When Tales from the Borderlands released back in 2014/2015, I have to say, I wasn’t that interested. Possessing only a basic knowledge of Gearbox Software’s original Borderlands series of action RPG’s, I simply couldn’t justify spending money on a game I had no great connection to.
Fast forward now to May 2017 and, aware that the game was available for free to PS Plus subscribers, I decided to try it out for myself; thank goodness I did. I hadn’t even reached the halfway point of episode one before I realised Tales from the Borderlands is good – surprisingly good.
Featuring a cast of absolutely wonderful characters, along with an engrossing narrative and hilarious dialogue, it’s easily one of Telltale Games’ best.
The central storyline follows ambitious yet likeable middle manager Rhys, glib Pandoran con-artist Fiona and their rag-tag group of adventurers on their quest to unlock the secrets of the Gortys project and, ultimately, to find the vault of the traveller, wherein lies a mountain of priceless alien artefacts. Unfortunately, things don’t exactly go according to plan. Aside from the trust issues that plague the team throughout their travels, they also have to deal with ruthless gangsters, corrupt executives and experienced vault hunters, all whilst navigating a series of increasingly dangerous events they’re completely unprepared for.
Utterly enthralling from start to finish, the narrative benefits from a story that’s far more malleable than perhaps all previous Telltale games. During my back-to-back playthroughs, for example, I experienced entirely different scenes as a direct result of selecting option B rather than option A, not to mention wildly divergent relationships that changed fundamentally as a result of my responses during conversations. The result is a game that boasts a level of replayability far in excess of other, nominally linear titles.
Yet, as enjoyable as it is to mould the plot yourself, I particularly enjoyed the upbeat tone of the game. Thanks to the quality of the writing, there’re plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments throughout the course of the 5 episodes, along with an overall sense of optimism and camaraderie that’s really quite refreshing in today’s cynical world. It’s not without the occasional instance of heartache of course (look out for episode 4), however, these more dramatic story beats come across as endearing and charming rather than cheesy or prosaic. It’s quite a change for Telltale Games when you consider how important bittersweet storytelling has been to the success of previous titles such as The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, but Tales from the Borderlands certainly doesn’t suffer for it.
Equally well-written and engaging are the cast of characters. Rhys, Fiona, Sasha, Gortys, Loader Bot and Scooter impress the most, not least because they’re believable. Yes, many of the exchanges between them devolve into witty badinage and oftentimes they’ll shrug off what would be traumatic experiences for you and me in no time at all, but nonetheless, they each convey a sense of humanity. They have their own hang ups, hopes and fears, and thus feel truly three dimensional.
Bringing these excellent characters to life, the performances from the hugely talented voice cast deserve equal praise. Troy Baker is typically brilliant as intelligent if out-of-his-depth salary man Rhys; Laura Bailey is perfect as charming grifter Fiona and Ashley Johnson is unsurprisingly fantastic as naïve robot Gortys. However, putting in perhaps the best performance of all, Erin Yvette is absolutely outstanding as Sasha, successfully portraying a character whose cockiness and sardonic quips could easily aggravate some players she was played by a less skilled performer.
In terms of gameplay, dialogue wheels and quick time events are the order of the day, although a smattering of new gameplay mechanics add a touch of individuality to proceedings.
Deviating little from previous Telltale Games’ graphic adventures, the dialogue wheels feature the traditional quarter of distinctive responses that enable you to fine-tune the personalities of the two protagonists. For instance, while Rhys was selfless and considerate during my first playthrough, he was ruthlessly ambitious and self-serving throughout the second, which, in turn, fundamentally changed his relationships with the rest of the group; especially Sasha. Meanwhile, if you prefer to play in a more reactive manner entering each conversation without a particular type of reply already in mind, you’ll be pleased to hear you’re only given a few sections to select your response. As a result, there’s added weight to every decision; you’ll often find yourself wondering whether you made the right call. Accordingly, Tales from the Borderlands possesses a flexibility that’s rarely seen in linear titles. The very nature of the signature choices – the one’s that’re recorded at the end of each episode – can change, depending on Rhys and Fiona’s actions.
