Hello once again! It feels like we just did this a…month ago. I return to talk about a franchise that’s been following me for awhile now, Borderlands, as I see what the fuss is with Tales of the Borderlands. Having gotten tired of the franchise in recent times, I heard nothing but amazing things coming out of Tales, but I always said “eh….I will play it, later”. Let’s see if Telltale managed to get back on top, and whether they could resurrect my interest in the world of Borderlands. So all that’s left to ask is, was Tales from the Borderlands a Critical Hit, or Miss?
Reviewed on PC, also available on Android, iOS, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
Developed and Published by Telltale Games
Based on the Borderlands series by Gearbox Software
Before I really get into the meat of this tale, let me start of by saying my relationship with the Borderland franchise is…a little strange. In theory I like the Borderlands games, I got play the original Borderlands before it was released during, I think, my first convention experience at a now dead GenCon Australia. 2k Games and Gearbox software had a stall setup for the not yet released Borderlands, a game which I don’t think was even on my radar at the time, but hey, they had a short line and were offering a free shirt, I’m not hard to buy. I was surprised to find myself really enjoying the game and was actually excited for it to release in the coming weeks, my friends and I even chipped together to get a four pack on steam so we could co-op this cell shaded monster.
After launch however it didn’t take long for me to get to the problem I’ve had with the franchise from day one, it simply…gets repetitive, and then dull. While mechanically solid and barring an interesting aesthetic, both visually and for the world as a whole, Borderlands just drifts off into a mediocre shooter after so long much to my disappointment. Various horrible network issues aside the game was fun with friends, and to degree even alone, but something about Borderlands just refused to stick with me, it was like that dish your grandma made for the family dinner and you don’t want to be rude, but deep down you just….don’t want to get through the whole thing. Long story short, it took me three separate attempts to get through the story of the game so I could finally say I beat it, partially encouraged by the release of the much better looking second game.
Yet with the release of Borderlands 2, while possibly better in almost every way, I still couldn’t get into the game, and after two attempts, to this day I haven’t beaten the game, I don’t even know what happens to Handsome Jack after all this time (well, Tales made some elements clear). To the credit of the second game, much of what I enjoyed about the world was really kicked up a notch, making way for what Tales later became. It put such a heavier focus on story and characters, with the main characters returning as important people worth caring about now, and a villain that practically made the game worth playing. This did a lot for the game, yet it suffered from a better story than the gameplay, making me chase after the plot like an addict looking for another hit, having to slog through hours of shooting and looting to get there.
It’s worth noting that Tales takes place post Borderlands 2, so if you haven’t played the second game, because frankly the first game isn’t exactly a story driven masterpiece, and care about this, then Tales will spoil a few details. That said if you don’t care either way about the series in relation to Tales, you can play the game as a standalone just fine.
So why then do I like Borderlands? Why have I been rambling about this for four paragraphs? Because I always felt like the world and the lore of Pandora, the crazy quirky characters and the premise of the series had a truly interesting soul buried under what was generally an action packed, loot hoarding shooter, the unholy child of Diablo and Halo set in a space faring Mad Max world. Telltale seemed to feel the same way as me, because they took that soul and created a game out of it, and that game is Tales from the Borderlands.
Spoiler Warning: Tales from the Borderlands is basically a purely story driven game, and as such I feel after this much time has passed, it warrants at least being able to cover some basics of the story. I won’t spoil anything major or ruin the story, but if you truly want to go in blind, some tidbits will be covered here
Tales opens up sometime after the beginning of the story as you get to meet the cybernetically enhanced Rhys, the charismatic rogue with a golden smile, and silver arm, as he gets forced to tell his tale from the very beginning after his meeting with a stranger goes awry, resulting in him getting dragged away to an unknown fate as he begins his tale from the start. Tales is largely experienced as a linear narrative, however the story itself is told by our two mains after the story has ended, or at least so they thought. This has been done to mixed success before, but I feel Tales really hit a good mix with how this was handled, as it not only makes you crave the knowledge of what happened, but in classic Borderlands style it lets the characters put a little twist on what actually happened, at least in their mind. Speaking of our hero’s, let’s talk about Rhys and Fiona.
Rhys is the kind of character I would expect to find in a classic point and click adventure game, and personally one of my very favourite archetypes, the stories often cowardly wise cracking “hero” who smooth talks and exaggerates his way through the world, often relying of his wit and quick thinking to seal the deal instead of any actual combat ability. Given the retelling nature of the story, this also lets Rhys create an epic atmosphere as he pulls off some daring feat, only to be forced to correct himself for less than epic results.
