Tales From The Borderlands: S1
360, Android, iOS, PC
Decades after the original disappointments, calling a game an interactive movie tends to be less a description than an assassination. With Tales From The Borderlands, however, Telltale offers as good a defence as anyone’s ever made for sitting back and enjoying a ride where anything is possible, provided you can hammer a QTE action button quickly enough.
Calling it a movie isn’t quite right, in fairness. Like most of Telltale’s games, it’s closer to television in terms of pacing, variety and character, only with far more of a desire to not be a regular show, but your favourite show. Like its characters, it often succeeds despite itself, through charm and wit and momentum, bouncing from set-piece to set-piece with an infectious confidence that makes it easy to ignore how little you’re usually contributing except laughter. The standard Telltale gripes are all here, it’s simply harder to care during a comedy than in the more muted drama of The Wolf Among Us or Game Of Thrones.
No knowledge or enjoyment of Borderlands is required here – in fact, many of Tales’ biggest fans don’t like the originals much at all. This is very much its own game, fleshing out the world of Pandora and its evil corporate overlords and showing it from a far more interesting angle. You’re not a hard-as-nails team of Vault Hunters this time, but a gang of screw-ups and schmucks led by the two main characters: arrogant but good-natured salaryman Rhys, and cowgirl-style conwoman Fiona. Both are, of course, seeking the treasures of one of Pandora’s cursed Vaults. This time, though, the quest for fortune isn’t built on shooting, but wit, friendship, espionage, and pulling off the occasional suicidal heist as time permits.
The five-episode arc tells a great story, with the only real frustration coming from the moments where the action briefly aspires to be more involved than it is, ironically acting as a reminder of how much more Telltale would be capable of were it not so wedded to its template. There’s also a running theme of collecting money, which threatens to become a part of decision making, but can also be used to buy new in-game costumes or similar cosmetic tweaks, such as caravan paint jobs. Just as Tales stumbles on new mechanics with potential, however, it drops them and retreats to the comfort of conversations and QTEs.
Happily, the content in those sections is good enough to forgive many sins. From the first episode’s extended sequence during a chaotic death race to each episode’s gloriously choreographed musical intro, Telltale knocks the cutscenes out of the park. Voice actors Troy Baker and Laura Bailey both bring their A-game to Rhys and Fiona, with Telltale’s writing and animation teams letting the character models act their hearts out, whether they’re doing gags or going through one of the more sombre moments that cast the laughs into proper relief, making the story more than just a relentlessly goofy comedy.
In particular, Tales embraces the need for a cinematic game to feel cinematic, showing Rhys and Fiona’s plans with Hustle-style demonstrations of everything going far better than everyone knows it’s going to, as well as cheery breaks from reality. This happens a lot, not least because both characters are veteran BS artists telling a story to a mysterious bounty hunter who has them at gunpoint. Not that it stops them sniping at each other constantly over what went wrong, or trying to steal the credit.
It’s a game full of glorious little touches, which encourages you to pick the funnier choice – both because, unlike The Walking Dead, you know it all turns out essentially OK, and because it’s far more fun to see Rhys desperately try to throttle a guard who’s too amused by his sad attempt to mind all that much, or for Fiona to spit sarcasm at enemies at gunpoint. Other highlights include a character getting shot with a paralytic and spending a whole episode only able to move their eyes and being treated like a prop by their supposed friends, and a trip to Hyperion’s orbital HQ to take part in the most gloriously over-the-top finger-gun battle since the second series of Spaced. All of this silliness is also why the limited choices tend to work. They’re not, for the most part, issues of morality but of fun, and the QTEs that surround them are enjoyable enough in concept to get past the limited interactions. An early example involves Rhys having a colleague send him a guardian – a Loader-Bot, whose growing humanity and weariness soon makes it Tales’ breakout star – with the option to kit it out with your choice of gear. It’s obvious that whatever you choose will work, but that doesn’t mean choosing and seeing the outcome isn’t entertaining in itself.
To some extent, though, it’s hard not to feel a little guilty about that. All the running issues with Telltale’s current design template remain. There are no puzzles, no challenge; the only real interactions are the same button-mashing minigame a hundred times over, along with occasional choices that never affect as much as they feel like they should.
On its own terms, Tales From The Borderlands is one of Telltale’s best works yet. Each of the five two-hourlong episodes flies past, to the point that it’s difficult to find time to pause and complain about the lapses until it’s over, at which point there are far more entertaining things to think about. It’s funny. It’s dramatic. It’s great fun to catch a ride with Rhys and Fiona as they plunder the Borderlands for all they’ve got. The entertainment value is a bit of a con-trick at heart, but it’s a damn fine trick and one there’s no shame in being sucked in by while the illusion lasts.
It’s funny. It’s dramatic. It’s fun to catch a ride with Rhys and Fiona as they plunder the Borderlands for all they’ve got