The Borderlands games have managed the impressive feat of carving out a distinct identity and firmly staying put against a tidal wave of ever more monotonous first-person shooters. The strength of the franchise has been a core of loot-driven, trigger-happy run-and-gun FPS gameplay with RPG elements, wrapped in a generous helping of wacky humor. This makes Telltale Games’ spin on the Borderlands universe an interesting one, entirely swapping out the FPS mechanics with the now genre-standard conversation-driven adventure format. I’m intrigued by a Borderlands game where your strongest weapon is your wit, but while they certainly nail the absurd humor, I could to without the halfhearted attempts at adding drama to the mix.
The middle manager and the con artist
The game is set on and around the desolate planet Pandora, where unwelcoming residents and hostile wildlife greet strangers (and each other) with loaded guns and open jaws. Unusually for a Telltale game, Tales from the Borderlands sports two radically different protagonists: Rhys is a cybernetically enhanced corporate dork working for the megacorporation Hyperion on a giant space station orbiting Pandora, trying to work his way up the corporate ladder. Fiona is a sharp-witted conwoman trying to get by down on Pandora, and is in many ways everything Rhys is not. The framing device for most of the game is Rhys and Fiona retelling the story of how they met and the absurd events that followed, spiraling out of control into ever higher stakes.
The setup works well, and the switching between Rhys and Fiona lends itself to very good pacing of the story; I never grew tired of either of them. For example, in the first episode, Rhys and Fiona detail the same events from two very different perspectives, each embellishing ever so slightly their own feats and merits and calling the other out on their bullshit. This makes for an interesting narrative dynamic. The end result is a high-octane story about a crew of incredibly likable misfits overcoming (or not) challenges, trust issues, and impossible odds.
No surprises in the mechanics department
It should come as no surprise that Tales from the Borderlands sticks to the tried and true Telltale recipe, and you know what that means: loosely timed conversations, the occasional “free-roaming” around a room interacting with objects, and when it comes to the action, you’d better enjoy quick-time events. This includes, of course, pressing the correct arrow key, as well as mashing Q to build up a meter1 and occasionally releasing all that stored-up Meter Energy™ with E.
In the final episode, the quick-time events even evolve into multi-key combos, though that particular sequence was actually quite entertaining and well executed with a clear nod to fighting games of old (I expect Telltale has given the combos enough thought that seasoned players of Tekken et al. will recognize some combos, though any such details were entirely lost on me). Of course, things are never too difficult – this is a Telltale game, after all, and they know that frequently failing quick-time events draws players out of the experience (though the one time I failed, it was comically written of as an embellishment gone awry, and another attempt was made to tell what really happened, not unlike Monkey Island 2).
During free-roaming sessions, a few new mechanics have been introduced, though most are rather pointless. Both Rhys and Fiona have an inventory, but you have no choice about when to pick up or use items. Additionally, Fiona can pick up money, which you can spend on certain seemingly pointless items throughout the episodes (perhaps a nod to other games’ selling of cosmetic upgrades). Finally, Rhys has a cybernetic eye you can use to scan items in the environment. This provides a bit more context on certain objects, with admittedly quite humorous descriptions at times, though it is a bit annoying having to stop and enter this so-called ECHO vision all the time when you’re moving around.
Players of previous Telltale games will find no surprises in the conversation system, the game’s main mechanic. You have a certain amount of time to pick a dialogue option, and occasionally have to make a binary Important™ decision. As you would expect, the illusion of your choices actually mattering is pretty strong, even though you might be fully aware that they really don’t in Telltale games: The same things will still happen, only for slightly different reasons, or with a slightly different tone to the conversations.2 Not that these subtle shifts aren’t valuable: Do Rhys and Fiona act out of compassion or pragmatism? Revenge or defense? Though the outcome may be the same, your constantly adjusting the moral boundaries of the characters makes the events more compelling.
Of course, there’s the odd shortcoming here, too. In particular, I’m still annoyed at Telltale’s inclination towards having an endgame part where seemingly random choices you’ve made throughout the episodes come back to haunt and punish you, and Tales from the Borderlands is no exception; in fact, some of the choices seem more randomly selected than ever.
Good comedy, shallow drama
On a lighter note, I’m happy to inform that they nail the humor. Whether it’s situational comedy arising from interaction between the dysfunctional antiheroes in absurd situations or a ridiculously over-the-top finger-gun fight among the otherwise stuck-up corporate goofs at Hyperion, I found myself laughing out loud at several occasions, and that’s no mean feat. The dark and absurd humor will feel familiar to anyone having played previous Borderlands games, and fans can look forward to encounters with several well-liked and much-disdained characters, from the haiku-dispensing emoji-faced samurai robot Zer0 to … well, I hardly want to spoil things, so let’s leave it at that.
