Tales from the Borderlands review
Adventure Gamers Awards
Episode One - Zer0 Sum
I really had no idea what to expect going into Tales from the Borderlands. Not being a huge fan of first-person shooters, I played the first half of the original Borderlands when it was released and got some enjoyment from it, but most of that came from playing multiplayer with my friends. Apart from the appealing cel shaded aesthetic, there wasn’t much else that took my fancy and I left the game unfinished. As such, when Telltale announced an episodic adventure based on the franchise, I wondered whether a story-driven game based on a shooter could really work.
Resoundingly, the answer is yes. It absolutely works. While this is much more an interactive story than a traditional puzzle- and exploration-based adventure, right off the bat the first episode, Zer0 Sum, made me feel fully invested in this world and the characters that inhabit it. Although this universe was established by another developer, Telltale manages to put their own unique mark on it, much like they did with The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. They have a knack for creating relatable, human characters that you genuinely care about and have an interest in guiding through the extraordinary situations they encounter.
In Tales from the Borderlands, you alternately take control of two characters. The first is Rhys, a young man who works for weapons manufacturer Hyperion. The company and its employees have a reputation for being ruthless, which is made very clear from the offset. On his way to receive a promotion, Rhys finds that the former boss has been unceremoniously ‘dismissed’ by his arch nemesis Vasquez, who then promptly screws Rhys over by reducing him to a janitorial position. Rhys, along with his pal Vaughn, plot to get Vasquez back by intercepting a lucrative business transaction.
This deal takes place on the bleak and desolate world of Pandora, a kind of sci-fi Wild West crawling with dangerous people and creatures. Inhabiting Pandora is the second protagonist, a fraudster by the name of Fiona. She and her sister Sasha began stealing from a young age to get by and have lived their whole lives as con artists, raised by the older, wiser Felix (a man they once tried, but failed, to steal from). Needless to say, Fiona becomes entangled in the plot arranged by Rhys, though to detail any more than that would spoil one of the many twists and turns throughout the story – let’s just say things don’t go according to plan, for either of them.
In theory, neither of the two scheming leads should be likeable, but their charm and wit shine through their underhanded deeds. Besides, considering some of the other rogues you’ll encounter, the protagonists are positive saints in comparison. The game is told from each of their perspectives, although they do overlap at points, leading to a lot of humour coming from their unreliable narration. Rhys might claim that he gave a rousing and heart-felt speech, but Fiona corrects him by pointing out that he was begging on his knees. The pair come from different backgrounds and bicker, but as they recount their tales it’s obvious that there’s a (reluctant) friendship forming between them.
Telltale’s roots lie in comedy, but their recent output has seen them tackle more serious and dramatic source material. They’ve done so incredibly well, but it’s great to see them return to something that doesn’t take itself too seriously. One of my favourite moments here comes when Rhys attempts to stealthily kill a guard, only to fail and leave the guard mockingly unimpressed. There are moments like this throughout – another where Rhys unveils his heroic plan (visually enacted for the player), only to realise no-one is listening by the end is another highlight. The humour is perfectly pitched through both dialogue and presentation, so be sure to examine every item you can so you won’t miss any little jokes.
That’s not to say that the game is without tension, however. Following the same lines as other recent Telltale titles, player choice is at its core. While the decisions may not feel that significant on paper – like choosing whether or not to tell someone your name or whether you should fire your lone bullet when an opportunity arises – it’s the context that makes them impactful. There’s a bar that gives you limited time to choose what to say or do, which puts pressure on you to think on your feet, maintains a realistic dialogue flow, and makes you feel actively involved in the story playing out.
While it’s difficult to assess just how much long-term impact your choices will have, that’s kind of irrelevant. When you’re making these decisions they are important in that moment because of the emotion you’ve invested in the story. While you might not be having any true effect on the actual outcome, it still feels like you’re shaping the journey that Rhys and Fiona are travelling. It’s about making you feel like you’re in each character’s shoes, building their personalities further with each small moment. It may be just an illusion of choice, but the question is whether the illusion is convincing, and for me I think it works perfectly. Even in a comedic setting like this, you still feel the weight of your actions.