Between conversations, action comes in the form of quick time events. As often as not, you’re tasked with simply moving the analogue stick in the suggested direction in order to avoid an incoming attack while, on occasion, you may be required to fire Fiona’s diminutive pistol, choosing the type of elemental ammunition you deem appropriate under the present circumstances. QTE’s might not be to everyone’s tastes, however, love them or hate them, they fit this style of game perfectly. After all, it’s the flowing narrative and inter-personal relationships that ultimately resonate with the player that make these games such a joy to play: shoehorning in obligatory cover shooting sections or esoteric puzzles a la The Witness would only be a hindrance.
A couple of extra little touches here and there ensure the gameplay feels distinctive. Rhys’ Echo Eye provides plenty of opportunities to learn more about the wider Borderlands universe and features a few amusing references to previous titles, whilst Fiona’s money gathering side-objective lets you buy a variety of cosmetic items at specific points during the season and, for those who’re willing to ignore their scruples and accrue as much cash as possible, hire polarising robot Claptrap during episode 5’s final mission (in case you were wondering, I really like the garrulous little guy).
And, with little exploration or unnecessary filler to wade through, Tales from the Borderlands is superbly paced, taking the average player no longer than a couple of hours to complete each episode. Consequently, the game feels neither too short (like the criminally brief The Walking Dead: Michonne mini-series) nor too long.
Graphically speaking, Tales from the Borderlands continues the Telltales tradition of utilising a distinctive cel shaded aesthetic that benefits greatly from the superior power of current gen console hardware. The character models and environmental assets are sharper; the criminal-riddled cesspool of Pandora looks suitably grimy and dangerous, while Hyperion’s orbital headquarters Helios has an unnervingly clean and clinical appearance. The colour palette too is more vibrant and eye-catching than previous TTG titles. Likewise, although the facial animations are never going to be as expressive as the likes of Uncharted 4 or L.A. Noire so long as the developer favours stylised visuals, the PS4 and Xbox One does allow for more faithful simulacrums of human emotions; the best example I can remember off the top of my head is Fiona’s look of disgust as Rhys and Sasha make googly eyes at each other during the introduction to episode 4.
Elsewhere, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the soundtrack, exemplified by the quintet of songs that play during the intro credits to each episode. Episode 3’s Pieces of the People We Love and episode 4’s To the Top are my particular favourites, complementing two of the most engaging and amusing scenes in the entire series.
Not everything about Tales from the Borderlands is perfect, however, much as it might seem from the almost unadulterated praise I’ve showered it with hitherto. Checkpoints for one can be a tad frustrating; on more than one occasion I’ve had to repeat a section of the story, thinking the game had saved before I turned it off. It might seem like nit picking, but I don’t see why manual saves aren’t available if to prevent this from happening at all, especially if, like me, you prefer to parcel out each episode in two parts. Moreover, like previous Telltale Games titles (Game of Thrones: Season One, especially) the frame rate can be a bit ropey during the more action-heavy sections. The climactic battle at the end of episode 5, for instance, during which there are multiple characters on screen simultaneously and plenty of movement, suffers from a variety of performance issues.
Regardless of these minor draw-backs, Tales from the Borderlands is an absolute triumph of storytelling and character design. The core narrative is ceaselessly funny yet compelling, so that, like a good book, it takes a concerted effort of will to stop yourself from ploughing through it in one marathon session. Only the most cynical of individuals will fail to enjoy this wonderful adventure.
But for me, it’s the characters that steal the show. At the risk of sounding somewhat twee, Tales from the Borderlands is one of those rare games that, upon completion, leaves the player feeling as if they’re saying goodbye to a group of dear friends – which is saying a lot for someone like me who habitually eschews human contact.
All things considered, I have no hesitation whatsoever in awarding this superb game a big fat 9/10.