Rhys reveals that he is just another corporate cog in the cut throat business of Hyperion, the company owned by the now deceased Handsome Jack, the former big bad of Borderlands 2, technically making him one of the “bad guys” at least in the eyes of the Pandorans. Rhys recalls how he and his best friend Vaughn, the corporate accountant, are getting pumped up over his practically guaranteed promotion at Hyperion as the player begins their long road of character choices as per telltale tradition. In the case of Rhys this boils down to two roads, do you want him to be a ladder climbing back stabber with his eyes on the prize, or a team player who remembers his friends when he gets to the top.
Regardless of this you arrive at your boss’s office to find Vasquez, the man literally introduced as your nemesis, to be swiveling around in classic bond villain style as Rhys and you both realise his chances of a promotion just sank faster than the Australian dollar. Just when Vasquez’s gloating is reaching pompous overkill, he gets interrupted by a call and has to step away, leaving the player to test Rhys’s personal game mechanic, his cybernetic eye capable of detecting plot relevant information. You discover Vasquez is trying to buy a vault key for a small loan of ten million dollars and after your nemesis “promotes” you to janitor, you hatch a plan to steal ten million dollars from Hyperion, buy the key and show up Vasquez in the deal of a life time to win back your promotion and Rhys’s new office on easy street, thus beginning a rich tale of two characters trying to, well, get rich.
This leads to our next character, Fiona, the smooth talking con woman with a sharp hat and new wrist mounted gun, wanted for a long list of crimes across Pandora. While Rhys is currently orbiting the planet above on his way to an exciting career in sanitation, Fiona is putting together her biggest con job of her life, selling a fake vault key to Hyperion’s very own Vasquez. Working with her sister Sasha and adoptive father Felix, the team makes preparations to sell the fake key as you learn of Fiona’s own personal mechanics, money, which you can use to bribe people, and a small wrist mounted gun with a single bullet. The idea of limited rounds is a devious mechanic, as you get multiple choices to shoot at something or someone during the story, but if you do, you lose that power forever, at least as far as we know, making every choice feel like you somehow messed up. Fiona’s character path is different from Rhys’s in that it’s more about how bad of a person is she at heart. Fiona is a criminal and a con man, but she doesn’t have to be a dick. She can be a thief with the heart of gold, or a ruthless crook who’s only in it for the money, or maybe she wants to become something more during her adventures.
With Friends like These
It makes an interesting dynamic to play a game that asks you to control two main characters, it’s not a new idea, but it’s not done often, especially in something so story driven. This is executed well by the fact that they not only play off each other well, but ultimately you decide just how much they respect each other as team members. You can’t simply ditch someone from the team, but it really lets you mold how the team feels about each other. As someone who liked the party as a whole, I wanted them to ultimately become buddies despite something clearly going wrong in their future from the retelling style of the narrative. This is more important for Rhys all too soon, as he becomes the sole inheritor of a forgotten secret in the form of his new inescapable best friend, Handsome Jack.
Jack is back, but despite his disbelief, he is still quite dead. Rhys gets infected by Jack’s AI, part of a program to continue his legacy, if not in the flesh. Jack’s return at first made me worried, while he was clearly one of the best characters in the series, I didn’t want him crammed in merely for audience hype. It quickly became apparent that these fears were for naught, as he not only adds volumes to Rhys’s story, but pulls on threads in the Borderlands universe that needed to be closed. For the player this ultimately becomes about Rhys, and want he wants. Jack promises to give you Hyperion with the two of you ruling side by side, and while Rhys knows Jack is an insane psycho, he also has the key to everything he’s ever wanted locked in his brain, whether or not he lets anyone else know what he’s up to.
As a character Fiona is a solid female lead to counter the actions and desires of Rhys, yet personally, I never found her quite as interesting to her male counterpart. Rhys has a promotion to win, a nemesis to spurn and a solid goal to chase across Pandora to achieve, while a deadly secret is locked in his brain. In contrast Fiona really just wants money, and by extension, a way to leave this horrible planet. While it never diminished playing her, it just felt less compelling to choose her side when the two main characters fought. Warming up to Rhys from the start made his desire for revenge on Vasquez feel like a much more personal objective from the player’s side than Fiona’s desire for the dough. Although it does evolve over time into what Fiona wants to become on Pandora, it ultimately felt like a side story next to Rhys’s struggles with Jack, Hyperion, and the team’s mission as a whole.
