Tales from the Borderlands preview: Telltale's storytelling is worth a return trip to Pandora
Borderlands' Pandora is a weird place, filled with slag-spewing skags, cyborg ninjas, sarcastic robots and psychotic midgets. After watching the first 30 minutes of Telltale Games' next series Tales from the Borderlands in an E3 demo, I think Pandora's about to get even weirder. But not because Telltale is introducing an alien zoo of new creatures—rather, because the combination of Telltale storytelling and Gearbox insanity is 100% as bizarre as everyone thought it would be.
In established Telltale fashion, Tales will be a five-part episodic story. It runs on the same engine as The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and older Telltale adventures, with familiar dialogue choices (mapped to A, B, X, Y on a gamepad) and quicktime event action scenes. Unlike Telltale's two current series, though, there are few agonizing moral-based decisions to make on Pandora. Greed is expected with a side of slapstick, hold the logic.
As Telltale's president Kevin Bruner pointed out to me after my demo, Telltale's history is rooted in comedic games like Sam & Max and Strongbad. They can do funny. But the 30 minutes of Tales from the Borderlands didn't quite convince me that Telltale has Gearbox's sense of humor completely dialed in.
The surface-level elements are there. Characters are introduced with Borderlands' signature stylish freeze-frame and witty description. There are skags and bandits and cartoony cel-shaded wastelands. But most of the dialogue in the 30 minutes of Tales I saw (probably a 60/40 cutscene/game split) was clever without really being funny. Some of the other dialogue tried hard for for funny, but fell flat. Only a few lines and visual gags really made me laugh. There was a lot of exposition, which didn't help—I can see the game doling out jokes at a more comfortable pace once its main cast of characters are established.
Despite how much this looks like Borderlands, Tales doesn't much feel like Borderlands, because the jokes and gags come at Telltale's measured pace, without the manic speed of Gearbox's kid-in-a-joke-store delivery. Surprisingly for a game set on Pandora, I think storytelling, and not comedy, will be the real strength of Tales from the Borderlands. I shouldn't be surprised by that at this point—it's Telltale—but I was anyway, because this is a very different type of storytelling for them.
Tales will divide its time between two protagonists: Fiona, a grifter I didn't see much of, and Rhys, a cocksure Hyperion suit working his way up the corporate ladder. The "Tales" in the title are actually tall tales, as Fiona and Rhys prove to be unreliable narrators talking up their past adventures. At one point, Rhys punches a man in the chest and rips out his heart, only to have Fiona interject with a sarcastic "That's totally not what happened." Then she provides her point of view.
This is where player choice plays a big role. In this scene, Fiona's perspective brings up four dialogue options, and each one will affect how the overarching story plays out. The idea that both characters are making up embellished stories, none of which are the proper "truth," is an absolutely perfect approach to the Borderlands world.
The QTE action scenes are as minimally interactive as ever, and the comedy doesn't feel quite on, but the storytelling is as good as ever. Telltale also seems deeply devoted to mining the Borderlands lore for cool characters and backstory, which is something I didn't know I cared about until today. Gearbox throws out so many jokes, it's easy to forget that there's a pretty cool sci-fi world underneath the pile of screaming psycho midgets. Tales is a reminder that there's more to Borderlands than guns and humor.
Telltale aims to release Tales from the Borderlands this Autumn at the same $25 per season, with new episodes coming out "roughly monthly."
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