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.Continued on the next page...