Tales from the Borderlands review – Wild Ride

Title: Tales from the Borderlands
Alternative Title:
 TalesBorderlands TalesTales from the Borderlands: A Telltale Game Series
Developers: Telltale Games, Gearbox Software
Publishers: 2K Games, Telltale Games
Genre: Adventure
Engine: Telltale Tool
Format: PS3, X360, PS4 (reviewed), X1, PC
Release: November 25, 2014 – October 20, 2015

When well-known adventure games developer Telltale Games announced that they would work together with Gearbox  Software and 2K Games to create an episodic, graphic adventure game in the Borderlands series, many people raised an eyebrow or two (or three – I won’t judge you), and not without a reason.

While Borderlands is fairly loved for its zany setting and eccentric cast, it doesn’t feel ike a franchise where a more action-light, story-heavy adventure game could set in, despite the potential of such project to work. Bu, as always, Telltale took the chance anyways.

Now, I am not a particularly big fan of graphic adventure games, so up until not too long ago, I dismissed Tales, but then the game was offered as part of the PlayStation Plus subscription, so without anything to lose, I decided to dive right in.

I am more than glad for this choice.

Story & Setting

(It shouldn’t go without a mention that
Tales takes place within the Borderlands-verse and sometime after the events of 2012’s Borderlands 2, thus spoilers for that particular game may follow.

Tales can be enjoyed immensely without experiencing previous Borderlands titles, but if you plan to play this game and want to “appreciate” the story to the “fullest,” you should probably check the previous games, especially Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.)

(Following this, I guess disclaimer: reader discretion is advised.)

Sometime after the downfall of Hyperion CEO Handsome Jack, mild-manager Rhys and his friends Vaughn and Yvette wish to gain promotion through the corporation’s ranks, only to be dismissed by Rhys’ archenemy and new Vice President Hugo Vasquez, who demotes Rhys to a janitor. Hoping to outsmart Vasquez, Rhys and his friends decide to hijack a deal involving a Vault Key that Vasquez seeks to obtain.

Elsewhere, on the deadly and bizarre planet of Pandora, con artist Fiona, her younger sister Sasha and their mentor Felix plan their scheme to rob Hyperion during their Vault Key deal… Which eventually lead to the unlikely partnership between Rhys and Fiona as they escape Vasquez’ wrath, and search for a new Vault – all while surviving some truly lethal situations on a planet where no one can be described as sane.

Their adventures are both recounted as they are held captured by a mysterious masked man, who appears to hold grudge against them.

Tales from the Borderlands keeps the series’ love for eccentric characters and ultra-violent humor while also injecting the lore with much needed personality and emotional depth – a no easy task at all.

Divided into five episodes, the majority of Tales is told – rather unreliably – by the captured Rhys and Fiona as they recount their motives, eventual meeting, unlikely partnership and countless hardships to a masked, shotgun-holding individual with an ax to grind against our humorous protagonists.

Typical to a Telltale game, choices fill up the entire story in both big and small ways, and many of them are often played for laughs and comedy which the game loves acknowledging.

What particularly sets Tales apart from other modern Telltale games such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is its tone.

With Tales, Telltale show that not only are they excellent writers of drama and tragedy, but also of comedy and ridiculous, ultra-violent action. And their ability to mix the more comedic aspects of Tales with some truly heartfelt and touching scenes make the series truly shine.

Witty dialogue, over-the-top visual execution and wild character interactions make Tales a bizarre and thoroughly entertaining ride, and you’d find hard not to laugh at even the shallowest jokes it has to offer such as a holographic hand talking through a crotch, and a bloody air gun shootout.

Rhys and Fiona are a dynamic protagonist duo that compliment each other, the former being a smartass and clueless guy about Pandora’s dangerous areas while the latter is a snarky but slightly arrogant thief who got used to her home world. Both belong to seemingly different worlds and seek to escape them, in the process learning to respect the other for their struggles and qualities.

