Telltale's announcement of their Borderlines spin-off adventure game was one of the most surreal experiences that I've ever had in this industry. Telltale is a developer now well known for their powerful, evocative stories and unique quick-time event adventure game design. Gearbox's Borderlands property feels openly hostile to these unique elements of Telltale's design style. The Borderlands franchise also has an awful mythos, with incredibly annoying characters and borderline offensive writing that leverages the misery that is Reddit/YouTube "humor". Not only that, but Borderlands' signature high-octane first-person shooting and RPG progression such as loot and XP systems seemed in direct contradiction to everything that an adventure game could be.
Imagine my surprise then -- against all odds -- at least the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands (Zer0 Sum) is a good piece of episodic storytelling and Borderlands fan service. Telltale rightfully throws out all of the narrative devices and conceits of the franchise up until this point, replacing it instead of their trademark literary-minded writing and cinematic style that is desperately missing from the games industry. Simultaneously, Tales from the Borderlands pays the proper respect that any licensed game should of feeling like an authentic entry in that franchise. But problems start emerging when directly compared to Telltale's past adventures, revealing Episode 1: Zer0 Sum to be a lacking Telltale game.
Tales from the Borderlands takes place after the events of Borderlands 2, after the Vault Hunters of that game have killed Hyperion CEO Handsome Jack, leaving the Hyperion Corporation leaderless. The sudden power vacuum caused by Jack's murder leads to a corporate war to reorganize Hyperion's structure. This gives Rhys, one of the two playable characters in this series, the opportunity to carve out a new position for himself and his friends in the Hyperion hierarchy. But the slick maneuverings of his nemesis, Hugo Vasquez, leaves Rhys in the wind, forcing him and his allies to assist him in traveling to the desert planet of Pandora to try and sabotage Vasquez's business deal to obtain a powerful alien artifact which can unlock one of the fabled Vaults, ancient alien structure which provide access to incredible power and technology to whomever unlocks it.
But unlike past Telltale games, Tales from the Borderlands has you switching between two playable characters at scripted points in the story. The second character you control is Fiona, a Pandora native who was adopted along with her sister, Sasha, by a master thief and con artist, Felix. Fiona and her little crime family are directly involved in the selling of the Vault Key to Vasquez, which immediately falls apart thanks to Rhys unwelcome interference and other unpredictably insane nonsense which could only happen in the Borderlands universe. This causes Rhys and Fiona to team up in a Ocean's Eleven heist movie fashion to recover from this failed deal and get off of the hellish planet of Pandora.
Telltale often uses licensed properties as a springboard to tell genre tales that interest them, with The Walking Dead being a formulaic yet effective zombie narrative and The Wolf Among Us taking the form of a fantastic homage to the noir genre of old. In Tales from the Borderlands, Gearbox's franchise is exploited to tell a comedy/heist story with direct inspiration from The Usual Suspects plot-bending framing elements and unreliable narration. The entire framework for at least Episode 1: Zer0 Sum revolves around Rhys and Fiona being kidnapped by a mysterious individual who is interrogating them, who is mysteriously interested in their stories and respective sides of this greater tale. This results in two different stories full of embellishments and straight-out lies which beautifully takes advantages of Zer0 Sum's unreliable narrative.
This subject material leads to some hilarious, off-kilter moments through constantly manipulating the narrative. Tales from the Borderlands' brand of humor is about subverting expectations, including clever uses of Borderland's signature UI design and loot/combat system that was incredibly surprising and welcome. This makes Tales from the Borderlands feel like an excellent piece of fan service for its dedication to the franchise's conventions, but in a fresh new format. But on a general basis, the writing and moment-to-moment story setpieces are infinitely better than any of the nonsense in the previous Borderlands games. Telltale aggressively gets away from Borderland's internet "meme" humor and meaningless characters for the better, yet Tales from the Borderlands still manages to feel like a Borderlands experience, which is quite the accomplishment.
But in several ways, Zer0 Sum feels lacking in some fundamental ways, both story and gameplay-wise. Thus far, Tales from the Borderlands is by far the most linear and quick-time heavy Telltale experience yet, giving you almost zero opportunity to explore and poke around the environment. There are more action scenes in Zer0 Sum than any Telltale episode before, but they are fairly generic by Telltale's standards and fails to develop their trademark formula in any meaningful way like The Wolf Among Us did. In addition, there are far less dialogue and decision making choices available to the player than a Telltale fan would expect. All of this makes Zer0 Sum feel like a fairly straight-forward experience with the least interaction with the story or world than any past Telltale game.
Alongside Telltale's now atypical adventure gaming style of timed decision making and dialogue choices, Zer0 Sum introduces two new gameplay systems, one exclusive to each of the playable characters. Rhys has some cybernetic enhancements, including an "Echo Eye" which allows him to reexamine the world around him through lens of Hyperion's database system, giving him additional insight into the world around him and to hack computer systems. Fionia, being a thief, can collect money in a couple of sequences, allowing her to potentially buy her way out of some sticky situations. The problem with both of these systems -- in at least this first episode -- is that they are underdeveloped and underutilized. The Echo Eye only adds additional, usually meaningless context in a couple of scenes and can never be creatively used in action scenes or in dialogue and decision making scenarios. While the currency system can only be utilized a couple of times in Zer0 Sum, it is usually for lackluster results which have very little impact on the game overall. Hopefully these two systems will be developed further into the series, but for now they seem tacked-on and lacking in execution.
From a production standpoint, Tales from the Borderlands feels extremely authentic to the established look and sound of the Borderlands franchise. Visually the game isn't a huge departure from Telltale's traditional cel shaded, cartoon-y artstyle, but it matches up perfectly with Gearbox's look for the universe, recreating signature characters and visual motifs of the franchise quite effectively. Telltale develops quite a bit of new characters and environments in their premiere episode, and they all feel like they belong in the Borderlands universe, never feeling out of character in the visual world that Gearbox has established.
The soundtrack hearkens back to Jesper Kyd's fantastic soundtrack for Borderlands 2, stylistically similar with its Western country sounds infused with a more energetic electronic sound. There are a couple of surprising tracks from the score of Zer0 Sum that have a more heist-movie feel which fits in with Tales from the Borderlands story thus far, and are a welcome new sound in the Borderlands soundscape. Not to mention that per usual for Telltale, the voice acting is fantastic. Troy Baker and Laura Bailey are wonderful in their respective lead roles, with many strong side performances from the likes of Nolan North and Patrick Warburton to around things off.
Tales from the Borderlands is a surprisingly authentic Borderlands experience in an adventure game shell. Telltale creatively and cleverly utilizes some of the trappings of the Borderlands games to create an exciting heist story with an intriguing frame narrative recounted by two radically different characters which is very literary and cinematic in a way that few games are, especially Gearbox's Borderlands games. While respecting Gearbox's franchise, Telltale intelligently reinvents the humor and writing style of the Borderlands franchise for the better, creating a genuinely funny game which quite the accomplishment.
What Epsode 1: Zer0 Sum fails to do, though, is to push Telltale forward as a studio. While their very particular adventure game style is present, so far Tales from the Borderlands doesn't add anything meaningful to what we already expect from Telltale, especially with the lacking introduction of two new interaction systems in this premiere episode and extremely limited interaction with the world and story. Tales from the Borderlands' first episode is a far superior storytelling and world-building experience than what Borderlands fans will be used to. But its limited interactivity with the story and world makes it feel like a sub-standard Telltale experience.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
(A balanced game that has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, meaning that it alternates between being good and bad in mostly equal measure.)