While there is a very limited inventory, there are essentially no puzzles in this game, as the focus is on dialogue and action sequences. There isn’t even much freedom to explore. A few times you’ll get to freely roam around a self-contained environment, but these areas are always small and fairly few and far between. Rhys has a special bionic eye that he can use to scan certain objects, allowing him to discover more information about them (though purely for additional trivia fun so far) or to automatically hack electronics, which is a welcome touch. There are a lot of Quick Time Events, requiring you to push certain keys or buttons with directional stick or mouse movements to match what appears on screen. These take place during high-octane action scenes, all of them staged on a grand scale and very exciting. Although the gameplay in these scenes amounts to nothing more than tapping buttons and pressing in a specific direction when indicated, you still feel completely involved. Slow reactions can lead to death and a game-over screen, but they aren’t particularly difficult, and if you do die you’ll simply be taken back to a few moments before to try again.
Near the beginning of the game there is a fight between Rhys and Vaughn versus a bunch of bandits, which at first seems to be incredibly one-sided in favour of the latter. However, Rhys draws upon the help of a Loader Bot, a souped-up fighting machine whose load out you can customise before deploying it. And so begins an epic battle, letting you shoot and smash your way to safety. Though the actual danger is fairly minimal, the level of pressure is incredible thanks to tight camera angles, pumping music and time constraints. This sequence flawlessly sets the tone of this messed-up and violent universe.
There are quieter moments as well, though I wish there were more of them. Conversations between characters do happen, but individually they never really last that long. Everyone is so intriguing and off-kilter that I wanted to spend more time with them all to get to know them better. For example, Sasha loves weapons and is initially untrusting, but that’s all I really took away from her, despite the fact that she tags along a lot of the time. This is still just the first episode, of course, meaning there will be plenty more opportunity to further flesh out her character.
Everyone you meet is wonderfully varied. Vasquez has slicked-back black hair, a full beard and a condescending attitude that turns you off him straight away. Guarding a dodgy Pandorian pub is a short, bulky, huge-eared gruff who isn’t in the mood for playing nice. Shade, described as “not in the least bit insane”, has huge glasses, a cocktail umbrella sticking out of his hat and rotting teeth – you’ll quickly suspect that his description has more than a hint of sarcasm about it. People are weird, rough and funny (sometimes all at once) and you’ll cherish every moment you get to spend around them.
Bringing these characters to life is a cast of incredibly talented voice actors, making the jokes pop and the threats linger. Sometimes they put emphasis on a line that you wouldn’t at first expect, giving it a totally different meaning. Conversations flow so naturally that you’ll swear the real actors must have all been in the studio recording their dialogue together. It’s hard to single someone out as standout, simply because everyone is equally deserving. Vasquez’s sneering contempt (voiced by the always excellent Patrick Warburton), Vaughn’s whimpering naivety, Felix’s mentoring tones… all are excellently performed and thoroughly convincing.
It’s worth noting that you don’t need to have played any of the Borderlands games to find enjoyment here. There were probably references that flew over my head, but it doesn’t matter because they’re not overt. Fans of the series will likely enjoy the nods, but for me they merely became part of the story. One such example is a character called Zer0, some sort of deadly assassin who pops up intermittently. I suspected he had an existing role within the universe, which I learned to be true when I looked it up afterwards, but his presence just made the world feel more compelling to me rather than a plot element I wasn’t privy to – other stories are taking place next to mine, but they aren’t necessarily the focus, at least for now.
Without a doubt one of the best aspects of Tales from the Borderlands is its audio-visual quality. Although the dusty, desert world of Pandora really isn’t a place you’d want to live, it’s made pretty tempting thanks to an incredible art style. There’s a vibrancy everywhere you go, with lurid and contrasting colours employed to good effect, yet you can almost feel the grit and grime that lingers on everything. One of the most striking moments is when you first take control of Fiona, stepping out of trailer and walking down a narrow alleyway at dusk. Lanterns hang down and fluorescent lights on a pub exterior glow in the distance. A man gets thrown out of a side door and… well, I’ll let you discover his fate for yourselves. It’s dark, seedy and mysterious, but it pulls you in immediately.
Another great scene is when Rhys climbs up a steep canyon rock, the camera pulling back to reveal spotlights beaming up, the Hyperion space base floating in the sky above and some sort of industrial site below. It’s a striking image, but it’s only a taste of what’s to come. The punchy pace constantly keeps you moving and ending up in new locations. But every place you go is memorable and looks completely different. Another cleverly designed locale is an unsettling abandoned museum of sorts, whose halls are in total darkness, apart from the disconcertingly bright bars of yellow light that highlight the strange exhibits.
