The makers of The Walking Dead return to their comedy roots, with a companion series to Gearbox’s Borderlands.
It’s two years now since Telltale Games won so many game of the year awards for The Walking Dead. They didn’t get one from us but it was certainly a milestone release for the company, and a great example of (semi-)interactive storytelling. But they’ve struggled to follow up on that success, with a disappointing second season and the enjoyable but flawed The Wolf Among Us. Tales From The Borderlands is the best thing they’ve done in years though, at least judging by this first episode.
Telltale as a studio was formed by a number of ex-LucasArts staff and particularly in the early days, with games like Sam & Max and Tales Of Monkey Island, that legacy was very obvious. But although their games are still usually described as graphic adventures they don’t really have much in common with those older title, with little or nothing in the way of logic puzzles to solve. The other mainstay of LucasArts adventures though was the humour and that at least is something that Tales From The Borderlands also shares.
The Borderlands games have always been funny of course, which is presumably where the idea for this team-up with Gearbox came from. And that wry sense of humour and refusal to take itself seriously has helped the various games through many of their more ordinary gameplay moments. But although it does feature plenty of violence, and even some shooting, Tales Of From The Borderlands is not an action game. Instead the focus is on the story and comedy, but as long you understand that going in we’re certain that existing Borderlands fans are going to enjoy this more than anyone.
The story is set after Borderlands 2, and all its expansions, and centres on two new characters: company man Rhys and con artist Fiona. They don’t meet up until the end of this first episode though, with much of the time instead spent showing the same events from each other’s different POV. Like a sort of sci-fi comedy version of Rashomon.
Rhys starts off as an ordinary corporate sleezebag but is trumped by his rival and passed over for promotion. This inspires a plan for revenge that involves his accountant friend and a briefcase full of $10 million – which just so happens to be the amount that Fiona is looking for to sell her illegally-obtained vault key. Although neither start off as very virtuous characters in the usual Telltale way you can steer them to become either relatively well-intentioned or complete monsters.
You don’t need to have played any of the previous Borderlands games to enjoy or understand what’s going on, not least because the game world was always rather vaguely sketched out and the appeal has always been the characters more than the plot. Although series fans will be able to guess at one cameo simply from the episode’s title most of the people you’ll meet are new, including a Hunter S. Thompson stand-in in and an unusually garrulous worker robot.
The humour is often more subtle than the main games but only because the slower pace of the gameplay allows it, and otherwise it fits perfectly with the tone established by Gearbox. But while they have apparently helped to oversee the game their hand is not obvious in any of the action sequences.
These have always been Telltale’s Achilles heel and this time round the QTE sequences are so simplistic we don’t know why they’re even included. They’re so basic that they’re no longer the embarrassment or annoyance they were in previous games, but they still add nothing to the experience.
As usual there’s no real puzzles and next to no exploration, although Rhys has a cyborg eye that allows him to scan the environment, like Metroid Prime, and Fiona can pick up some extra cash along the way if you poke around enough. But really, all you’re doing is sitting through each scene and occasionally making a dialogue choice. From a gameplay perspective that sounds pretty awful but more than ever these are interactive movies and it’s unfair to judge by them by any other criteria.
And while it’s not unfair to critique just this first episode it is worth pointing out that even Telltale’s worst seasons usually start strongly, and it’s only in subsequent episodes that you get a feel for the wider plot and the scope of the characters. The latter has plenty of of potential, with the physically incompetent but still ruthlessly manipulative Rhys already feeling more interesting than the attempts to humanise Handsome Jack in The Pre-Sequel.
Where the story is going though is harder to say. Into a vault you’d assume, but the hints at bigger issues than Rhys and Fiona’s petty problems imply that the plot for Borderlands 3 is also being set-up at the same time. Despite all the comedy the game still has plenty of moral decisions to make and in fact they’re some of the more interesting that Telltale has proffered, especially what to do with the single bullet in Fiona’s gun and the general malleability of both character’s morality.
From Telltale’s perspective Tales From The Borderlands doesn’t do anything new, and it has all the usual strengths (the excellent dialogue and voice acting) and flaws (weak and action and lots of minor bugs). It’s the same formula as ever then, but so far Borderlands fits the mould at least as well as even The Walking Dead.
In Short: A very promising start to what is mechanically just another Telltale adventure, but where the comedy and characterisation feels very different to their more recent games.
Pros: Great writing and voice acting, and all the new characters are interesting and amusing. Some good jokes but also some difficult decision-making.
Cons: The action sequences are so simplistic you wonder why they bothered. Little freedom of movement or capacity for exploration. The usual minor bugs and glitches.
Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, iOS, and Android
Price: £18.99 (for all five episodes)
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 25th November 2014 (3/12 on 360, PS3, and PS4; iOS and Android TBA)
Age Rating: 18