In recent years, Telltale has become synonymous with episodic story telling. Seemingly every major franchise in the world wanted them to make a game set in their respective universe, using their unique story-telling style. Perhaps the most striking franchise Telltale announced a game series for was Borderlands, a game hardly known for telling great stories, or stories at all really. Prior to release, you might have been excused to predict this series to be a total flop. Luckily however, you would have been wrong. Tales from the Borderlands is not only a good game, it’s pretty damn great.
During the five episodes of the series, Telltale tell the story of two unique protagonists: Rhys, a businessman for the villainous Hyperion; and Fiona, a conman struggling to survive in the bandit-ridden landscapes of Pandora, as they are both forced to work together to try to rob a vault (it is still a Borderlands game after all).
Straying from the typical Telltale style of telling the story of one single protagonist allows for the story to feel much different than any other game made by the studio. The player perspective changes regularly throughout the episodes, allowing the player to experience both sides of the story. It also allows for them to experiment with different forms of narratives, particularly here with the idea of a false narrator. You are never sure if what you are currently experiencing is what actually happened, with other characters in the game going as far as to call bullshit on some of the details being told. The game also uses this system to create some great moments of comedy. One particular highlight came during the first episode where I messed up a QTE and died, but then another character pointed out that I had not in fact been killed by bandits, as the protagonist was telling this story to this other character at that time.
The comedy is a particular strong point of the series. Borderlands is a franchise that is known for its particular sense of humour, but this is not really the case with normal Telltale titles. Series such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us are so oppressively dark that they very rarely had any time for moments of levity. However, the Telltale writing team nail the humour here, perhaps more so than the teams behind the mainstream Borderlands games ever did. Jokes come thick and fast, and more of them tend to hit, rather than miss. The script is smartly written, meaning that the comedy feels great, and many of the scenes are a joy to play through.
The writing also succeeds in another way that the mainline Borderlands games never really did. It makes you care about the characters. Look back at the other Borderlands games. Can you think of any character that you can honestly say you cared about? The answer is probably no. However, after playing through Tales, I cared about many of the characters. The game made me care about the two main protagonists, as well as several of the side characters. Hell, the game even made me care about two robots, who are easily two of the best characters in the series so far, easily surpassing the often-irritating Claptrap.
This is not to say that the writing is perfect. Although there are certainly some emotional moments, the game more often than not doesn’t have the guts to fully go through with the decision. It often feels like they were scared to fully commit to these narrative choices, which certainly cheapened some of the moments that would have held far more resonance otherwise. The game also has a pretty serious villain problem. (Minor spoilers to follow). Aside from a few other villains who never feel that effective, the game focuses, like so many recent Borderlands titles, upon the villain of Handsome Jack. Jack was a great villain when he was first introduced in the sequel; he became less great in the Pre-Sequel; and here often feels unnecessary. Although he is still written fairly well, and is as funny as ever, the character is beginning to feel like a narrative hindrance for the franchise. It feels forced here, and the game would have been much better served by focusing on original villains instead of focusing upon one who feels played out at this point. (End of spoilers).
Gameplay is typical Telltale fare. It is a mix of cutscenes with occasional QTE’s; conversations involving dialogue choices for the player to make; and walking around environments to explore and find key objects. This isn’t really a negative. The gameplay style works for what Telltale is trying to do, so falls under the mantra of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
However, what does need to be fixed is the technical issues that the game suffers from- the same issues that have plagued Telltale games for years now. The frame-rate is choppy at times; significant graphical tearing occurs; the lip sync is at times atrocious; and the audio often sounds just wrong. These issues have become so commonplace in Telltale titles that they are now almost impossible to forgive. They need to be fixed. They should have been fixed years ago, so the fact that they persist is inexcusable.
Despite these glaring technical issues, the game is still pretty great. Throughout the course of the five episodes, it does the unthinkable. It tells a truly interesting story in the Borderlands universe, filled with characters that you come to genuinely care about. Even if you have felt a bit burned out on the Telltale formula, which, at this point, would be understandable, you should give Tales from the Borderlands a try. Hell, even if you dislike the Borderlands titles, there is probably still something for you here. This is Telltale at their very best.
Available on: Pretty much everything (played on Xbox One)
Price: $24.99/ £20 (ish)
Time to complete: Around 9 hours
Value for money score: 7/10 (An interesting story with a decent length for an inexpensive sum of money. However, there is minimal replay value, with very few of the choices radically changing the course of the game)
Overall score: 8/10