There’s a heist movie vibe to the whole proceedings as well, something like the Oceans trilogy, famed for its slick presentation. The quick camera cuts, the pans with accompanying swoosh noises, the slow motion… the entire direction here is just downright cool. Even touches like the way characters are introduced with a huge splash of colour and massive text displaying their name go a long way in creating a distinctive comic book vibe.
Complementing everything perfectly is the soundtrack, once again masterfully composed by Telltale regular Jared Emerson-Johnson. At times jaunty and carefree, at others zippy and electronic, the music beautifully keeps the tempo of the game, like the heightened energy of the synths that accompany a scene where Fiona’s plan seems to be falling apart. Elsewhere, in a big battle sequence the drums and horns kick in, greatly intensifying the urgency of the situation. It works well in low-key moments too, like the echoing strings that whine away in the desert, creating a real Western vibe. The only issue in the otherwise flawless audio is that sometimes the music is too loud to hear the voices, but this only happened occasionally. While you can manually turn down the music volume, it’s an odd disparity when the audio is balanced fine the majority of the time.
Zer0 Sum is an absolutely stellar opening episode that draws you into the seedy world of Tales from the Borderlands with that unique Telltale touch. I cannot wait to see where this story goes next, to be able to jump back into this world and spend more time with its bizarre characters. At around 2½ hours in length, I certainly felt like I’d got plenty of bang for my buck by the end. This is a high-adrenaline story light on actual adventuring but full of cinematic action and laughter. If a puzzle-intensive game is what you’re looking for, this definitely isn’t it, but otherwise this debut episode is thoroughly recommended without hesitation, regardless of whether you have any existing interest in Borderlands or not. I’ll reserve final judgment until all episodes are in, but so far so excellent, and here’s hoping the standard is maintained.
Episode Two - Atlas Mugged
“Yes, yes, it’s been a while. Everyone knows.”
These are the words spoken over the opening of the second episode of Tales from the Borderlands. It’s the first of many self-referential jokes to come, but it’s true: it has been a while. Four months between episodes, to be exact. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to be swept right back up into Telltale’s entertaining exploits on the world of Pandora.
Having just found out about the Gortys Project, the group discover a clue on where to go for more information, as well as the riches they’ve lost. They soon get separated, leaving Rhys and Vaughn attempting to evade Vasquez, and Fiona and Sasha on the run from various bounty hunters. In amongst the chaos, moments of downtime are provided where we learn more about the protagonists’ relationships and are given a chance to shape them further. Some of the secondary characters are also fleshed out more, especially Vasquez and August. These are villainous characters, but we’re shown that they have human sides to them too… or at least pieces, if not a full side. They’re still trying to kill our heroes after all, but hints at a bullied past or misguided love show that there’s more than might meet the eye.
Although each pair is heading towards the secret facility on Pandora, not much of consequence really happens just yet. Having waited so long for this second episode, it’s disappointing to be largely treading water. Bricks are clearly being put in place and threads introduced which will surely come into play later, but it would have been nice to see some sort of payoff here. It wouldn’t be a problem if this lull were embedded within a full game, but as a standalone episode it’s slightly muted in storytelling.
Not many of the player choices seem to have much obvious impact on proceedings either, though one comes when Rhys is deciding where he and Vaughn should travel to first, with things playing out differently for Fiona and Sasha depending on the decision. The differences between these two options aren’t gigantic, but it’s enough to be intriguing and it’ll be especially interesting to see what effect it has on future episodes. Another big choice literally comes at the end of the episode, forming the basis of a cliffhanger.
Although this finale is certainly a thrilling way to end, it’s unfortunate because it comes at a point when it feels like things are really getting going. There are a few exhilarating action scenes that come before it, like an epic confrontation with an ugly monster in the barren Pandora desert, and a high octane foot chase through the town streets, but this ending scene finally feels like something big is about to happen, and to cut it short can only be described as a letdown.
