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Tales from the Borderlands review

Tales from the Borderlands 1

From left to right: Sasha, Rhys, Fiona and Vaughn

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.

Tales from the Borderlands 4

Spoilers: Handsome Jack is back

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.

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Athena joins the party (not the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and defensive warfare)

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.

Tales from the Borderlands 3

Health and safety won’t be best pleased

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.

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Telltale Games’ 5 greatest stories (so far)

The Walking Dead season 1

Since adapting everyone’s favourite zombie drama The Walking Dead into a sensational, award winning graphic adventure back in 2012, Telltale Games has distinguished itself as one of the world’s finest development studios; one that is now regularly entrusted with globally recognised franchises including Game of Thrones, Minecraft and, most recently, Guardians of the Galaxy.

Where other games emphasise high octane action, Telltale Games focuses on creating fascinating three dimensional characters and engrossing narratives, set within a gameplay framework that’s no more complicated than dialogue wheels and the occasional quick time event. The result is some of the finest stories in the entire history of the medium.

But for those who’ve never played one of these incredible titles before, it can be difficult to know where to start. With that in mind, today’s article lists the 5 greatest stories Telltale Games has ever created; and yes, there will be numerous spoilers from here on out.

5. The Walking Dead: Season Two

Walking dead season 2

Uh, Clementine? You’ve got something on your face…

Set approximately 2 years after the events of the 2012 original, The Walking Dead: Season Two transfers the protagonist duties to adolescent orphan Clementine; a potentially risky decision given her age and the fact that she’s following in the footsteps of Season One’s of the late Lee Everett, but one that pays off emphatically.

Alone in the post-apocalyptic wasteland since losing her previous guardians Lee, Omid and Christa, our young heroine falls in with a group of honest, if somewhat inept and overly suspicious survivors led by the kind-hearted Luke, shortly after the beginning of episode one. The usual depredations of a world infested with hordes of zombies and ruthless bandits take their toll on the group over the course of the succeeding episodes, culminating in a typically gut-wrenching choice for Clementine between the safety of a fortified, though possibly mythical, community further north called Wellington accompanied by grizzled survivor Kenny and new born baby AJ (the child of one of her former companions), or the largely secure mall the group abandoned earlier in the tale together with pragmatic, erstwhile loner Jane and little AJ.

Season Two doesn’t quite pack the same emotional punch as the original Walking Dead or possess quite such a strong supporting cast of characters; the latter of which isn’t helped by the group’s cold and at times inexplicably harsh attitude towards Clementine. Nevertheless, it’s still a solid sequel that features plenty of the narrative-transforming choices that embody Telltale Games whilst successfully developing Clementine’s character into a believable survivor despite her age, and an even more endearing character that makes the prospect of continuing her story in The Walking Dead: A New Frontier tremendously exciting.

4. The Wolf Among Us

Wolf Among us

To be fair, the huntsman had it coming

Based on Bill Willingham’s Fables comic book series, The Wolf Among Us is essentially a detective story set in a fantasy version of 1980’s Manhattan that’s home to a small community of fairy tale characters who’ve left their mythical Homelands in the wake of a tyrannical ruler known as the Adversary. Unfortunately, life in New York isn’t as wonderful as Alicia Keys suggests, at least not for the magical population who’re reliant on extortionately expensive spells called glamours to hide their existence from the humans.

The story itself follows jaded sheriff Bigby Wolf (originally the Big Bad Wolf from the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale) as he hunts for a serial killer who it appears has been preying on a group of fables that’ve had to turn to prostitution in order to survive in this strange new world. It doesn’t take long, however, before Bigby discovers the killer’s motives aren’t as simple as they seem on the surface but are in fact symptomatic of the corruption that’s eating away at the heart of their society.

Like all good crime dramas, the narrative is certainly interesting enough to retain the average player’s attention throughout the course of the game’s 5 episodes, although it’s fair to say the second half of the series doesn’t quite realise the promise of the first. Where The Wolf Among Us does stand out, however, is in the setting. Its portrayal of well-known fairy tale characters struggling with the harsh realities of the real world is fascinating. Georgie Porgie, for instance, is no longer the harmless pervert of the original nursery rhyme having become the owner of a grotty strip club and a pimp besides since moving to America, whilst Beauty and the Beast are finding the vicissitudes of married life, combined with their growing financial woes, are putting a huge strain on their once loving relationship.

Moreover, with its gorgeous film noir aesthetic – it really is one of the studio’s prettiest titles to date – and an understated, evocative soundtrack, The Wolf Among Us deserves far more credit that it usually receives from critics and gamers alike.

3. Game of Thrones: Season One

Game of Thrones

That guy look familiar

They may not warrant more than a sentence or two in the novels, but House Forrester take centre stage in Telltales’ first foray into George R. R. Martin’s incredible fantasy world. Unsurprisingly for a tale set within the Game of Thrones universe, summarising the intricate, interconnected web of plots and sub-plots would be a monumental task in and of itself; suffice it to say, the story lives up to the renowned source material.

