…Tales from the Borderlands comes super-close to completely wrecking itself on account of an abrupt, unsuitable, ill-conceived ending incongruous enough to cast a pall over the entire first season. But however much the last episode put me off, it was only really depressing because it was over.
The first episode of Tales from the Borderlands was a PS+ freebie in December, and since I had nothing to do a couple Saturdays ago I started it up to have a look around. Nine hours and $15 later I’d finished the entire five-episode run of TellTale’s shooter-inspired adventure (I really, really had nothing to do that day). The next day I was sad, because I wanted to play more and it was over.
After a long evening giggling at the screen, I wasn’t in the mood to return to the parade of bummers I’ve been working through. I wanted to laugh at people falling down and hurting themselves and reciting witty dialogue about the same. But short of starting over and making different decisions, which seemed excessive less than 24 hours later, there wasn’t anything to be done about that. It’s true that Tales from the Borderlands comes super-close to completely wrecking itself on account of an abrupt, unsuitable, ill-conceived ending incongruous enough to cast a pall over the entire first season. But however much the last episode put me off – a lot, it put me off a lot – Tales from the Borderlands was only really depressing because it was over.
TellTale Games has been around for a while but really got noticed thanks to 2012’s The Walking Dead. AJ explains how every choice in The Walking Dead: Season One had such weight. Your trajectory through the game was determined by subtle dialogue options and the sum of hundreds of branching decision points, some innocuous (offering an apple to one person versus another), others momentous (leaving someone to die). The sense that every choice truly contributed to the long-term ripple lent great, often tragic gravity to the experience. The Walking Dead’s impact was such that TellTale became the go-to company for work along these lines, creating games based on a variety of licensed properties including Gearbox’s zany shooter Borderlands.
Farce comedy requires very little plot foundation, meaning anybody will be able to enjoy this game in a general sort of way; they probably even call Tales from the Borderlands a standalone narrative, but newcomers will be lost for a while. It assumes you have at least some knowledge of the story so far, which was three games and nine big expansions even before TellTale got involved. It’s also clear that Tales from the Borderlands is part of the official canon, since it closes assorted plot holes and puzzle-pieces right into the narrative more or less where Borderlands 2 left off. Borderlands virgins will have a good time, but this game is a cornucopia of inside jokes, character cameos, and backstory references that only aficionados will fully appreciate.
Speaking of story, be aware that while I describe some specific plot and gameplay stuff in this review, I make an effort to do so without any context. Things might seem like spoilers, but I’m pretty confident they’re not. There’s no “Snape kills Dumbledore” here. But I was once accused of “ruining” Man of Steel because I mentioned there were fights between super-beings from the planet Krypton in the film, so if you like to go in completely blind, take heed.
Borderlands in One Extremely Long But Grammatically Correct Sentence
The planet Pandora is a miserable hellhole except for mythical Vaults full of alien loot, the promise of which attract loony mercenaries who call themselves Vault Hunters but who mostly just aimlessly trash the place until four of them prove that Vaults really exist by locating one (it turns out to be guarded by a tentacle-monster, but eleven million bullets later the alien loot is theirs); this inadvertently draws attention from the evil Hyperion Corporation, which arrives with a space station to exploit Pandora’s resources and loot-Vaults, at which point a dude named Jack seizes control of the company and gets his face burned off, ruining his good looks but allowing him to adopt the ironic nickname Handsome Jack, after which time a new set of Vault Hunters go looking for (you guessed it) another Vault while simultaneously fighting for freedom and all that shit, but mostly just wrecking more of the planet, and then Handsome Jack turns into a tentacle-monster and dies, which leaves the Hyperion Corporation leaderless but still there with a great big space station full of employees who are much-hated but hey, everybody needs a job.
Tales from the Borderlands, in More Sentences
Up to now Borderlands has been an action shooter. Its early claims to fame were the cel-shaded art and the weapon system, which dynamically creates millions of unique firearms based on a procedural algorithm. Borderlands is a zany loot hunt first and foremost, and works best as a four-player cooperative campaign. It’s manic and utterly silly and, frankly, not that much fun unless you’re playing in a group. All of this — basically the entire foundation of the series — has to go out the window in Tales from the Borderlands, which is single player only and decidedly not a loot-focused action shooter. TellTale and Gearbox were gambling that Pandora, with its hidden Vaults and wild west mercenary feel, would lend itself to more than just crazed bullet-typhoons. And they were right. Tales from the Borderlands feels like a Borderlands game despite being mechanically different in every respect.
Rhys is a milquetoast Hyperion middle manager; Fiona is a neophyte con artist. They’re not gunfighters, or Vault Hunters, or soldiers of fortune. They have nothing in common aside from being equally unqualified to roam Pandora in search of riches. Thrown together for suitably ridiculous reasons, they immediately find themselves in over their heads, and hilarity ensues.