That’s not to say Atlas Mugged isn’t still enjoyable, however – it certainly is. The humour is still in absolute top form, thanks in part to the proper introduction of Handsome Jack. The former owner of Hyperion, now dead and living inside Rhys’s head, takes a short time to get used to his mortality, but then finds joy in messing with his host. Handsome Jack is cocky, sarcastic and not a savoury soul, but it’s hard not to find him entertaining. He doesn’t care what he says and is only truly looking out for himself, but since Rhys is the only one who can see him it leads to some funny moments, like when he’s egging Rhys on to make fun of Vasquez’s past.
There are also a lot of meta jokes that work really well with the irreverent nature of the Borderlands universe. When a new character named Scooter is introduced, a woman-obsessed but ultimately well-meaning mechanic, he poses for the flashy introduction card, only for the camera to pull out and leave everyone else confused as to what he’s doing. Another great moment is when it’s time to decide where to send Rhys and Vaughn, with the former constantly beating home the point that this is a big decision.
Surprisingly for a current wave of Telltale games, there are actually moments that could be considered puzzles and exploration, like at the beginning where you have to figure out how to activate a retinal scanner. It’s definitely nothing taxing, considering the limited environmental interaction and the inability to actually choose specific things from your inventory (thus making any solution pretty obvious), but it’s nice to be let off the rails for a bit, however slightly.
While it’s taken for granted by now that the voice acting will be absolutely stellar, with a golden cast that puts not a single foot (or voice box!) wrong, special praise should be given to Dameon Clarke as Handsome Jack, successfully providing the necessary menace and charm. The visual presentation is also excellent, with use of slow motion, swinging camera angles and a punchy colour palette all lending vibrancy and life to the world.
While it’s a shame it took so long for the follow-up instalment, and it isn’t quite as engrossing or meaningful as what came before, Atlas Mugged is still a slick and enjoyable adventure. At less than two hours of play time, it’s shorter than the first, ending disappointingly early, but it left me eager to see how things are going to play out next.
Episode Three - Catch a Ride
The previous episode ended with a cliffhanger trust exercise: Jack or Fiona? The former is an egotistical psychopath and the latter is a smooth talking con artist. Schemer she may be, but Fiona has proven herself more friend than foe, while Handsome Jack has been nothing but manipulative, if not oddly endearing – it was an obvious decision for me. The third episode, Catch a Ride, doesn’t waste much time before showing you the outcome of your choice.
As it turns out, that choice actually has an impact on how certain elements of the story play out. It’s not massively game-changing as everything will still head in the same direction anyway, but there are differences, like which characters are present for the first couple of acts and how some of the team’s relationships develop. I won’t say more for risk of spoiling, but it’s good to see a player choice that actually has visible ripples. It’s a stride in the right direction when it comes to decisions actually having relevant meaning, and allows the episode to stand up for at least a second play through, though you’ll need to rewind your last decision in Episode 2 to see the difference.
Introduced here is Gortys, a robot created by Atlas in order to hunt down Vaults as part of the Gortys Project. Voiced by a wonderful Ashley Johnson, this new companion is delightfully innocent and an excellent addition to the team. She has a childlike excitement and naivety about everything, which can lead to some hilarious moments. A particular standout is when Gortys continually tries to drag a… shall we say, unresponsive body by the foot, convinced that the person is just being a slowpoke and not wanting to move with the group.
The arrival of Gortys provides the thrust of the story since not all of her parts are present, so our motley crew now need to hunt them down, all the while being chased by a detestable kingpin named Mallory. This leads them to an Atlas terraforming facility, which is completely unlike any setting that’s been shown on Pandora so far – not least because there is actually vegetation. The typical barren or industrial scenes are replaced with an appealing and enchanting habitat that’s bathed in purple, with glowing plants and mystical creatures. It’s a welcome contrast and makes Catch a Ride an aesthetic standout.
As is to be expected, the humour is on top form throughout. The introduction of Gortys gives Loader Bot a new mechanical buddy, which allows the pair to have some great interactions. They each have their own comedic moments, and Loader Bot is especially strong at his snappy one-liners, but when they’re together they really shine. There’s a moment when they’re just chilling in the background, discussing what is up with Rhys’ fashion sense, which is particularly funny.
However, the tone isn’t all comedy. There are some genuine emotional moments here, albeit often with a joke just around the corner. For example, more time is spent developing the relationships between Rhys and Sasha, which takes an unexpected but appreciated turn. Fiona is also beginning to work out who she wants to be and whether hunting Vaults is really for her. The colourful characters are the best thing about Tales from the Borderlands, so to have them evolve as they’re fleshed out is great – and raises loads of questions about the future, which makes the lengthy gaps between episodes even more frustrating.
