that Pandora has to throw at them, Tales offers more than its fair share of characters that you’ll love and admire throughout its episodes.
While the games are based on a series that’s more well-known for its crazy weapons and world, Telltale’s rendition of Pandora and its universe is commendable for crafting a story that’s sure to please diehard fans of the Borderlands series, but still being approachable and highly-enjoyable even to those not quite as familiar with the world of Pandora and its many wacky inhabitants.
That approach comes down to its storytelling, which is arguably some of Telltale’s sharpest writing since The Walking Dead‘s first season, as well as its funniest.
Even with the novelty of Tales from the Borderlands swinging far more in the direction of comedy than the more dramatically-driven series from Telltale, the series also pulls some clever narrative tricks and styles out of its hat to make its story feel fresh and varied, especially with its two lead characters that jab and joke at each other as much as they aid each other.
Almost like the video game equivalent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rhys and Fiona’s take on events plays as a fun and clever narrative device that works well in the framework of Telltale’s particular style of episodic games.
Acting as pseudo-unreliable narrators, the banter between Rhys and Fiona escalates as one recounts events while the other either shuts them down or gives their take on what happened, resulting in some pretty hilarious sequences of events.
Fiona is quick to tell things how they really are when Rhys tries to make himself sound impressive and heroic, while Rhys chimes in to fill in the gaps when Fiona (purposefully) leaves out the key details of an event, and they’re always hilarious.
It’s not a revolutionary form of storytelling, but it adds an extra layer of character and personality to a cast already packed with it, with actors Troy Baker and Laura Bailey both making Rhys and Fiona as relatable as they are likable in their performances.
That extends even further to the supporting cast on both the good and bad sides: Patrick Warburton as the menacing but hilarious Vasquez, Chris Hardwick as your loyal “bro” Vaughn, Erin Yvette as the feisty Sasha, and arguably the series’ MVPs, Loader Bot and Ashley Johnson’s Gortys. Gaming has had its share of adorable characters, but few can claim to get into your heart as Loader Bot and Gortys.
While the new faces take up the spotlight the most, Tales from the Borderlands also succeeds well in bringing over characters from the original Borderlands series, and making them a part of the action while not necessarily taking it over (aside from the circumstances around an obvious exception, Handsome Jack).
Characters from the previous games like Zer0, Scooter, Athena, and more all get to play a part, and given Tales acts as a canonical addition to the Borderlands series, it’s a perfect bit of fan service that carves its own identity as much as Telltale faithfully gives its nods to the prior games.
That dedication to the performances and characters (both new and old) all circle back to the main focuses of both action and comedy, and serves Telltale’s strengths well in making Tales from the Borderlands work within the Borderlands universe but not be completely bound to it.
It’s easy to see that even if it weren’t based on an existing property, I could see Tales working all on its own if it were an entirely original creation; this speaks to Telltale’s stellar work in creating an original story in an established universe.
It’s certainly an interesting comparison to make to Telltale’s other current series like Game of Thrones, which has felt more restricted by its source material.
If there’s any knocks against Tales from the Borderlands, it comes more so on some of the more frequent problems associated with Telltale’s previous games than the translation of Borderlands to an entirely different style of game.
Earlier episodes of the series had a little bit of trouble finding their balance between the more fast-paced, action-packed moments of the episode in relation to the slower exposition scenes or exploration-based segments, though this does become less of an intrusion in the later episodes.
From the very start, I was expecting a fun, light-hearted take on a series that already doesn’t quite take itself too seriously; by the end, I didn’t know what to expect from a series that kept me guessing at every possible turn, and more importantly provided one of the funniest and most enjoyable game experiences of the year.
Even in theater and film, it’s often said that comedy is a heck of a lot harder to pull off than drama, yet Telltale Games’ Tales from the Borderlands pulls off laughs, shocks, and cheers nearly effortlessly.