As I stated last year, when I had finished reviewing The Wolf Among Us and the second season of The Walking Dead, I refuse to play and thus review any of Telltale’s games until they are actually FINISHED, with every episode released. So, if you are wondering why the heck this is the first you are hearing of Tales from the Borderlands from me, when perhaps I ought to have been raving about it last year at some point, then that should fill you in. Now that’s out of the way I can actually tell you that I have now, at long last, played the game and formulated some opinions on it.
So, before we get started let me clear something up. Yes. It is THE Telltale Game. Tales does not deviate from the little comfort zone that Telltale have carved out for themselves. It is an episodic, story-based and character-driven game in which you make decisions which affect how the rest of the game plays out and how NPCs treat you. Same old formula, and yet here I am still ready to sing its praises. If only they made terrible games, then I wouldn’t have to keep saying that every single time I write a review for them. I think from now on I might just literally copy and paste this review into every subsequent Telltale review and just change the name each time.
Let me start us off with some criticism, perhaps surprisingly. Even more surprising may be the fact that this particular fly in the ointment is actually something I have complimented the previous Telltale games on. While previously I have always enjoyed the aesthetic and style of Telltale’s games, I have to admit that playing TftB I kept on noticing more and more small issues with it. The textures were absolutely sub-par, the animations were dreadful with characters practically gliding over ground instead of walking, even facial animations did not seem to have the lustre they usually did.
I’m not quite sure why exactly it is now of all times that I am finally starting to complain about this. There’s a good chance that because this is the first Telltale game I’ve played on my new computer that this is also the first time I’ve actually had the luxury of looking at a game’s graphics properly. Perhaps it is simply because I was looking for more flaws in the design this time around. Perhaps it is that I was mentally comparing it to the actual Borderlands games. Or it might be because they combined the thick-outlined and cartoon-y style of their games with the similar aesthetic of Borderlands, and together it just made it look outdated and poorly designed. Like by combining a cartoon aesthetic with a cartoon aesthetic you get… TOO cartoon-y an aesthetic… Or something.
There’s a bunch of theories, none of which may actually hold any water. Whatever the case, the game does not look great, and I will stand by that point if nothing else.
Tales from the Borderlands is slightly different from the standard Telltale fare in that it has the “unique selling point” of having two protagonists instead of just one. Everything else remains fairly standard for the developers, you know the drill: dialogue made by snappy decisions on the spot, decisions which influence the direction the story takes, small segments of varying types of gameplay primarily based around QTEs. It’s episodic, it’s point-and-click and it could just as easily be described as an interactive film as it could an interactive story (based upon how much influence you really believe you have over the characters). In this however, you have control of both Rhys and Fiona.
Rhys is a mid-level employee of the Hyperion corporation, working on the space-station which orbits Pandora, while Fiona is a con artist living down on the harsh surface, the two of them are thrown together in an unlikely adventure with attempting, for their own reasons, to find one of those famous Pandoran vaults (and the supposed riches and wealth that the vaults contain).
Its actually kind of interesting to play two characters at once in a Telltale game because each character makes their own decisions, has different relationships with those around them, and even interact with each other continuously, meaning that they will even treat each other slightly differently depending on how you try and make them treat each other. On one hand, I quite liked it because it was pretty obvious that you were playing two distinct characters with their own goals and objectives. Both of them were written to the usual exceptional standard and so, even if you played them both in the same way, they still came across as two separate individuals because of the options presented.
On the other hand, one was a fairly aware that I was just playing them both in the exact same way. I did not play Fiona as particularly devious or protective of her sister, nor did I play Rhys as a cut-throat Hyperion employee. No, I played them both as the “good guys” (which is what I do in RPGs) and even though the way the dialogue was presented made them both seem distinct, it was not something which affected my playstyle (except in a very few small situations). And that is just something that felt like it stood out to me, there was almost a feeling like you were playing two parts of the same character rather than two different characters almost.
Rhys is probably the primary protagonist, in a sense, because he is the focus of one of the bigger arcs of the game. This particular arc is that a program version of Handsome Jack (the infamous and hilarious villain of Borderlands 2) becomes inserted in the cybernetic augmentations he possesses, allowing the deceased megalomaniac to interact with the flabbergasted Rhys. All through the game you are given the choice of whether or not you reveal this particular piece of information and I think it’s actually a great piece of writing. It is also worth saying that Dameon Clarke, reprising his role as Handsome Jack, is an absolutely fabulous voice actor and clearly entirely deserves the award he won in 2012 for his performance in Borderlands 2. Overall, I think that the interaction between Rhys and Jack is possibly one of the best parts of Tales from the Borderlands, providing some extremely memorable moments and more than its fair share of amusing banter (meeting Butt Stallion was excellent, for example).