Their respective developments and growths – as well as their friends’ – are among the best I’ve seen in recent years, and there is a surprising amount of depth to be found here, which I admit I didn’t expect.

The slew of original characters to the Borderlands canon here is relatively large, and more importantly – fun to watch and interact with; from Rhys’ best friend and colleague Vaughn and Fiona’s younger sister and fellow con artist Sasha, to the comically villainous Vasquez and the stern August, almost each character is injected with humorous dialogues and snarky attitude brought with excellent performances and superb direction.

And they’re not alone.

A masterful usage of existing characters from the main Borderlands games aids the main cast constantly, including the serious Athena, the punching bag of a robot Louder Bot, everyone’s favorite simple-minded Scooter, and the supposedly surprising (but not really, also spoiler alert!!!) return of Handsome Jack. What Tales does best with many of those characters is expanding on and developing their persona and role without making it feel jarringly forced or artificial, and their interactions with the main characters are unforgettable.

There is also much fanservice here in the forms of other past playable characters, such Zer0. But those cameos and guest appearances turn out to be more than mere fan pleasing and those characters merge with the narrative pretty well.

If there’s always one thing I can say that is guaranteed from Telltale, is that they respect the settings and characters that their respective works are based on, and deliver them to the fullest.

It’s kind of shame, however, when the game decides to skip on certain subplots and concepts or rush them, the most glaring of those issues being the treatment given to Athena halfway through the game, and while this is explained through The Pre-Sequel, when the final episode hits its midpoint, I can’t help but to feel weird when she is included because due to a lack of resolution within Tales itself, not even a bloody mention.

Same goes with Felix after the second episode. Something just feels wasted here.

And my second issue with the story is the rather lack of using the unreliable narration thingy throughout the game.

Yes, it’s there and the basis for some jokes and arguments, as well as some surprisingly bittersweet moments, in the three-man party of Rhys, Fiona and the mystery guy, but it’s never used to its fullest potential, and the game begins to slowly ditch this useful tool by the time the story reach present-time.

I would have loved to see more of this in the game, because it is a generally not that well explored storytelling technique in the gaming medium – or at least, in my perspective of things. And Tales certainly had promise, and when it was used, it was pretty good.

And that’s just shame, but to the game’s credit, it’s not something I’ve noticed for the majority of my playthrough, and only after finishing the game and reflecting my thoughts on it did those issues surface. And the game has a lot to make up for it, especially the finale of the entire ride, which is ridiculously explosive and bizarre through and through.

(Even thought it’s Pandora we’re talking about)

Tales has a fun story that takes to all weird places in Pandora and it breathes a lot of life, color and personality into the Borderlands franchise, a comedic journey of four no-good morons.


Gameplay & Design

It’s a Telltale game. You know how it goes: mostly walking your character – either Rhys or Fiona – through corridors and other environments, inspect objects of interest and, of course, make hard, quick-thinking decisions in both your dialogues and actions.

There isn’t much for me to say about the game from a gameplay standpoint, mostly because of its extremely linear structure and limited movement. For better and for worse, this is how most Telltale games go.

It should go without saying, however, that Telltale knows how to execute its quick-thinking decisions, unexpected choices and tense QTEs to create a wholly engaging narrative-driven game that rarely feels boring.

It helps that the game takes some jabs at the usual Telltale form of choice matters, and constantly jokes when a crucial choice is made, with the screen either tells the player that the affected character will try to forget their latest conversation, or they won’t forget it anytime soon.

Small additions to make things ‘meatier’ also include using Rhys’ ECHO eye to check descriptions on different objects and beings which can lead to some hilariously-written texts and statuses of characters and lifeforms that mockingly warn Rhys of their potential danger or miserable conditions.

There are some few, very few shooting moments and action parts, although they are admittedly very simple and forgettable.

And… that’s it, I guess. Again, there isn’t much to write about a Telltale game’s gameplay, partly because there’s not much to it; hell, Telltale even avoids planting puzzles and the like into their games.

