Tales from the Borderlands Review
One of the best seasons from the adventure game studio
The "Telltale approach" has changed the world of video games in profound fashion. Not only have the indie-mega-studio built their own well-oiled machine that has been cranking out episodes on an almost monthly basis - usually for two game series running simultaneously - they have also shook the adventure game landscape, inspiring imitation and retaliation. What has come to define Telltale Games as one of the largest independent studios wasn't the direct adaptations of existing high profile franchises, but rather the stories told within those worlds. And there has been no better example of Telltale at their best than Tales from the Borderlands.
Telltale still feels like they’re searching for some more interactive mechanics to go along with their choose-your-own-dialogue adventures. Tales from the Borderlands flirts with some gameplay ideas that change as you switch between two main characters, Rhys and Fiona. As Rhys you can use the character’s technical augmentations to investigate items more thoroughly and hack computer systems. As Fiona, you will manage money found throughout the game, choosing when to spend it on disguises or other items to help with plot-based objectives.
These concepts are never fully developed or used in a convincing way. Saving your cash for certain situations is a nice touch, but it doesn’t significantly influence the story. There are also a handful of the familiar Telltale action sequences - some your standard fare, others a little more creative (there’s a sequence with a clear fighting game influence toward the end, which is quite clever and a gun-fight unlike any you’ve seen before). It’s not that Telltale reinvents the wheel when it comes to these sequences, but the devs come up with new ways to keep them from getting stale.
It’s also worth pointing out that, along with the still-running Game of Thrones, Tales from the Borderlands is one of the first Telltale games where you make choices for multiple characters - the aforementioned Rhys and Fiona. Again, it’s a nice change of pace to get different pieces of the story from different perspectives, but aside from the change of perspective, the choices don’t often affect each other. The decision making in Tales from the Borderlands is still a digital coloring book, the picture remains the same but you can influence the look.
All that being said, Tales from the Borderlands is the most confident storytelling Telltale has shown since the first season of The Walking Dead. The tale follows Rhys, a middle-management drone of the Handsome Jack-less Hyperion Corporation, and Fiona, a con-woman who partners with her sister to deal with some of the seedier characters on the deadly planet of Pandora. A botched Vault Key deal brings these two together with a cast of hilarious supporting characters for an adventure worthy of the main Borderlands franchise.
But most surprising is how universally accessible the story of the game is. Telltale could have crafted a series packed full of Borderlands fan service that was gibberish to non-fans, following the same internet-heavy, meme-able dialogue the Borderlands series is famous for, but instead the writers truly flex their fingers and deliver something more substantial. Tales from the Borderlands is an absolute joy for everyone. Sure, you’ll get an extra chuckle when you see Butt Stallion, or you’ll know Scooter’s “Catch A Ride” handle before he shoots it into space, but a lot of the jokes transcend the Borderlands hyper-in-your-face nature and appeal to all audiences. Maybe it’s because the Borderlands universe is even better when it isn’t filled with non-stop machine gun fire.
Telltale instead find new ways to deliver the energy of franchise. They start each episode with fantastic and hilarious music numbers, communicating the wacky off-the-wall humor while still injecting a swagger which is crucial to the series. It’s this bizarre dynamic that makes the series so infectiously enjoyable.
It’s fun that defines Tales from the Borderlands and it’s clear that Telltale enjoyed themselves while making the series. After life-threatening zombies, the grisly murders in Fabletown, and the back stabbings of Westeros, it’s refreshing to see Telltale let loose with some jokes - and trust me, they’ve got some good ones. While the cast is stacked with the talents of Patrick Warburton, Nolan North, Troy Baker, and Chris Hardwick, the stand outs surprisingly are the two non-human characters: Loader Bot and Gortys.
Gortys is an absolute scene stealer, with constantly peppy and naive dialogue being hilariously juxtaposed against the brutal and bloody backdrop of Pandora (and Hyperion isn’t much better). Meanwhile, Telltale takes one of Borderlands' more rote enemies in the average Loader Bot and turns it into a well rounded character you are bound to root for. Both hit their stride early and continue to develop, meaning that by the end of the game, not only are they making you laugh, but you might actually care about their fate. It’s just one example of the many times that Telltale take something minute or dull about the Borderlands universe and find a way to make it more interesting. Whether it’s loot, supporting characters, or the lore itself, Telltale takes the core of Borderlands and smoothes it out into something of high narrative value.
There are some technical hiccups with Tales from the Borderlands. While Telltale has evolved its engine since the days of The Walking Dead, Tales from the Borderlands still has a robotic look to some of the animations. While this might work for Gortys and Loader Bot, there’s times when it betrays the human characters, and sells the game’s writing short - especially for some of the more well-timed comedic moments. These issues extend into glitches where character’s mouths don’t move during dialogue or their animation freezes. Most of these instances happened in the series finale, and it was bummer as it occurred during moments of high payoff. That’s being said, the loading times are pretty minute and I never had an issue with any of my save files.
Don’t let the little things steer you away from Tales from the Borderlands. Narratively, you’re looking at Telltale at their best. This series is so wonderfully creative, so devilishly funny, and so impossibly charming, if you’re ever going to play a Telltale game, make it this one. Not only is this series crafted with the narrative confidences only Telltale can deliver, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing a Telltale game. These characters don’t just endear themselves to your heart, they make you laugh and smile. There isn’t one powerful relationship driving the game, there’s half-a-dozen smaller plotlines that each have their own arc. The series is full of moments that are bound to keep you engaged. I don’t know if you can tell yet, but I loved the hell out of this series.