Telltale Games is known for two things: they resurrected the Sam & Max and Monkey Island franchises and have a number of episodic games based on other game, book or show franchises. And also they created a few poker games starring various game characters throwing hilarious one-liners at each other. And they are doing a great job at it. Case and point, the example we have before us, Tales From the Borderlands.
Before we start analyzing this interactive adventure game, let’s take a quick look at the series on which it’s based. The Borderlands series contains, apart from this one, 3 main games: Borderlands, Borderlands 2 and Borderlands the Pre-Sequel, which I wrote about here. All of them are Role Playing Shooters, which makes sense since loot is a huge part of Pandora and of the RPG genre, with cell shading graphics, tongue and cheek humor, over the top violence, great soundtracks and tons of memorable characters. Oh, and kickass intros. The action centers around the planet Pandora, its moon Elpis and the space station Helios, where Vaults are believed to lay hidden, chock full of alien tech, which are sought after by brave and sometimes mentally unstable individuals called Vault Hunters. Every game features 4 main characters, each with their own unique traits and abilities which can be played simultaneously in co-op mode. Each game has been a critical and financial success, so it made sense that such a lore-rich universe with this type of graphics and snappy characters could be expanded in adventure form by the Telltale crew. So here we are, with a finished season in hand. How did it hold up?
The answer is brilliantly. First thing I should mention is the humor, which comes in all shapes and sizes. Situational humor, gross-out humor, parodies, character humor, trope reversals, dialogue humor, reaction humor… In a mad environment like Pandora, one minute you’ll be quipping with your mates about some random subject, next minute you’ll be removing an eye from a seemingly dead general, get startled, crush the eye, then remove the other one just to find out later that you just had to initiate the revitalization procedure to get the general up and running. Moments like this encompass the variety of humor and its quality in this game, which successfully produced laughter. The last game I laughed at so much was South Park Stick of Truth, so that puts it, at least humor-wise, in very good company. Just as another example of spoofing, near the end of the game, there is a very amusing Power Rangers parody which, joy of joys, is done in context and not just as a gag.
Moving on from the concept of humor, let’s talk about its providers. As in the other installments I mentioned above, there is a main initial team of 4, out of which only 2 are controllable. The team is ever-changing in every episode, so here are the most important and relevant characters:
Rhys is a corporate stooge, a middle-manager for the Hyperion corporation, formerly run by the late Handsome Jack which you may recognize as the Borderlands 2 main antagonist. He has zero experience of Pandoran life, an ambition to climb to the top of the corporate heap regardless of the cost and is also a hacker.
The second playable character is the lovely, bowler hatted Fiona, a con artist looking for a big score and in the process colliding with Rhys. She has had a tough life, learning how to steal, con, lie and profit while doing so. Her main weapon is a hidden sleeve gun, ideal as a last option for someone used to talking her way out of tense situations.
Sasha is Fiona’s sister and loves her guns. As in fire arms. She is also partial to any type of tech which can be used in a destructive manner and, weirdly enough, to eerie plant life.
Vaughn starts out as Rhys’ friend and partner in corporate power struggles, a bespectacled, seemingly soft and weak finance guy who provides Rhys with money (initially, when executing their play), support and eventually fist bumps, in a sequence which made me roar with laughter.
Loader Bot is initially a tool of destruction, used by Rhys and Vaughn to escape a group of bandits. However, during the game, he becomes an integral part of the team and a great friend (at least if you don’t tell him to sacrifice himself). He also has the best one-liners in the game. Kind of reminds me of Maimtron from the Sam & Max games, except that robot only communicated via 80’s music lyrics.
Gortys is another bot, created by the Atlas corporation in order to gain access to the Vault of the Traveler, our protagonists’ final goal. She (apparently it identifies as female) is an innocent thrown into a world of whose brutality she is blissfully unaware. If I could characterize her in one moment, it would be her trying to get a clearly dead man to get up and come with the group on the adventure of a lifetime.
Apart from the main team, there are a score or more great characters who interact with the team, such as Felix, the sisters’ father/mentor figure, Athena, from Borderlands The Pre-Sequel, hired by him to trail the sisters, Vasquez, voiced by Patrick Warburton, the corporate nemesis of Rhys, Yvette, requisition officer and provider of Loader Bot, and also Rhys’ and Vaughn’s friend, August, a bar owner/crime boss, who helped set up the deal through which the 4 heroes met, Vallory, the Queenpin and sort of main antagonist, and so many more.
After that long-winded presentation, let us dive into the story, at least its beginning. The story is told from two perspectives, Rhys’ and Fiona’s. The perspectives succeed one after the other, completing the other’s story. In the beginning, of the game, we see Rhys and Fiona captured by a masked individual who seems very interested in both of their stories. This situation carries on for the rest of the game, and only near the middle of episode 5 do we discover his identity and move on to the awesome ending. Of course, because they each recount their own stories which sometimes interweave, sometimes they embroider them in very obvious, but awesomely funny ways (for example, Rhys claims that when the deal for the vault key was breaking down, he convinced August continue via an epic motivational speech, which Fiona immediately tears down with the real account).