There’s still plenty of action packed in too, which is often thrilling and helps keep a varied pace, but herein lies my biggest criticism with Catch a Ride. It was actually difficult to tell precisely what was going on sometimes, simply because the camera shots would cut too quickly or be positioned at an awkward angle. Also, there were many times when the game noticeably lagged for me during these scenes, which drew me out of the moment. I’m playing on the Xbox 360 and it wasn’t a particular problem in the first two episodes, so I’m not sure if this is a dodgy port or just a sign of Telltale’s aging engine. Either way it’s unacceptable, especially because it can make timing the button presses of Quick Time Events cumbersome.
I also encountered a bug where my game froze completely while saving; rebooting the game just loaded me back to the same frozen screen. I had to use the rewind function to play again from the beginning of the chapter. It’s not a big deal, but inconvenient, and partly highlights the inefficiencies of a save system which auto-saves at particular moments, rather than when the player chooses. There were times when I needed to stop playing but wasn’t able to save, meaning I just had to leave the console running. This isn’t an issue unique to this episode, but one that became apparent to me while playing.
Despite these technical blips, Catch a Ride is another excellent entry into Telltale’s Borderlands series – the soundtrack, voice acting and comedy are all superb and the cast is expanded with some worthy additions. There is some freeform exploration, limited to the particular environment you’re in at that moment, but the experiencer is essentially on-rails and there are no actual puzzles to speak of, but that’s pretty much expected at this point. And at around two hours in length, it’s averagely the same size as the preceding episodes. Not only am I excited to find out how things play out from this point on, I’m particularly intrigued as to how the present day Fiona and Rhys got into the situation they’re in. If the quality continues as it is, this is shaping up to be one of Telltale’s strongest modern day adventures.
Episode Four - Escape Plan Bravo
There’s something to be said for a game that can swing between the disgusting, the hilarious and the emotional, often within minutes of each other, and still make it feel genuine. If you’ve made it up to this far in Tales from the Borderlands, chances are you’ve enjoyed what has come before. And you’ll get more of the same in the penultimate episode, which is by no means a bad thing: you can never have too much snappy dialogue spoken by oddly charming characters in a bizarre universe brought to life with excellent visual and audio direction.
Escape Plan Bravo sees our cast of misfits rocket off into space to find the next piece of the Gortys Project. This means the cutthroat desert planet of Pandora is left behind for the equally cutthroat moonbase of Helios. This episode brings back the heist stylings that were present in the first – complete with a rocking opening credits sequence – with the gang needing to wrangle their way through the Hyperion operation to break into Handsome Jack’s office and steal the piece they need.
There’s less all-out action on offer this time, but the experience doesn’t suffer for the most part. Apart from one scene where Fiona is acting as a tour guide, which is neither particularly funny nor engaging, each moment is on point. There’s a specific sequence involving finger guns and Hyperion’s accountants which is wonderfully surreal and inspired – to say more would ruin it, but it’s one of the most memorable parts of the entire series. It’s hinted at early on in the episode, but the turn it takes is completely unexpected and loopy. (And trust me, seeing is believing; knowing it’s coming ahead of time spoils nothing.)
Though Vaughn and Loader Bot take a definite back seat this time, the trade-off is that we get far more of Handsome Jack. And while it would have been nice to have more than a few lines from the former (if that’s even possible from Vaughn, depending on your choices from last episode), there’s no disappointment from the endearingly villainous Jack. His snide remarks and sarcastic comments are delivered to perfection, casually popping up holographically on Rhys’s shoulder or floating around the room, seemingly without a care. However, pointing out a picture of Jack’s daughter brings about genuine distress, something which helps shape him into more than just a homicidal manipulator.
This episode also sees the welcome return of Patrick Warburton’s Vasquez, though perhaps not in the way you’d expect, and the loveable mechanic Scooter. This is a series bursting with fun characters, so it’s good to see these two get a bit more screen time. In fact, one of them is involved in one of the most emotional moments of the series to date. That said, it didn’t affect me nearly as much as anything from, say, The Walking Dead, mainly because the relationship wasn’t as deeply developed or the atmosphere as bleak. But that’s not necessarily a drawback; even amidst the comic insanity of the Borderlands world, it’s still a touching scene.
