Tales from the Borderlands: Episode One
[Please note that Tales from the Borderlands is an episodic series. Purchasing the game grants you access to all episodes as they become available. Currently only the first episode has been released.]
When I first heard TellTale Games were making an episodic adventure game based on Gearbox Software's beloved hyperviolent and totally cracked-in-the-head shooter series Borderlands, I was mildly concerned. Mainly because Borderlands is described by things like ramping a car that fires buzzsaws off a cliff into a group of bandits and guns that shoot bullets that are also on fire, while TellTale's adventure games are, um. Not. But surprise surprise, Tales from the Borderlands is here with its first installment, Zer0 Sum, and while you won't be running around shooting up the scenery, it's every bit as foul-mouthed, black-humoured, and perversely charismatic as the original games. Plus, Patrick Warburton is in it. What else do you want? If you haven't played Borderlands, Tales will get you up to speed on the basics at the beginning, which are fairly simple.Tales from the Borderlands takes place after the end of Borderlands 2 and follows Rhys and Fiona, not exactly your typical gun-toting heroes, who have very different motives. Rhys has been fighting tooth and nail for a promotion at super company Hyperion that his "nemesis" Vasquez has cheated him out of, while Fiona's out to pull one huge con that could set her, her little sister, and their surrogate father Felix up for life. To say not everything goes according to plan is an understatement, and Fiona and Rhys are going to have to work together to stay alive... even if each one blames the other for the whole mess. This first installment tells the story of how they wound up thrown together, though of course how they get there is mostly up to you. With excellent comedic timing, exciting action sequences, and all the perverse style and flair you expect from a Borderlands title, Tales from the Borderlands' first episode sets things off with a bang. Oh, and be prepared for a, um, special jump scare or two.
Tales plays like most other recent TellTale titles, a more action-based format of the classic adventure formula. Use [WASD] to walk about, click to interact, using the contextual icons that pop up when you mouse over something or someone to decide what to do. While you'll explore, talk to people, and solve puzzles, the most important thing to keep in mind is what you say to people and what you do. The choices you make impact the game and all episodes going forward, while characters will remember things you tell them and react differently to you as a result. You don't have all the time in the world to decide what to do or say, however, and since the game saves automatically, you're stuck with whatever happens. When playing as Rhys, you have an ability called Echo Eye, activated with the [Q] key, that can let you remotely access some electronic devices like computers, while the hardware in his hand has its own unique uses. During action sequences, you'll be required to hit whatever keys pop up on the screen for quick-time events, as well as make decisions on the fly.
Surprisingly, Tales from the Borderlands' scripted action sequences are a lot of fun, and intense to boot. They all come down to quick-time events, of course, but they capture the madcap, over-the-top combat very well, and are fantastically choreographed. They do a great job of showing what it's like for the non-Vault Hunters to deal with the same crazy odds, and as Felix points out, "Guns are a crutch". It also doesn't hurt that Tales is funny, managing to strike a balance between gross-out violent humour and more subtle, witty banter and visual jokes. Borderlands as a whole has always been a lot smarter than some people give it credit for, and Tales pulls that off with ease. Rhys and his friends are immediately likable, with Chris Hardwick giving a great performance as best buddy Vaughn, and the banter between Fiona and Rhys is perfect snarky frenemy fencing. The way they snipe at one another over their conflicting stories over the episode and embellish details adds a wonderful flair. If you aren't familiar with the Borderlands series, then some of the humour and references will definitely go over your head, but Tales avoids feeling like one big in-joke and simply making references for fans. It is very much its own story, one that works with and expands the lore rather than relying solely on preexisting material.
Still, Tales from the Borderlands might have a hard road ahead of it when it comes to satisfying its audience, from the fans who were expecting or wanting more classic Borderlands gameplay to the newcomer adventure fans who wish the game offered more puzzles than quick-time events. You aren't given much opportunity to explore, so the vast majority of the game plays out like a series of interactive cutscenes. As a fan of the original games myself, however, I can tell you that Tales from the Borderlands is neither what I thought it would be, nor what I was afraid it would be. It pulls no punches and revels in the weird and freaky, while at the same time crafting characters and a story you can see yourself growing to love. With this first installment, it's hard to tell whether your choices will have the moral and far-reaching consequences throughout the rest of the series of, say, The Walking Dead. Despite this, however, Tales from the Borderlands is one of the most effortlessly funny and engaging adventure games you'll play this year, and is an impressive start to an unexpectedly promising series.