If you really needed to be reminded that this was a Borderlands game, many characters from the past show up for a guest appearance, some brief, some leaving a larger impact on the story, and Telltale isn’t afraid to develop the entire range of the franchises characters in lasting ways. In classic Borderlands fashion, the characters desires and personal goals end up mixed into another vault hunt, except this time, no one is a vault hunter. Tales works from a fresh perspective because Rhys and Fiona feel like real people, not action heroes, and his makes the crazy world of Pandora seem even worse than before. What follows is an intermixing story between all the characters as Rhys, Fiona, Vaughn, Sasha and the rest of Tale’s enjoyable cast united, yet divided, in a quest for all or nothing. With all the characters seamlessly mixing into a melting pot of action and suspense it creates some of the best action sequences I’ve played in a long time, not to mention often telling a well told meta narrative of just how crazy vault hunters are as a presence in this world from the eyes of normal people after playing as one for two games now.
Voice, Music and Telltale
It should be noted that an amazing sound track really sets the atmosphere with songs like “Busy Earnin’”, “Kiss the Sky”, “Pieces of the People we Love”, “Back to the Top”, “Retrograde” and “My Silver Lining”, each perfectly setting the tone and feeling each episode wants to convey as the narrative progresses, while the background soundtrack during gameplay always enhances the mood without really getting in the way. As far as voice acting goes, Troy baker and Laura Bailey bringing Rhys and Fiona, respectively, to life. It doesn’t hurt that the actors themselves are great friends in real life, really helping the characters play of each other during the gameplay. Both are veterans in industry, with the two working on many titles together like Fullmetal Alchemist, Persona 4, Infamous: Second Son, Catherine and so forth. Troy Baker alone should need no introduction, having been in…well….it would be easier to list what he hasn’t worked on at this point. It must be mentioned that Patrick Warburton made a surprising appearance as Vasquez, with his recognizable voice really selling the character as a total douchebag you love to hate, no offense to Patrick. Along with the main cast, we have Chris Hardwick as Vaughn, Erin Yvette as Sasha, Nolan North as August, and Dameon Clarke returning as Handsome Jack. Telltale went all out to bring these characters and life with the lineup we have, and it definitely paid off with the talent on display.
Though there lies another question many of you might be asking, is Tales just more of the same Telltale formula, and isn’t it just getting old now? Telltale has been an interesting company to watch in the recent years, after a few less than successful titles, they struck oil with the critically acclaimed “The Walking Dead”. Being based on the popular series of graphic novels and TV show with the same name, The Walking Dead cemented in a new popular style of video game simply referred to by many as the Telltale formula. While generating hit after hit with this style of merging game play into a storytelling experience, they began to feel stale after a while. Despite “The Walking Dead” and “The Wolf Among Us” being critical hits, Telltale rarely evolved their formula much and left many people getting tired of their games.
While “Tales from the Borderlands” is often much of the same honestly, I couldn’t help but feel like they made an effort to at least feel fresh in some ways. In previous titles it almost never felt worth choosing to not pick a dialogue option, yet I had to laugh when several options trick you into being rash to punish you for exactly that way of thinking. After Rhys’s “promotion” you’re given the option to kick a trash can just as Vaughn is saying that you can still keep it on the down low for now, kicking the trash over mid conversation informs the entire station, including your friend down the hallway, that as the new janitor, there is a mess that requires your attention. Its little touches like this that made me feel that illusion was back again. The choices you make in Telltale games rarely really matter, the story will remain linear regardless, but they make you feel like the world matters, and questions what kind of person you are for how you react in it.
Is it Good?
In closing, Tales from the Borderlands is an action packed adventure that follows a charismatic corporate rogue and a smooth talking con woman as they embark on a story that’s part heist movie, part con job and part action packed scramble as they team up, double cross, and scheme their way through the Borderlands universe in search for treasure and personal gain all as the world itself weaves in and out of their own conflicts in seamless transition. It’s one of the best adventures gaming has taken me on in a long time and yes, you absolutely should get it.
Tales really made me happy as I played it, not only because it was a good game, but because it proved something I’ve always loved about the world of gaming, a good story can make everything. Story is not the only element you need to make a great game, but it may be the most important one. With a franchise like Borderlands that was slowly losing me entirely, Tales managed to really tap into why the world itself was great, and honestly made me want to go back to the past games with fresh eyes. Tales is named so appropriately because it stripped away the loot grinding, the quest slogging and the other junk bogging down the world of Pandora, and just told us a tale from the Borderlands.
Once again you can find me around the network if you ever feel the need to say hi, or you can swing by my Twitch under drenik74 if you want to see future Critical Hit, or Miss? works being…well worked on, along with other games I share with the community. I’ll see you next month with an older favourite of mine that deserved a second look, and an exploration to the end.