Much of that hilarity stems from the fact that you control both. In and of itself that’s nothing new. What makes it funny (rather, what makes the funny work) is that you don’t get to choose which one you’re controlling — the game switches between them. And since Rhys and Fiona are together most of the time, the constant swapping back and forth allows for moments of comedy gold that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. The story takes a while to get going, partly because it does make an effort to bring newcomers up to speed on the Borderlands milieu, but about halfway into Episode One it starts firing on all cylinders, and from then on it’s easily as funny as anything Gearbox has done with the story.
A Spork Would Be a Good Tool for That, Though
If you’re a veteran of The Walking Dead, you doubtless recall the game was one of exploration, conversation, and obstacle-overcomery. It sprinkled in a few light action sequences but chiefly focused on logic and problem solving. You needed to complete set-piece puzzles in order to progress. They were pretty easy, but it was theoretically possible to get stuck in The Walking Dead if you couldn’t unravel one. In this way, The Walking Dead was very much a traditional adventure game. Tales from the Borderlands is much more progress-fueled. You get the sense that the story’s going to move forward with or without you, because there are basically none of those hard-stop puzzles so common in usual adventure fare.
Also: if The Walking Dead was a game of logic puzzles with a few timed reflex challenges, Tales from the Borderlands is a game of timed reflex challenges with a (very) few logic puzzles. Luckily TellTale didn’t make the mistake of wandering into the hated realm of Quick Time Events here; they clearly decided early on that Tales would be a game in which difficulty took a remote second to plot. Expect trials along the lines of “push left,” or “hit triangle,” with the occasional “line the thingy up with the thingy then hit a button.” At the very end, they ramp up to… like… “push left then hit triangle.” This game would only be hard if you had no fingers at all, or if the controller were in the other room, or possibly both.
It isn’t that you have less control, just that the emphasis is different. Tales from the Borderlands almost never hits the brakes — in fact, it’s at its least fun when it tries, because these moments seem out of place compared to the rest. Mostly it just rolls with whatever decisions you make and keeps going… though where it goes is often “game over.” The end result is you’re not going to get stuck in this game; it’d be excessive to even suggest that there are puzzles, let alone that any might actually puzzle you.
As an example: early in Episode Two, Fiona finds herself in the unusual position of needing to remove a man’s eyeballs. Rhys is having a nervous breakdown up above because he thought he saw a ghost so he’s no help; Fiona’s never had to do this before and none of the people standing nearby have any useful suggestions. In The Walking Dead, a moment like this would have involved moving back and forth between two or three locations to gather the necessary tools and manipulate your surroundings until you’d created an environment friendly to eyeball-harvesting.
In Tales from the Borderlands, there’s a spork. Like, right there.
The way Tales from the Borderlands does it isn’t “wrong,” it’s just different. There are positives and negatives to the approach, but in the end I feel like it was the right decision. The Borderlands shooters are about constant, high-speed progress, and TellTale’s adventure follows suit in its own way. And that’s not to say it isn’t a hard game; it’s just not traditionally hard. As with all of TellTale’s work, hardship is borne from the agony of second guessing. Easily 90% of the game is dialogue, and while it’s no great challenge to have a conversation, it’s hard as hell to own a conversation. You must constantly decide, within seconds, what to say (or not say); and you must do so with the full knowledge that everything you say (or don’t say) will influence what’s to come.
The other thing you have to keep in mind is your tale from the Borderlands won’t be the same as mine. It might not even be close. Every choice, large or small, has some impact on what’s next. Characters that died based on my choices might live to ripe old ages based on yours. Events that never happened to me might exert terrible sway over what happens to you. As with other TellTale games, at the end of each episode you’re treated to a breakdown of your major choices and how you compare to the rest of the world. Which in Tales from the Borderlands leads to delightful moments like this:
Certain events are fixed no matter what you decide; you’ll recognize them when you see them. TellTale was apparently given the responsibility of killing off a major and semi-beloved recurring Borderlands character, for example; so far as I can tell there’s no way to save that individual. In instances like this your decisions dictate the hows, not the whethers. These anchor points are necessary to keep a story from branching exponentially (at a certain point it becomes impossible to debug), and to allow the authors to tell the story they intend. Games are still their creators’ creations, and it’s naïve to suggest that authorial control is relinquished just because player affordance is given. The journey is up to you, the destination often is not.
Yes, We Missed You
Rhys, Fiona, and most of their friends are new characters, but Season One also features plenty of cameos from elsewhere in the Borderlands. The biggest protag guest-starring role goes to Athena the Gladiator, who first appeared in Borderlands expansion The Secret Armory of General Knoxxx and became a playable character in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. She was a good choice, because of all the playable characters in Borderlands, Athena is the one who never had much personality, and TellTale showed great aplomb in giving her one. Her presence also gave Gearbox and TellTale the opportunity to set up the opening of The Pre-Sequel, which was otherwise a bit of a question mark.