For Rhys, it all starts with finding out that the boss who he had been sucking up to is now drifting peacefully outside the window of his own ex-office and that Vasquez has taken his rightful place. After demeaning and demoting him, Rhys finds a way of extracting some revenge by buying a vault key that Vasquez was interested in. After Vaughn appropriates 10 million$ worth of company funds and stealing Vasquez’s new car, the duo descends on Pandora to close the deal. After being attacked by bandits, they call in Loader Bot, Rhys gets himself a stun baton, his primary weapon for the foreseeable future and they kick some bandit ass. Arriving at the meeting, they meet August and Sasha, as we go back and see the other side of this story, the Fiona experience. I will not continue the story, as I would prefer for you to experience the rest for yourself. However, if you want glimpses of the rest of the game, you can view the gallery below.
The gameplay mechanics are easy and very similar to other recent Telltale games. Your main keys are WASDQE, for quick time event mashing and just moving around and of course the mouse for selecting dialogue options and objects. And then we get to the crux of any modern Telltale game, the choice system. As it is expected, these come in a few flavors. We have:
- Simple dialogue options which are usually timed and for which silence is an option
- Optional dialogue you can initiate during exploration modes with present colleagues which can lead to improvements in Rhys’ or Fiona’s relationship with them
- Critical timed choices, where silence is an option
- Game changing choices which are not timed (some of these are fake choices however, such as the one leading to the motivational speech I mentioned earlier)
Relationships with secondary characters, as you may expect, can have important consequences during certain events and in the case of the endgame they are crucial.
Apart from these classic genre elements, our main characters also have special abilities which help them along the way. As was mentioned before, Rhys has some hacking experience; however his party piece is his bionic eye which can analyze and identify game objects and characters, providing short and highly amusing descriptions. This eye will eventually be enhanced by a certain close and personal friend of sorts, which will expand his hacking power. His primary combat weapons are stun baton, his robotic arm and his endless will to survive while spouting amusing phrases and commentaries.
As Fiona is a con and thief, it makes sense that the developers gave her money gathering mechanics (which are rarely used) alongside the ability to spend said money on a few occasions. The amount of money can also open up new dialogue options and could open up a unique choice in the endgame. After a bit of training with Athena, Fiona unlocks the ability to visualize her possible options during fights, thus giving more variety to some fights. Her main combat weapon is her sleeve pistol created by Felix, which will eventually be enhanced with 3 effects: shock, immolation and corrosion. At some points, the player will have to make the right choice as to what kind of effect to use.
There are no puzzles, only small annoyances which can be resolved by looking around and utilizing a very small portion of your brain. Even though I personally regret the decline of the classic adventure genre, I have to admit that as an experience, the newer, sleek model driven by the decision tree is engaging and creates a different kind of satisfaction, different and yet similar to the satisfaction you used to get when completing a complicated and counter-intuitive or just very cleverly conceived puzzle. It has been replaced most successfully with navigating the seemingly complex decision tree to a sought result.
Graphic-wise, it’s what you would expect by this point from a Telltale game. It recreates the atmosphere from the other 3 games well using cell shading. Performance is very good, going at a steady 60 fps everywhere except for the loading screens. The character models are in the style of the other games, the textures are mostly simple but well employed and arranged and the environments look great. What this company can do using simpler graphics than one may encounter in other games is spectacular. They create an immersive atmosphere, true to the established world while simultaneously adding new elements which fit within it perfectly.
The cinematography is top notch, giving a lot of scenes the feel of a movie. The intros are particularly well done, each episode with its own music piece and original sequence which transitions from the previous situation to the next. The combat scenes are chaotic, violent and in most cases funny due to the many types of humor enumerated above. As for the audio, the tracks picked for the intros are spot on, the environmental music and sounds are well chosen for both normal and combat scenes and the voice acting is fantastic. Troy Baker, the voice of Rhys, is an established game voice actor and voiced Gul’dan in Warlords of Draenor, the Joker in the last Batman games, Booker DeWitt from Bioshock Infinite and so many more. Patrick Warburton plays the self-centered, corporate douche Vasquez, who is a delight in every scene he is in.
For all of its excellence, each game has a few faults, and in this case they are nitpicks and nothing more. A couple of times characters just disappeared from sight while standing in the background, more exploration alongside more scannable objects wouldn’t have been amiss and there and some of the textures could have been a bit more refined.
All in all, Tales from the Borderlands Season 1 is a must-buy if you are a fan of the Borderlands universe or if you are into quality humor and are not squeamish to some blood and gore. Oh, did I mention you get to peel a face off a sleeping psycho with bombs strapped to him? That’s gotta be worth the buy, right?
Tales from the Borderlands: EXCELLENT (shite, mediocre, good, excellent).