Tales from the Borderlands is the latest in a new line of Telltale Games titles, which will be followed by Game of Thrones in December. Unlike some of its more recent comic book spin-offs, this is the result of a direct collaboration with Gearbox, and takes place shortly after the events of Borderlands 2. Considering that the developer has made a name for itself creating emotionally resonant releases of late, this seems like a strange pairing – but can the company pull off silly just as well as sad? Honestly, the results are nothing short of incredible.
Right off the bat, it’s clear that this series is going to be a very different animal from the studio’s more recent episodic excursions – most notably The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. While those series took themselves rather seriously, offering intense, dramatic tales with just a drizzling of humour, this new endeavour rains down a typhoon of hilarity. From the moment that you launch Episode 1: Zer0 Sum, the funnies start flowing out of lead character Rhys’ mouth, and they don’t let up until you reach the end. Granted, not every gag lands, but the majority do.
The abovementioned star – who’s voiced by the ever amazing Troy Baker – is joined by a character named Fiona, and the two protagonists, alongside familiar faces and newcomers like the Patrick Warburton-voiced Vasquez, form a truly impressive ensemble. They have different roles to fill, too. A certain returning Vault Hunter cranks the badassery all the way up to eleven, while Vasquez occupies the position of smug jerk with ease. Rhys, meanwhile, is your typical smooth talker – at least in his version of events.
This is where Telltale Games’ newest story telling device comes into play: Rhys and Fiona are both recounting the same yarn to a third-party in the beginning of the episode – and as you may expect, they each have different interpretations of how events unfolded. It’s up to you, then, to determine how extreme each character’s level of embellishment will be, and after the tale is recounted, you’ll learn just how much they were lying. It’s a great little gimmick, and it allows you to get into the head of the two leads in a way that previous outings haven’t allowed.
Of course, this isn’t the only asset that makes the episode brilliant. The pacing throughout the entirety of the three hour story is exhilarating, and the new gameplay ideas work rather well. A stripped down version of the classic Borderlands looting system, for example, complements the traditional dialogue trees that you’ve no doubt come to expect from the Californian company by now. The performance is also largely flawless on the PlayStation 4, which perhaps suggests that the developer has finally upgraded its engine to an acceptable standard.
If there’s any major negative, it’s that the narrative is contingent on you knowing a thing or two about the Borderlands universe before diving in. Many plot points that are detailed in past entries go unexplained here, meaning that it’s arguably less accessible than the likes of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, which spin new stories out of existing intellectual properties. Given that Telltale Games has garnered its own fanbase in recent years, this is a bit of a shame, as you’ll find yourself referring to Wikis to truly appreciate the story if you’re not a fan of Gearbox’s games.
Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 – Zer0 Sum is quite possibly the strongest debut episode in Telltale Games’ storied history. It combines a frantic pace with some genuinely funny dialogue, and offers more than enough fresh gameplay systems to make it stand out from the rest of the studio’s output. Short of not being a fan of the Borderlands franchise, this an incredibly impressive outing – and the fact that it’s not riddled with bugs is just the icing on the cake.