The other major guest-starring role goes to Handsome Jack, and while that could be considered a major spoiler…
Look, in the world of videogame villains, Handsome Jack completes the Best-Ever Trifecta, alongside Portal’s GLaDOS and System Shock’s SHODAN. Nobody actually believed he was gone for good, right? I mean come on.
Rhys — who works for Hyperion — idolizes Handsome Jack and dreams of being an evil corporate overlord. So far he’s failed at this because he’s fundamentally a nice guy. So when it turns out that Hyperion’s comically ultra-wicked CEO is only Mostly Dead, it’s an opportunity for Rhys to either awaken his latent evil or accept that he hasn’t got any latent evil… or do what he’s done so far, which is wish he had some latent evil but not do anything to de-latent it.
Fiona’s arc is maybe a little less soul-searching, but in many ways it’s more transformative, in part because you find yourself making life-altering decisions for Fiona pretty early in the game. She’s got more invested in life on Pandora, having grown up there alongside her sister Sasha, but all either of them really want to do is leave — which turns out to be emotionally tougher than either expected.
You have a sense of ownership over these two because they’re your characters, but the supporting cast of oddballs are just as lovable and just as important to the flavor of Tales from the Borderlands. It helps that the cast is absolutely outstanding. Given their ubiquity in games industry voice work, casting Troy Baker as Rhys and Laura Bailey as Fiona may seem like an obvious move, but this assumption does a disservice to their talent and range: Baker and Bailey aren’t “reliable” in these roles, they’re perfect. The rest of the cast is a similar who’s-who of VO talent, from Nolan North to Patrick Warburton. It’s true that bad voice acting usually doesn’t hurt a game, but it’s easy to forget how much good voice acting can improve one. And it doesn’t get much better than this.
But even the stellar voice cast can’t save the disastrous final episode of Tales from the Borderlands, which makes the cardinal comedy mistake of trying to have its cake and eat it too. There are certainly moments in Gearbox’s shooters where the story takes a dark turn, but it’s always quick to turn back after making its plot point. It doesn’t linger with endless, pointless foreshadowing or long soulful conversations about death. It kills people and moves on. Tales from the Borderlands doesn’t.
Shit starts to get grim near the end of Episode Four, and the writing’s already on the wall. By the middle of Episode Five, Tales from the Borderlands has gone to a dark place and makes as if it intends to stay there, which would have been bad…
…but worse still is that it doesn’t. It’s like they realized how far off course they’d gotten and shoved some emergency humor up the endgame’s rectum, with predictable results. It would’ve been a far better decision to trash the Episode Five script and start over from the beginning, perhaps after listening to some of Handsome Jack’s sublimely hysterical rants on the subject of villainy.
Without giving anything away, and without intending to scare anyone off from Tales from the Borderlands, I gotta say that Season One ends in such a clumsy, careless place that you need to go in forewarned. At least that way it’ll be a little less jarring when the Carpet of Delight gets abruptly and unceremoniously yanked out from under you and replaced by the Linoleum of Gloom.
It Wasn’t a Tide. It Was Maybe a Small Current
At one point in my game, a character looked at Rhys and blandly said, “I can no longer hold back your tide of bad decisions.”
And that sums up what makes TellTale games so effective. All games are about decisions, but making players actually see and feel the impact of their choices is no easy task. The Walking Dead wasn’t revolutionary for its technology or even its story. It was the profound sense of butterfly effect. Very few games have ever made the sensation so tangible. There’s a lesson to be learned there.
They made some bad decisions with the ending — not just in the story but in the way it plays out. But if you’ve ever played a TellTale game, you know there are so many decisions that it’s essentially impossible to make only good ones. The reality is that with Tales from the Borderlands, the good decisions outweigh the bad ones by a pretty significant margin.
Nobody wants to be judged by one bad decision. The decision to, for example, shoot a diamond-pony. This was a bad decision. I am sorry I shot the diamond-pony. But for the love of God, if you’ve got a diamond-pony in a place where the public might go, take some precautions and put up a sign that says “ACTUAL DIAMOND-PONY DO NOT SHOOT.”
And really, was it my bad decision to shoot the diamond-pony, or Handsome Jack’s bad decision to buy a diamond-pony, knowing it might be shot? It seems to me that if you buy a real live pony made out of diamond, you’re automatically assuming some risk associated with its care.
I’m just saying.
Also, as Fiona pointed out, maybe it wasn’t a diamond-pony. Maybe it was a pony statue, made out of diamond and filled with raspberry jam. We never explored that possibility to my satisfaction. I may yet be innocent.
Developer TellTale Games | Publisher 2K Games | Released Episodic, Nov 2014-Oct 2015
Available On Pretty much everything | Time Played Finished, about 10 hours (PS4)
Steerpike says “mechro,” you say “mancer.”