This might pose as a large criticism towards both Tales and its other brethren as a whole, and while the story as a whole clocks at almost 10 hours, there’s little reason to go back into it.

Then again, that’s an issue with many games of its kind, and I do not hold it against Tales.

Visuals & Sound

As with all modern Telltale games,
Tales is presented with the typical comic-like, cel-shaded visuals that were used in The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones, although unlike the rest of those examples, Tales presents a slightly more cartoonish art direction and character design that is more akin to the Borderlands series.

And given that the Borderlands games also use cel-shaded graphics, Tales hits right at home with both of its visuals and art direction, and it never feels out of place. And the choreography of some scenes deserves a special mention for how lively and fun it looks.

Sadly, this is a Telltale game after all, and Tales suffers from the usual, numerous minor technical issues in its presentation such as screen-tearing moments and pop-ups within the animation. It’s nothing grand, but it can lead to some immersion-breaking moments.

Voice acting is top-notch and each actor fits their character like a glove. Of course, main guy Rhys is played by Troy Baker who is in damn-near everything nowadays (and he easily proves here he can play a comical character just as well as he plays serious ones), and main girl Fiona is played by Laura Bailey who I know her more from anime roles such as Soul Eater, and she also played with Baker in Infamous: Second Son.

The rest of the cast is also unsurprisingly good, with people such as Nolan North, Chris Hardwick, Erin Yvette and Ashley Johnson just to name a few. They all do their roles exceptionally well, and show a versatile range of emotions and expressions for their respective characters.

As for the soundtrack, I didn’t really find it very memorable save for the licensed songs used during each of the five episodes’ introduction scenes, and they are mixed with wonderful execution and cinematography. I particularly enjoyed the second episode’s song, “Kiss the Sky” by Shawn Lee and Nino Moschella.

Final Verdict

Tales from the Borderlands stands as a prime example that its developer Telltale Games can handle almost every property and write almost every genre, showing their skill in comedy is just as strong as their skill in drama. Telltale’s strong writing is shown through both their treatment of the subject matter and the characters they created.

It suffers from a few rushed ideas and plotlines, as well as lack of usage of some of its stronger assets and tropes, but those issues stumble in the grander scheme of things as Tales takes the player through a wild and vastly entertaining journey with excellent characters.

Tales manages to breathe much needed color and depth to the Borderlands series, and every fan of this series should give this vastly different title a go, because I can reassure you that you will have a very crazy ride.

Alternate Recommendations:

Considering that comedy is not a genre that much successfully used in video games, I don’t have many recommendations for people who loved Tales…. Buuuuuut, let’s see…

  • My first recommendation would be The Wolf Among Us, another title made by Telltale, although this one is based on a graphic novel, Fables. It’s far from being as lighthearted and funny as Tales, but on the other hand it is not as dark and gloomy as their other well-known works The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. It is available on the same platforms as Tales, so you wouldn’t have much trouble finding it.
  • My second recommendation goes to Life is Strange, a 2015 game published by Square Enix. I put it on as a recommendation mainly because it is a rare example of a non-Telltale episodic adventure game done right. It too not much of a comedy game, but it would scratch that itch for more games in the same format. Same with Wolf,  it is found in the same platforms as Tales.

I would also recommend you guys and girls to check Tales of Monkey Island if you want to experience a more similar game, although this game is not available on current-gen games at the time of this writing.

In Points:

The Good:

  • A crazy and fun ride throughout Gearbox’ game series setting that gives much life and depth to it
  • A memorable cast of characters with hilarious interactions, both existing characters and new blood
  • Excellent visual and aural direction, top-notch voice acting and great cinematography

The Bad:

  • Several moments and sub-plots got rushed or cut, leaving a jarring resolution
  • Game doesn’t really use its “unreliable narrator” plot devise as much as it could
  • Typical Telltale limited and repetitive gameplay, lack of replayability

& The Ugly:

  • Vallory

2 thoughts on “Tales from the Borderlands review – Wild Ride

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