Over the past few years, Telltale has revived, reconfigured and redefined point and click adventures. Gone are the convoluted inventory puzzles with nonsensical resolutions, but the heart and wit of the story not only remains in a Telltale game, but it’s vastly improved. Some purists may be offended by the dirt-simple puzzles and fragrant use of quick time events, but when those sacrifices are made for the sake of pacing to enhance a story that will have you giggling one minute and crying the next, most would find it’s a paltry argument against Telltale’s method. Time and time again, the company has been given free reign to a license and their attention to detail and respect for the franchises has harbored such a great experience you can’t help but wonder what they will tackle next. Then, at PAX East 2014, Gearbox Studios announced Tales From the Borderlands.
After the general public got an initial look at The Walking Dead’s identical graphical style, an unjustified comparison was made to Borderlands. When people experienced the elaborate story and vast contrast in tone, the allegations were subdued, but the memory of its resemblance questioned when or if the two parties would ever collaborate. But when the seemingly inevitable was confirmed, it left a surprising taste of worry in the mouths of fans from both sides. Could TellTale really encapsulate the feel of Borderlands and still tell an emotionally driven story without losing all the humor or heavy gunplay? Could Borderlands’ story handle a continuation divergent of that which they had planned for? Luckily, there is very little to worry about.
Tales from the Borderlands: Zer0 Sum pulls you right into the world of Pandora and into the lives of Hyperion lackeys Rhys and Vaughn. An accountant and spokesman for the company, they spend their time scheming hard and dreaming big. This sets a tone true to Borderlands but from another angle. Rather than bandits and thieves, these guys are the slimy corporate bandits thieving for their own needs. Adversely, the other side of the story keeps a more familiar protagonist in Fiona who is your more traditional con artist with a posse and plan of her own. These character set up exactly how the story is played out and is all the better for it. No one can be trusted, everyone’s motives are obscured, and the player is even fighting against them-self in a few cases. It’s a great way to handle what should be a simple story and help expand what consequences can truly mean. However, the illusion of choice doesn’t always cloak itself so well.
Telltale has become renown for making the player think they are control of the story even though their choices, no matter how different, end up playing out the same. TFTB doesn’t really hide this very well and most diverging paths are covered with cop out lines to get you back on track pretty quickly. However, only being the first part of a five part series, this has potential to change and it doesn’t take away how great the story is so far. But it definitely calls into question the decisions you make for each dialog tree and quick time event.
It’s through these QTEs, though that the episode keeps the frantic action Borderlands is known for. Telltale games are not exactly glorified for their gunplay, so expect to see lots of button maneuvers while your enemies are being shot, blasted, and exploded. But it still does it’s job at making you feel involved and important; sometimes going as far as flat out asking you what you’d like the character to do. However, once again, in future releases it would be nice to bring in some actual crosshairs to remind you of the game’s roots.
Not to say that TFTB doesn’t give you plenty of fan service to keep you at home. You’ll run into memorable characters from all parts of the Borderlands series. Those that don’t show up, are slated for later episodes and some characters and companies are referenced throughout. Most notably in this episode is Zer0, who is just as badass as he’s always been. The attention to detail on his character from his slicing and sniping to his haiku paced dialog are all in tact (save for an out of place “thanks” at one point.) Every character gets their spotlight and none seem to steal the show more than another. Not even the newly appointed antagonist Vasquez.
Vasquez is a bossy, arrogant douche with no cares outside of his own needs. Every action in the game is driven by his forces or others desire to fuck him over. He’s that “love to hate him” kind of villain that Borderlands is so good at, but it’s hard to not get a Handsome Jack vibe from him. It almost seemed like the writers were trying to score bonus points by rewriting the same character. But if the formula works, it’s hard to blame anyone for not messing with it.
Despite my balancing arguments, Telltale definitely did it again and took Borderlands to another level with Tales From the Borderlands’ masterful storytelling. Every character is fleshed out and no one really outshines another. There’s a great equilibrium between action, drama and humor that seemingly only Telltale can teach these days and it only makes you wonder where the company will go next and what the continuation of this story will developer into.