Tales from the Borderlands Review – Borderline Borderlands

Posted Dec 30, 2015
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  • Developer/Publisher: Telltale
  • Platform: PC ($39.99), PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360
  • PC version tested. Review code provided by the publisher.

Taking a successful product and ditching everything everybody loves about it is a bold move, and it usually doesn’t pay off. It’d be like a Beatles rap album, or cough syrup without the crippling addiction and endless debt. Somewhere along the way, Gearbox and Telltale decided they could make a story-driven Borderlands game without loot, shooting and co-op. So, what happens when you bin the best and run with the rest?

“Borderlands story” might seem like a massive contradiction in terms. It’s always been there, underneath all the mindless carnage and references to memes so old even Grandma’s dropping them into casual conversation. The focus has always been away from the plot and squarely in other areas, though.

But somewhere beneath all the bloodshed was a world filled with memorable characters, iconic locations and surprising events. Telltale took up the task of bringing those things to the forefront. In that regard, it’s important to note that this is very much a Telltale game. Their staple design decisions – facial expressions as subtle as a public vasectomy being the first of many to come to mind – are almost as important to Tales from the Borderlands as anything Gearbox has done.

The story begins by introducing one of your main protagonists, Rhys, a lowly middle manager at Hyperion. The evil corporation is still chugging along after the death of Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2, but Rhys’s promotion is ripped away from him at the last minute by real life superhero Patrick Warburton. Within minutes, you can see both how great the dialogue will be and how little influence on anything your decisions will have. Before long, you find yourself on Pandora, trying to pull off a deal that’ll humiliate your boss and take you straight to the top.

It’s at this point that the second protagonist, Fiona, is introduced. She’s a con-artist and owner of overrated hats. Having multiple player characters is something that Telltale have experimented with in the past, but here it really comes into its own. Seeing every situation from two perspectives – neither one fully reliable – makes the story really pop.

The first episode is good enough, but the pacing seems off. It’s when things start heating up and you begin to see a few familiar faces that Tales from the Borderlands really comes into its own. There’s certainly the recipe for success in the opening few hours, but it’s from that point on that things become really interesting.

Interaction is the key, and seeing the characters’ growth becomes increasingly interesting as you learn to love them. The dialogue really is fantastically written, and the little asides and running gags make Tales as good as it is. Without the high quality of humor and strong characters, there wouldn’t have been a game at all.

There are a few issues, anyway. Sometimes, characters seem to change their motivation between episodes and there are people and locations that have clearly just been pushed in for the sake of it. It seems unlikely that there wasn’t some grand plot plan when the first episode was finished,  but it would explain a lot if the writers were just making it up as they went along. Enemies suddenly become friends, characters practically disappear and stupid things happen so that they can push the next section of the story.

Like all Telltale games, the decisions you make have a fairly shallow influence on events. Dialogue options may change and perhaps certain characters won’t make it as far in the story as they otherwise would, but the basic framework is very much the same. This can be annoying – sometimes you’ll struggle through a quick time event or play a situation very carefully, only for you to end up with an identical result – but by and large, we’ve all gotten used to how these games play out.

As the plot progresses, you and your team of ragtag heroes become certified vault hunters, aided by the ghostly AI of Handsome Jack himself. Jack is one of the great villains of the last generation, and he makes a welcome return here. The mystery of where he’s come from and what he wants is one of the true joys of this series, and fans will be happy to know you get a closer look at him than in any previous title. He’s once again played to perfection by Dameon Clarke.

Actually, the entire cast of Tales from the Borderlands were superb. It’s not the usual sort of voice work expected from video game actors, but there wasn’t a weak link throughout. Troy Baker took the male lead as Rhys, while Laura Bailey played Fiona, and both completely delivered. The pair were likeable and very, very funny.

It’s just a shame, then, that the entire voice cast were let down by Telltale’s rapidly ageing engine. Characters look plucked straight out of Borderlands, but the facial expressions (and poor animation) are unfortunately still the ones you remember from The Walking Dead, or Back to the Future, or Monkey Island. There have been some improvements – landscapes and anything bigger than a human look great – but there are moments that are really crummy. You’d be mad to think Batman will be better, but we live in hope.

Perhaps most importantly, Tales from the Borderlands has a real influence on what will happen in Borderlands 3. It was a genuine shock to see actual events, things that will change the face of Pandora in the next title, rather than just a small side-story fit in around ‘canon’. It’s comforting that one way or another, this isn’t the end of our time with Rhys, Fiona and the other original characters. They’ve made it into the lore, alongside other fascinating characters like Torgue’s grandmother.

The big death in Borderlands 2 didn’t come close to the range of emotions you’ll feel during Tales from the Borderlands, and that’s down to the quality of the dialogue and the unusually strong story. The occasional slip up or piece of filler doesn’t always matter, because the characters pull it through, something that can’t be said for the endless amount of duff missions in the base product.

In short, this was something different, but equally enjoyable. It showed a side to Pandora that we’ve never seen before, and while it’s a little weird that there aren’t people trying to kill you at every corner, it was very enjoyable nonetheless. Telltale brought all of their strengths and all of their weaknesses in Tales from the Borderlands, making a game that fans of either side of this Frankenstein’s monster can really enjoy.

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