Tales from the Borderlands: Episode One - Zer0 Sum review

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episodic reviews

You can’t buy Telltale’s episodic adventures one episode at a time on PC—you’re buying all five in the season for $25/£20—so it doesn’t make much sense for us to score each one individually. We’ll review and score the whole package when all the episodes have been released, while individual episode reviews like this one will be unscored criticism and recaps. I’ll avoid spoilers until later on in the review, where you’ll see a warning.

I often finish an episode of a Telltale game thinking it was great, and that I had better tell everyone about it right away because it's stupid that they're not playing it. But then a few minutes later someone actually asks me about it and doubt busts in. I'm not sure if "it was great" or "it was good" or "it was alright" and the dialogue timer is ticking down, so... "It was grolright?"

I find it so hard to criticize Telltale's recent adventures because they do so little of what I'm used to valuing in games. Tales from the Borderlands is a Telltale adventure game in the style of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us: I occasionally walk around clicking on objects for some flavor text, use WASD when prompted to avoid danger, click on guys whose faces I want to smash or shoot, and tap Q repeatedly to do some other stuff. There's choice, too—I get to pick dialogue and a few actions—but it feels more like pushing a morality needle a little bit in either direction than actually going down a branch in a path.

More than anything, Tales from the Borderlands values its writing, voice acting, and animation. I typically value rules and simulation. I like solving puzzles, mastering movement, intuiting ballistics, strategizing—anything where I have to optimize my input to be rewarded with the output I want. There's lots of that in the Borderlands series, but not in Tales from the Borderlands. And yet I don't think Tales from the Borderlands was just grolright. Maybe it wasn't great, either, but it was really, really good. I like it better than Borderlands, and that's a little uncomfortable.

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To be fair, I never really cared for Borderlands. I don't dislike it. It's a wacky bash-a-bandit goofabout, fun in co-op. I've always found its humor rubs against obnoxious a bit more than "ha ha," though.

Tales from the Borderlands, however, is funny. I for real laughed, with my throat making noises and everything. And it's not just Borderland's wriggling psychos and dubstep (I mean, that stuff is there) but characters that made me laugh because they're properly funny human people. I like them. I think they're cute. I seriously want to find out what happens to these people. On Pandora. The space world of Borderlands that I have never really cared much about.

The first episode of Tales from the Borderland also feels much bigger than any of Telltale's previous opening episodes. It's a little over two hours long, it hits a bunch of locations, it's told from two perspectives, and it introduces four main characters and several side characters. It's a really neatly presented pilot, and you don't have to know much of anything about Borderlands to enjoy it.

And whether or not my choices 'matter' (I'll compare my story to someone else's after the next episode, though it feels a bit like ruining a magician's illusion out of spite), it matters to me that I'm making them. It'd be flippant to call Tales from the Borderlands an 'interactive movie' because it's not like watching a movie at all. My role feels creative, even when I'm just selecting the joke I want my character to say. I feel like I'm taking risks, too. If I want two characters to bond, there's a sort of puzzle to it, where I have to read their personalities and the situation and predict how they'll respond to each other. It's not challenging to any degree, or something I can fully fail—more like a fun activity I invent for myself as I test the characters' wants and limits.

Minor spoilers ahead

If you don't want to know anything about the story, this is the part where you should stop reading anything I'm writing. But I won't reveal anything too big.

Tales of the Borderlands stars two characters: Rhys, an employee of the Hyperion corporation based on the moon above Pandora, and Fiona, a con artist who works with her sister on the planet. When Rhys is screwed out of a promotion and humiliated, he heads to Pandora with his best friend to take revenge on his boss by buying a vault key (one of the most valuable things ever, if you're not familiar with the universe) out from under him, and they cross paths.

At least in this episode, both of their stories are told as they recount them to a masked captor, disagreeing with each other about the details along the way. It gets especially entertaining when Fiona tells part of the story Rhys has already told, revealing what was going on behind the scenes while the choices I already made as Rhys play out. It's a clever bit of writing, but it'll probably only work one more time—if that—now that it's been done. Not that Tales from the Borderlands needs clever narrative devices at every turn to work. Its strength is fun characters.

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I really like Rhys and Fiona. They're both a bit chaotic and prone to saying and doing whatever'll get an uncomfortable laugh from their friends—at least, that's how I played them—but they're generally good-natured. It's fun to get them into and out of bad situations (mostly involving insane bandits), and fun to let them be heartless (so-and-so will remember that) when it feels necessary. Like, they're good people and all, just maybe murderers sometimes, but you know, Pandora's a harsh place.

I don't love Rhys' friend Vaughn. He's the butt of some good jokes, but he's so weak-willed and easy to cajole I started feeling bad for bringing him along at all. He's a bit of a wet blanket, but of course, his shell is really just there so he can break out of it later, and I could see that from the beginning. I'm sure he'll have his fans. Fiona's sister Sasha, however, I like: she's more mysterious at this point, and I'm not sure what she's thinking yet or exactly how her relationship with Rhys is going to develop.

The voice acting is great, especially Patrick Warburton as the dickish Vasquez—though it's pretty impossible not to hear The Venture Bros.' Brock Samson. Laura Bailey, Troy Baker, and Nolan North are all predictably good, because between the three of them they've done 13 billion games. It'd be shocking if they weren't excellent.

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The flavor text is all great, too, and there are some quality comedic moments. I promised no major spoilers, and ruining jokes is a vile thing to do anyway, so I won't describe any of them—except in the screen above, I suppose, but it's just a tiny sample of the tone to expect. It's the Borderlands tone of absurdity, for sure, but with more value put on delivery.

Telltale has started very strong. I'm looking forward to the next episode, and my only fear is that it won't be able to match the scale of this one, which feels like an all-out effort to reel in full-season purchases. But even if it's a little shorter, or a little less punchy, I'll take any episode that lets me see these characters develop more, and have some power to manipulate their relationships and make them say dumb stuff.

Tales from the Borderlands isn't the best thing ever, like I so often feel right after I've finished playing one of these Telltale deals, but it is some of Telltale's finest work. I already expect to like it more than The Wolf Among Us, which I liked quite a bit. There are four more episodes to go, and I think there'll be a lot of fun had discussing our favorite moments and decisions over the course of the series.


As Executive Editor, Tyler spends a lot of time editing reviews and looking at spreadsheets, and whatever time is left over writing reviews. People joke that he doesn't like 90 percent of the games he plays, but he'll tell you he just has very discerning tastes.
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