There are once again no puzzles of note and even the gameplay is thin on the ground. There’s one part where you can change your outfit if you choose, but that’s really the extent of player interaction beyond a few small environmental examinations and the usual Quick Time and dialogue events. Unfortunately, though it’s perhaps to be expected at this point, it’s a letdown to see that player choices still don’t really have any significant impact. Not only do the majority of decisions not feel weighty or particularly relevant in the grand scheme of things, the difference between some of them is just a couple of sentences in response. For example, one choice involves deciding whether to let the tour group attempt to walk through a dangerous protective force field. The difference in outcome is purely cosmetic, and with the plot stakes so high for the protagonists at that point, it’s odd that such decision-making importance is given to totally superfluous characters.
Nevertheless, there are some opportunities to test your truthfulness, even when that truth might be hard to admit. Whether you tell Fiona and Sasha about Jack’s presence, or Athena’s girlfriend about the bounty hunter’s real pastime is up to you. These quieter, more grounded moments are brief, but they highlight just how much of a vital role these character relationships have in connecting and investing you in the story. Of greater note is the concluding five minutes, where things really do become interesting; a lot has been building up to this moment and the decision you make here results in a tantalising cliffhanger.
Coming in shy of two hours, Escape Plan Bravo is another short but enjoyable episode of Tales from the Borderlands. Everything is now ramped up for the finale and it’s going to be exciting to see how it all comes together. We’re still no closer to figuring out who’s captured present-day Rhys and Fiona, for example, let alone tying up all of the other loose ends flying around. Here’s hoping the last episode will be able to do that successfully, and that we won’t have to wait too long to get it. Until then, this episode may not offer much in the way of player agency, but it’s still a fun-filled journey through this delightfully cuckoo world.
Episode Five - The Vault of the Traveler
It’s taken almost an entire year to get here, but Telltale has finally completed their Tales from the Borderlands series with the launch of the fifth and final episode. Happily, each instalment has always been worth the wait, and The Vault of the Traveler is no exception. It is a funny and thrilling climax to Fiona and Rhys’s story, featuring some grand set pieces and lovely character moments. Apart from some technical flaws and a few dramatic hiccups, this is a worthy and engrossing conclusion to the tale.
With the previous episode’s final decision hinging on whether you go all in with Handsome Jack or not, the opening here presents the result of that choice. Of course, we all know that however dashing the former head of Hyperion is, a better name for him would be Insanely Evil Jack. There’s really only one way this is heading, which is a grand display of Jack’s malice. It’s been established in earlier episodes that he isn’t the kind of guy you should mess with, but here he’s back in full force. Even without a physical presence, Jack is simultaneously menacing, charming and despicable as he taunts and endangers the lead characters.
The main focus of the finale is figuring out exactly what’s going on with present day Rhys and Fiona, who are still being held by a mystery assailant, and finally trying to crack open the Vault they’ve been hunting the whole time. Most plot threads and previously unanswered questions are tied up nicely, though some feel cheap. The reveal of a lost friend’s whereabouts, for example, is obvious and doesn’t make much sense, but it can be forgiven. What feels particularly shoehorned in is a brief scene you can share with a character from an earlier episode, providing you make a specific gameplay choice. I felt it invalidated this character’s previous behaviour and lessened its impact. The entire interaction should have been cut.
At the other end of the spectrum, the identity of the protagonists’ captor is a believable surprise – you won’t see it coming, and it’s an awesome moment. There are some other excellent story and character moments as well, and the game remains punchy and never drags. In one scene there’s dust kicking up everywhere, a vertical beam shooting up from the ground with a giant robotic figure looming in the distance. It’s wonderfully atmospheric and manages to feel almost claustrophobic in its near-impenetrable haze, despite the actual scale of the open environment around you. Gortys is present here, urging Fiona to do something unspeakable but necessary. Voice actress Ashley Johnson deserves credit for putting such urgency and desperation into these lines while still maintaining the bot’s core lovable innocence.
Once the story fully picks up in the present day, a significant portion of the second half is spent on a key set piece brawl. Before this occurs, however, you get to make some choices, the options for which hinge on what sort of impression you’ve left on people throughout the other episodes. While your selections are ultimately meaningless in terms of the overall outcome, it’s a fun way to tie everything together and is a neat consequence of the choice system.