I do take issue with Telltale’s halfhearted attempts at drama, though. I realize this isn’t The Walking Dead, nor is it intended to be. Even at its most bleak, the story of Tales from the Borderlands is lightened by mostly well-timed quips and comic relief. But that doesn’t change the fact that the game still tries to make you care about the characters and then cash in on your emotional engagement by putting them in distress. This is a perfectly valid and widely used strategy, but if you fail to pull it off convincingly, the illusion shatters and the experience suffers for it. When you clearly see which emotions the game tries and fails to evoke, the result – for me at least – is a feeling of emotional detachment rather than engagement. This is particularly true of the infuriatingly clichéd and predictable ending, which left somewhat of a sour taste in my mouth.
The ending could be forgiven if the story was otherwise quite good, but sadly it isn’t. It’s simply not very interesting, which is another part of the reason for my limited emotional involvement. The characters and the dynamics between them are well executed and certainly a piece of the puzzle they got right, but the story is riddled with plot holes and several events which don’t really make much sense. And the phrase deus ex machina often takes on a quite literal form in this game, though not so overtly that you’d think Telltale was doing it deliberately.
When all is said and done, the story seems to exist solely for the purpose of setting up jokes and deliver ever more crazy action sequences. This works well for the over-the-top action-oriented shooters, but not for this story-driven game. The result is that it all feels a bit shallow, particularly the more emotional parts. Borderlands fans deeply invested in the universe might get some interesting lore out of the game (though lore and worldbuilding was hardly ever the focus of the franchise), but even as a fan I often found myself bored during the ten hours I spent playing. Several of Telltale’s previous series, such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, manage in various degrees to speak to the human condition, but this has been cut down to the bare minimum in Tales from the Borderlands (by which I mean, the amount you practically get for free just by having a motley crew in dire straits).
Great voice acting can’t save it all
I’m not saying the game entirely fails at conveying any kind of emotion, though. Great voice acting can certainly save a modicum of emotional investment, and Telltale is quite adept at finding skilled voice actors. Telltale veteran Erin Yvette (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Oxenfree, Firewatch) does a great job as Fiona’s sister and partner-in-crime Sasha, and the protagonists themselves are voiced by none other than Troy Baker (The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite) and Laura Bailey (Uncharted 4, Halo 5). Even certain minor roles are filled by well-known voices, such as Nolan North (Nathan Drake from Uncharted) and Phil LaMarr (Hermes from Futurama). I would also be remiss not to mention Ashley Johnson, whose fabulous performance awarded her a BTVA “Best Female Vocal Performance in a Video Game in a Supporting Role”, though to avoid spoilers I’ll let you discover which role yourself.
And of course, I’m happy to report that the voices of the original Borderlands games return for all relevant appearances, with performances fully on par with what players familiar with Borderlands would expect. ‘Nuff said, less spoiled.
Still, good voice acting can only do so much on its own, and unfortunately, the rest of the audiovisual presentation can’t quite keep up. While the cel-shaded style familiar from previous Telltale games is a perfect fit for a Borderlands game, it is clear that Telltale’s game engine is long overdue for a major overhaul. Graphical quirks, visually buggy scene breaks, evocative music abruptly stopping on loading screens, sound effects clipping and peaking – these are problems most games got rid of long ago. Furthermore, the game is a bit icky to play using mouse and keyboard, and try as I might, I couldn’t get it to work with the otherwise well-supported Xbox 360 controller.
Tales from the Borderlands isn’t a bad game. Both the main and supporting characters are likable, and the switching between two protagonists works really well and is something I would welcome in future games. If you enjoy the Borderlands humor, you’ll feel right at home here too, and most voice actors do a great job, whether it’s snappy one-liners or deliberately awkward attempts at conversation.
If you’re a fan of the Borderlands setting or enjoyed previous Telltale games, you might want to give it a closer look. Tales from the Borderlands manages to weave the nonsense Borderlands lore into its own setting without feeling overly contrived or (I suspect) overwhelming for newcomers to the franchise. That being said, I have no doubt that players familiar with previous Borderlands games will get just a bit more bang for their buck.
Unfortunately, there are simply too many flies in the ointment for me to wholeheartedly and unequivocally recommend this game, even to existing Borderlands or Telltale fans. My main gripe is the shallow story and the failed attempts at drama, though perhaps that’s just my current personal tastes and predispositions speaking – your mileage may vary. I’m also annoyed at the old and tired game engine, wrapping the whole package up more shoddily than it deserves.
All in all, I don’t regret playing it, but I wouldn’t say my life had been notably less rich if I never had.
The intention is good and the humor is great, but a shallow story, failed attempts at drama and a tired game engine makes this a shoddily wrapped mixed bag which you may or may not enjoy.