Taking place throughout various regions of Westeros and Essos, including Kings Landing, Meereen and Ironrath in the north (seat of House Forrester), Game of Thrones: Season One charts the trials and tribulations of this beleaguered family who’s position in the world has become extremely precarious in the wake of the Red Wedding and the decline of house Stark; their former liege lords. In a change from the usual formula, players control multiple members of the Forrester clan as they try desperately to deal with the different threats assailing them. On the front lines, severely wounded lord Rodrik fight off the intrusive meddling of their rivals the Whitehills, who’re in league with the deplorable Ramsay Snow, that jeopardises their ancestral seat, whilst eldest daughter Mira, handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell in King’s Landing, does all she can to promote her family’s interest from the capital amidst a torrent of politicking and black sheep Asher scours the seedy underbelly of Essos’s free cities in search of a trusty band of mercenaries to help him defeat the Whitehills and Bolton’s upon his return to Westeros.

There’s plenty of violence, backstabbing and swearing (though no cel shaded sex scenes, which is probably for the best), so fans of the books or television programme will find plenty to love, along with a beautifully convoluted central narrative and interesting if not totally absorbing new characters. Positives aside, it’s almost worth purchasing the £19.99 season pass just to see the iconic intro credits sequence rendered in Telltale Games’ signature art style, complete with the world-famous main theme playing in the background.

1. Tales from the Borderlands

Tales from the borderlands

Rhys in a spot of bother

I suppose I’m cheating a bit by crowning dual champions, but I really can’t pick between Telltale Games’ two greatest narratives: Tales from the Borderlands and The Walking Dead: Season One.

Currently available at no extra cost for PS Plus subscribers throughout May, Tales from the Borderlands was an absolute revelation when I first played it a couple of weeks ago. Told largely in retrospect from the point of view of joint protagonists Rhys and Fiona – an ambitious middle-manager for the bloodthirsty Hyperion corporation and a charming, resourceful grifter respectively – the story revolves around the search for a vault key; an indescribably rare item that opens the door to a treasure trove of priceless alien technology. Each of the five episodes are simply brilliant, fitting together perfectly to form an overall narrative that’s utterly enthralling; a feat that’s particularly impressive given the game’s light-hearted, flippant tone. But what really sets this title apart is the throng of equally charismatic individuals who assist Fiona and Rhys over the course of their adventure. Fiona’s headstrong younger sister Sasha is fantastic, as are the team’s robotic companions Loader Bot and Gortys, and benevolent redneck mechanic Scooter who establishes himself as a fan favourite despite appearing only intermittently.

Bringing these wonderful characters to life is a script that’s witty and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, yet poignant during the game’s more dramatic scenes; a cast of voice acting talent that reads as a who’s who of video game voice artists, including Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, Nolan North, Laura Bailey, Dameon Clarke, Erin Yvette and Dave Fennoy; a rousing soundtrack featuring songs such as Busy Earnin’ by Jungle and my personal favourite Twin Shadow’s To The Top and five of the most stylish introductory sequences you’ll find in gaming or any medium for that matter.

Whether you’ve played Gearbox Software’s original Borderlands series or not, I can’t recommend this title enough: it’s simply magnificent.

1. The Walking Dead: Season One

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Here’s Lee

As bleak and dramatic as Tales from the Borderlands is comical, The Walking Dead: Season One is a masterpiece of storytelling. Putting players in the shoes of likeable former university lecturer/convicted murderer Lee Everett, the game kicks off at the very outbreak of the zombie apocalypse that’s reduced the world to an unremittingly harsh and dangerous hellhole full of flesh-eating, undead monstrosities and lawless bastards. Within the first few minutes of episode one, Lee comes across a girl named Clementine who’s been hiding in her tree house alone since the catastrophe began; her parents stranded hundreds of miles away in an overrun holiday resort and her babysitter thoroughly zombified.

Forging a strong father-daughter bond almost immediately, the intrepid duo and a handful of companions decide to head to the coast in the hopes of finding a boat and riding out the worst of the apocalypse from the relative safety of the open ocean, dealing with cannibalistic farmers, mentally unstable survivors and death, so much death, along the way. The challenges facing the group aren’t too dissimilar from those featured in The Walking Dead television series or spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, however, the game’s treatment of themes such as suicide and loss, and the central relationship between Lee and Clementine make it a compelling tale nonetheless.

In addition, it shares many of the things that impressed me about Tales from the Borderlands. The colour palette is dark and evocative, the choices difficult and meaningful and, most importantly, the voice acting is exceptional; Dave Fennoy and Melissa Hutchison who play Lee and Clementine deserve especial praise for their outstanding performances.

The Walking Dead also gets extra points for the impact it’s had on the gaming industry. True, there were plenty of story-driven games before this particular one released back in 2012, yet you’d be justified in arguing that it was Telltale’s Walking Dead: Season One that put this style of game back on the map and alerted publishers to the potential of the genre. Without it, the likes of Life is Strange and Firewatch might never have seen the light of day.

Fun as it is to reminisce about Telltale Games’s great titles of the past, what excites me most is the studio’s future. Comic book aficionado’s will no doubt be keen to see what transpires in the Guardians of the Galaxy series, while myself and many others are relishing the chance to return to Westeros when Game of Thrones: Season Two releases at some point in the near future.

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