The scene that follows makes some of the best use of Quick Time Events in the whole series, during an intense battle scene that serves up more complexity than anything we’ve seen so far. There were times I actually failed to press the button combo correctly, which was a first (though occasional mistakes did not prove fatal). These arcade-style combat sequences are very obviously game-like, but they’re implemented so well in context that they suit the moment perfectly, putting you right in the midst of the action.
The game isn’t all fighting and button-mashing, of course, asThe Vault of the Traveler also has some touching moments. They usually occur when characters are left alone to talk, and it’s these quieter parts that feel most genuine. When the story tries to pack more of an obvious emotional punch, it doesn’t quite achieve the intended effect. Death surrounds you, but I never really feared it, partly because it’s devalued on multiple occasions – deus ex machina, come on down! That’s not to say I didn’t feel connected or invested in the story, because I did, but the series is much better at letting emotion come out naturally through the dialogue than larger dramatic events.
For example, fairly early on, in the aftermath of untold destruction, we’re treated to an intimate scene with Rhys and Jack where the latter tries to convince the former of their similarities. This conversation offers further glimpses into Jack’s backstory, including his family relationships, which are great because they help ground the character and make him more human. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still difficult to feel sympathy for him, but everyone has light and dark shades, and in Jack we finally get to see both. I won’t detail any more of the scene, but it is an excellent culmination of the two men’s shared journey through the series, and is probably one of the best dialogue exchanges across all five episodes. The final lines from Jack are especially poignant.
Throughout all the death, destruction and moving emotional scenes, this episode retains the trademark Borderlands humour. Whether it’s Jack’s mocking tones, Rhys getting confused over who’s playing good and bad cop in an interrogation, or any line spoken by a very special Vault Hunter, this is still a funny game. Though perhaps less zany and wild in the comedy department than the preceding episodes, the experience doesn’t suffer for it because the jokes are well spread out and balanced against the serious moments.
A problem I experienced in earlier episodes but want to flag again is how incapable Telltale’s engine seems to be of supporting older hardware. I suppose it’s good that this is my largest criticism of Tales from the Borderlands, but it’s still a pain to have to highlight. Playing on the Xbox 360, the game would often chug when loading the next scene and be sluggish in some of the larger action sequences. There was one time when the entire game froze, forcing me to restart the console and play from the last save point. Considering the technical requirements of the game, it simply shouldn’t behave like that. I don’t know what the performance is like on other platforms, but I’ll avoid playing future Telltale games on aging consoles.
As The Vault of the Traveler drew to a close, I felt very satisfied by the conclusion and the journey as a whole. Following this cast of characters through their hilarious and hellish voyage has been delightful and overwhelmingly positive, despite the technical flaws and a few storytelling stumbles. Though ‘puzzle’ is no longer a word in their dictionary, Telltale are proving themselves to be the masters of cinematic storytelling in games. The lack of substantial gameplay won’t be everybody’s thing, but for those who want to invest time in a manic world, get to know a cast of hilarious misfits, and guide your own course on an epic ride through a gorgeous animated world, Tales from the Borderlands is guaranteed to entertain.
The quality of craftsmanship throughout this five-episode season has rarely faltered, from the slick graphics to top-notch music. There have been minor pacing and narrative weaknesses in individual episodes, and no doubt Telltale need to step it up in the technical department, but their ability to tell a gripping story that deftly weaves drama, action and comedy is second to none. It helps that the great writing is brought to life by an outstanding cast of actors, who do their job so well that you forget you’re watching fictional animated characters and listening to a script recorded in a studio.
For someone who had little interest in the Borderlands universe going into all this, I’m well and truly invested in the world now. Okay, so I won’t be picking up the main series shooters any time soon, but I’d jump at the chance to consume a second season of Tales – a possibility which the ending certainly invites. Make no mistake: this is far more interactive story than actual adventure game, and player choice is largely cosmetic in terms of actually impacting the outcome, but it is one of Telltale’s best modern games, which is certainly saying something. Whether you’re a fan of the gun-wielding Gearbox games or not, this one is definitely out-of-this-world and well worth a shot.
A superb game that excels in just about every area, held back only by one or two notable flaws or a collection of smaller ones that prevent the game from earning full marks.