Tales from the Borderlands
Now this is not a condemnation of the game, in fact it’s something to be celebrated. The three Borderlands games to date have been a bright ray of sunshine in an otherwise oversaturated world of Space Marines, Earnest Soldiers, and Cryogenically Preserved Keepers of Humanity. Video game shooters can be fun, but it is seldom they are funny and this was a nice change of pace. The problem is, as fun as the setting is (that Claptrap fellow is a hoot and the toss away lines are delicious) it can be a bit tricky at times. So much loot and so much shooting isn’t everyone’s “bag” and this is where Telltale enters the picture.
Telltale have a history of adapting other people’s properties starting with their first two games Bone and CSI you sort of see the two sides of their coin. One is very funny, the other very not funny. A large portion of their early work was comedic work a lot of the times focusing on properties that belonged to other people while the other half were serious adaptations of work where if you made a joke people could get quite offended. Licenses that they have worked with include Back to the Future, Bone, CSI, Fables, Jurassic Park, Law and Order, Monkey Island, Sam & Max, Strong Bad, The Walking Dead and Wallace & Gromit. Add to this a handful of first party properties you have a heavy dose of comedy balanced out by some fairly serious work. Many of these titles were also episodic content (Telltale being one of the few proponents of Episodic Gameplay to make the format work).
While the studio had always been fairly respected with most of their titles being well received (with the exception of the panned Jurassic Park) it was really their adaptation of the comic book and TV show The Walking Dead that pushed them over the top. This was followed closely by a Fables game. By this point they had refined their platform to a solid and well oiled system that included light action that most would classify as “quick time events” and a unique timed conversation system. Your responses and actions would impact the way other characters interacted with you sometimes with consequences you wouldn’t see until two or three episodes of the game down the road (you would know this was important by the “X will remember that” message when you make a choice). At the end of each of these episodes you would get a statistical breakdown of how your actions compared to other players.
The Walking Dead and Fables were both fairly serious one involving a Zombie apocalypse and the other involving a people in exile dealing with a murder from within their own community. This is hardly the stuff to slap your knee over or really enjoy (though Fables does have its moments especially for long time fans of the series). I don’t know who approached whom but when Gearbox and Telltale came together I’m sure they saw a lot of common ground (remember this is the studio that gave us a Sam & Max revival coming together with the studio who gave us Handsome Jack and his Diamond Ponies for all).
Tales from the Borderlands is a neat narrative experiment on the part of the Telltale team, they’ve taken the world which has up until now been defined by the likes of Handsome Jack the power hungry villain and the Vault Hunters seeking treasure and reward and pulled the camera back a bit changing the focus to be on that guy next to the Vault Hunter in the bar just trying to enjoy his beer and keep from getting shot. You play as two characters, a low level corporate drone named Rhys (Troy Baker of course) working from the Hyperion corporation sometime after the death of Jack and the corporate chaos that ensued in cahoots with his friends Vaughn (Chris Hardwick) a geeky accountant and Yvette (Sola Bamis)a lunch buddy and requisitions officer and maybe a romantic entanglement. The other half of your in game avatar team is Fiona (Laura Bailey) a feisty fast talking con-woman raised alongside Sasha (Erin Yvette), August (by the other guy who does pretty much everything Nolan North) Sasha’s boyfriend/mark and a kindly con man who took Fiona and Sasha in named Felix (Norman Hall).
After leaving Rhys and Vaughn set off to Pandora to skunk Vasquez’s key from under him with Yvette staying behind to lend a hand from the requisitions team. Stealing Vaughn’s (for lack of a better word) Space Lincoln Town Car, making their way to the drop point they encounter a group of slightly less than friendly locals. With Rhys you have the option of playing things nice or douche, I tend to gravitate towards nice but it’s very tempting at times to play the corporate dick and mouth off or manipulate those around you. No matter what you do though the locals react in the traditional Pandoran fashion and attempt to kill you. Calling in a favour from Yvette she drops a loader bot down for you to take care of the enemies (your first cameo from the earlier Gearbox titles). Loading out this bot with different weapons you fight your way to a crappy museum housing a collection of oddities (which you can scan for some nice Easter Eggs).
After doing some digging you are given your second cameo from Borderlands 2 (I will hold my tongue as it’s a great surprise) but you eventually meet August and his Sasha and try and negotiate the deal of a lifetime at which point Zer0 bursts through a sign and we cut back to the present and flip the narrative. Telling the tale from Fiona’s side we learn about two down and out street rats who were raised by Felix (for reasons they never truly understood). Fiona’s not got any fancy cybernetics but she does have a one shot hold out pistol and the ability to pinch money (which can come in handy later in the game). After helping Felix put the finishing touches on the McGuffin for their big scam she makes her way to August’s bar where she fast talks her way inside. Her sister is there either as August’s girlfriend or manipulating him as a mark for the con, it’s never quite clear, and you have to convince August you are an archeologist and a long time friend of Sasha’s. Unfortunately she made up an elaborate cover story that she can only recount to you once in a rushed tone. This means you should have your listening ears on when you play her.
You eventually get him on board and you make your way to the museum to make sure the trade goes well. You end up needing to sneak inside to deactivate Ryhs’ echo eye this has the unfortunate effect of also messing up his cybernetic arm and everything goes sideways. Bossanova the Dubstep villain of the episode bursts through the wall and starts messing stuff up. Zer0 follows closely behind and a battle ensues, and this is where it’s interesting. You run away, you are on the side lines and you take a back seat as the big kids rule the action.
The game is not without its flaws, while the graphics were solid, the story and pacing great and the gameplay was refined down to a well oiled machine the audio mix was spotty. There were several moments where it almost felt like there were two musical tracks playing at once the mix was so bad. Dialogue was garbled and at times difficult to hear and this really took away from the more dramatic scenes and tenser moments. Hopefully this will be resolved in subsequent episodes but if this is my only complaint you know we’re on solid ground. Heck even the title song Busy Earnin’ by Jungle is a thematically appropriate song which really nails the tone of the game (both corporate types and swindlers are just busy earnin’). Clocking in at around two and a half to three hours of gameplay with five episodes in total this is a reasonable length for an adventure game and a good price for the amount of fun you will have with the story. I recommend picking this up highly.
As this is the first instalment of an episodic game the full review score will be held until all episodes have been completed and the game can be reviewed as a whole.
- Talented voice actors who really nail the comedic elements of the story
- Funny writing with a break neck pace
- Great cameos without being overwhelming
- Unique story distinct from the established lore but not apart from it
- Each character plays in a different and interesting way adding flavor to the experience
- Poor audio mix
- If you are not a fan of QTE and “interactive movies” this may not be for you