Gosh I’ve been hanging out a long time for this, now. Between the end of Walking Dead Season 2 and that of Wolf Among Us Season 1, I’ve missed Telltale Games’ unique genre of click-your-own-adventure games. I’m also a pretty big fan of Borderlands’ story in general, so I had some pretty big expectations of this game going in. As with any established world which is being handled by someone other than the creator, however, there’s still a teething and adjustment stage to get through. Tales From The Borderlands (TtfB) Episode 1: Zer0 Sum has me cautiously optimistic for the rest of the series, TTG just has to drop some development baggage first and we’ll be set.
It’s still a Telltale Games version of Borderlands, which is rad.
Rather than following the exploits of incredibly powerful vault hunters, TftB focuses on the somewhat squishier and more human residents of Pandora. The story fits in fairly well with the rest of the Borderlands universe without relying heavily on the player having prior knowledge of the story for the series. Even better is the fact that we’re getting a close-up perspective of how the inhabitants of Pandora actually inhabit, giving a unique narrative angle that hasn’t been explored as of yet by the franchise. However, that isn’t to say there aren’t enough details and appearances to keep long-time fans of the series happy. There are cameo appearances from previous characters, including the titular Zer0, and veteran players of the franchise should be pretty comfortable in familiar surroundings.
So far, it seems like a fun little romp through the extended lore of the Borderlands universe. While only vaguely hinted at, there’s potentially some major consequence to the storyline for the rest of the series – a prospect that has me giddy. In the meantime, however, the first episode is mostly used to introduced the cast of characters who will inevitably break my god-damned heart because I know what you’re like, Telltale Games. There’s Rhys, a Hyperion ladder climber with ambitions for lofty corporate positions, and Fiona, a con-artist who always has her next payday in mind. There’s also a slew of supporting characters, with some notable voice actors behind them, which really help to make this story stand out from the rest of the series.
For starters, these guys wouldn’t even be worth XP to a Vault Hunter.
The dialogue is a mixed bag and I’m still not entirely sure how to consider it. These sorts of games from TTG almost invariably have fantastic dialogue, in so far as it can move me, make me think and, most importantly, get me from beginning to end without making me cringe. The same can be said of TftB, though the humor still feels a little rough around the edges and character development still feels rigid and forced. Perhaps it’s because the main story lacks the grounding of familiar Borderlands characters, but the characters shown in this first episode still felt like they were finding their footing by the end. Choices that the player makes aren’t a constant reflection in their characters’ personalities.
Scripted sections of the game will largely dictate how the story unfolds and only so much player agency in story branching can be allowed before things become complicated, this I can understand. Player character demeanor, attitude, and style generally need to remain malleable to player whims, however, in order to keep players feeling like they’re actually ‘playing’ instead of just ‘watching.’ I tried to make Rhys act like a spoiled, insolent child throughout the entire episode, but the dialogue which wasn’t immediately driven by my own choices didn’t really carry that tone. The result was a relatively mild-mannered Hyperion engineer that would spontaneously flip personality every now and again to spit venomous hate at everyone around him. It would be cool if it were intentional.
A real problem with TftB is that it wasn’t very fun to ‘play,’ which I totally need to qualify before we can continue. Being a Borderlands game there’s a lot of action going on and, whenever it’s going on right in your face, it takes the form of Quick Time Events. While I normally hate QTE’s, they didn’t bother me all that much in Telltale’s The Walking Dead games. The frantic button mashing and arrow key/thumb-stick thrashing whenever the game threw some sudden clusterf*** at your face actually translated well into the tension and fear the game wanted you to feel. It was already getting a bit tired by the time they used it again in The Wolf Among Us, however, and it hasn’t exactly improved in that time.
The QTE’s in TftB fill in for the FPS sections that would normally feature in Borderlands when bullets start flying and they’re taking all the fun out of those scenes. The issue with this stems from the fact that these QTE’s are usually pass-or-fail, making the action feel totally inconsequential. If my character were to take a bullet, which had a lasting effect instead of outright killing me, it would make these sections more engaging and interesting. For now, they’re just frustrating “Simon Says” interrupters to the otherwise far more interesting story line. Seeing as the design has been pretty much built around the use of QTE’s, it’s unlikely that they’ll be changed out for something different before the end of the season. I really hope they figure out a way to make them more interesting before then, however.
For it’s technical flaws and rough story start, the game looks pretty and the voice acting is fantastic. It’s not a complaint, it’s something I noticed though maybe it’s just me – Troy Baker’s performance of Rhys sounds awfully similar to Handsome Jack. Weird. Patrick Warburton, aside from being a personal favorite actor of mine, was a great choice for Vasquez and has so far done a great job of crafting an adversary I love to hate. The appearance, environments and music of the game all still closely follow the style of previous Borderlands titles. This isn’t a criticism; the style of Borderlands is amazing and it’s really lent itself well to the immersive nature of TTG’s storytelling.
If you think my complaints about this episode mean that I’m deterred from the rest of the series, then you couldn’t be more wrong. If not a major plot point for the series in general, this episode has at least teased that the rest of the season holds some interesting details about events already past. There’s a few design issues, mostly surrounding the use of QTE’s, that need to be figured out as the season progresses, but I’m confident TTG can rise to the occasion. Their previous games such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us are notorious for twisting stories, which really get to the core of their source materials. If this first episode is an indication, they may be able to do the same again, and, with any luck, they’ll evolve their growing genre of click-your-own-adventure games in the process.