The game does have quite a lot of memorable moments though, whether it be specific scenes or sections of dialogue or characters, it definitely has a lot going for it. I also say this from the perspective of someone having only ever played through Borderlands 1 properly, I’ve never succeeded in getting far in Borderlands 2 and despite knowing the outline of the plot, I do not know the characters or world and so I suspect many of the easter-eggs and references will have gone right over my head. And that’s to say nothing of the Pre-Sequel which I know even less about. So it is worth saying that despite being so heavily based on a pre-existing Universe and characters, I never once felt at all on a back-foot for the lack of knowledge about either of them.
I also feel I should mention some other particularly noteworthy performances. While all the dialogue was pretty masterfully voiced, as is the norm for Telltale, Patrick Warbutton’s performance as Vasquez was truly inspired and, despite being a secondary antagonist, was one of the game’s most noteworthy characters to interact with.
The thing about these moments which makes them stand out in my mind is actually because of another significant different between TftB and other Telltale games. While both The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead are fairly serious, gritty and atmospheric games, games designed to be emotional and to weigh upon the mind, Tales from the Borderlands does something that very few games try and even fewer succeed in. It tries to be funny, and it does it spectacularly. Of course, it is a Tales game, so there are the occasionally slightly emotional and difficult moment for our heroes, but by far and away the majority of the game is simply a silly romp with all kinds of shenanigans to tickle your funny bone.
And you know the craziest thing about that? They actually do it well. I don’t just mean that I blew air out of my nose with a little increased force. It is not funny in the same way that some other games have funny moments, no it is actually consistently and repeatedly properly hilarious. I actually genuinely laughed out loud at several points during the game (“Have you been stung by bees? ‘Cause you’re looking swole.” is legit one of my favourite lines of dialogue ever written). The rest of the time it was also amusing enough to constantly keep a smile on my face, which is no small achievement.
The plot itself feels a little more hit and miss. Because of the slightly whimsical feel, which is very much reminiscent of Borderlands itself, the game feels like it jumps a little from place to place with the characters goals seeming to be equally fickle, despite the overarching plot goal of opening a vault. This too feels a little like they were trying to emulate the sort of energetic movement of Borderlands games, but it doesn’t quite work as well in a story-based game as it does in a running-gunning shooter.
Beyond this, much of what makes the other Telltale games good is also good here. So, the dialogue and choice system remains tip top. It is perhaps worth noting that much of what makes Telltale’s games good is that while you are not really capable of having that much impact on a story, the way it is presented makes it seem like you do. Basically the illusion of choice you have in their games is exactly that, an illusion. I say this because in TftB occasionally that illusion slips somewhat. More than once I felt I made some important decision, only for the game to then suddenly flip around and make the other choice happen, making it obvious that there was really only one way for the story to go, which somewhat broke the immersion.
The game is presented by means of a long series of flashbacks and stories told by Fiona and Rhys, both of whom are captured and at each other’s throats persistently throughout the “present” by an unknown and mysterious figure. It’s a plot mechanic which did at first grate on me a little, because I think flashbacks are currently one of the most overdone and overused tropes in story-telling, but quickly became every bit as amusing as the rest of the game as Rhys and Fiona take turns to occasionally interrupt the other in order to correct them and make fun of whatever the other was saying.
One of my last points to make about the game is that while it may not be my favourite of the Telltale games I’ve played so far, I think it is definitely my favourite setting. With the potential for both high-stakes drama and comedy, the world of Borderlands is as colourful and exciting as it is comical. It is a definite feather in the hat for Gearbox Software that it comes across so well in this story-driven format, and an obvious feather for Telltale for doing their job so well again.
This may in part be due to my dislike for the zombie apocalypse setting of The Walking Dead and my slight disappointment with The Wolf Among Us, but I still think its a point worth saying.
On the other hand, the setting might lead to some disillusionment about the game because, let’s face it, Borderlands is all about the running-gunning action (followed swiftly by the looting) and Telltale does NOT do running-gunning action. Nor does it do looting. So while the setting is bright and exciting, it also does not really hold too strongly to the roots of the original game.
A final note before providing the game with its rating is about another one of the memorable things of the game. The intro sequence for each episode was often pretty much spot-on in tone while also being amusing again each time. Nothing particularly important to say about it, just that I enjoyed them enough that they were worth a mention.