Sometimes it’s nice to know that I live in that alternate dimension where really crazy stuff happens. In this case of cosmic insanity, everything involving Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands adventure game project should’ve been a complete abject failure. Everything from its announcement, to any news that came out of it, to trailers, to even its lackluster first episode suggested such a fact. And let’s be honest here, for a studio that revels in deep, complex franchises with a lot of gray area to maneuver around, the Borderlands narrative universe is one of the dumbest, most banal constructions in any entertainment medium. So I am kind of in shock and complete disbelief that I’m going to tell you that the first season of Tales from the Borderlands is not only not terrible, but that it’s actually pretty good.
Tales from the Borderlands takes place after the events of Borderlands 2, with the Hyperion Corporation trying to figure out what’s next after the death of their president and the primary antagonist of Borderlands 2, Handsome Jack. With such a massive power vacuum left to fill, numerous Hyperion employees are in a mad rush to discover and harass the power of the alien vaults filled with untold riches and power. One such employee is Rhys, who with his best friend Vaughn, embark on a dangerous quest when a mysterious lead emerges to obtain a legendary Vault Key to open one of these fabled alien bastions.
Meanwhile on the hellish planet of Pandora, con artists and sisters Fiona and Sasha are preparing their greatest and most dangerous plan yet: to trick an interested party from the Hyperion Corporation (I wonder who that is!) in purchasing a fake Vault Key from them. With this money they plan to escape the hostile wilderness of Pandora and make a new life among the more civilized stars in the universe. The catch is that both Rhys and Fiona's adventures have concluded already in the past, as in modern time they have both been captured by a mysterious masked individual and recount their respective sides of the story to him for his unknown, potentially nefarious reasons.
Telltale utilizes an extremely complicated story structure for Tales from the Borderlands not only in its framed narrative, but also in its duo protagonist progression as you switch control between these two characters at predetermined points in the story. These complicated narrative systems are pulled off thanks to Telltale’s generally excellent writing and character development, with Borderlands silly universe enabling them to expose a comedic side of themselves which we have never seen from the atypically grim dark developer. Telltale far surpasses Gearbox’s storytelling, creating some truly lovable characters and some of the most hilarious scenes I have ever seen in a video game. Tales from the Borderlands in every sense of the word, is a damn hoot.
But this is a Telltale game after all, so of course there are choices and decisions to make which the game will often reference in future scenes which may work for or against you. When the story demands a more dour tone for any specific scene or choice, Tales from the Borderlands effortless switches gears from laugh out loud funny to deadly serious that is stunning how effective this tonal change is handled. Telltale doesn’t always deliver a homerun, but when they do, no other game story out there can touch them, and Tales from the Borderlands from a narrative standpoint is very much one of those kinds of Telltale-specialty experiences.
But Tales from the Borderlands is not without its hiccups, some of them more damning than others. From a gameplay perspective, Telltale’s latest is a very familiar adventure game that you would expect from the developer. There are a couple of wrinkles added to try and shake things up, but both completely fail for the most part. Both Rhys and Fiona have unique mechanics tied to them that the other doesn’t have. For Rhys he has select cybernetic implants which allows him to hack select objectives or scan them with his artificial eye for additional information. While Fiona has a cash system where she can loot treasure chests or corpses for cash which she can spend at specific points in the game.
The problem with both of these systems are that they are disappointing underutilized and poorly realized. Entire episodes went by with me forgetting that these systems existed at all, and when they did appeared it was for meaningless choices like buying new clothes for your characters or scanning something in the environment for a little flavor text. These systems have zero impact on the story, which feels very unlike what we have come to expect from Telltale adventure games. And whenever Tales from the Borderlands forces you to engage in these systems for story purposes, all they seem to serve is to kill the pacing of the story. But without these systems to spice things up, Tales from the Borderlands otherwise feels like an aggressively linear and basic adventure game, with the least amount of exploration and inventory management in a Telltale game to date.
Production wise Tales from the Borderlands successfully captures the aesthetic of the Borderlands franchise, while the western/rock soundtrack is generally serviceable and exactly what you'd expect from previous Borderlands games, without any truly standouts pieces of music. Unfortunately I had significant technical issues with Tales from the Borderlands that seem to be now signature of Telltale games. I encountered everything from freezing, framerate dips, missing audio, skipped dialogue, missing textures, and hitches in cutscenes. None of these directly hindered the gameplay experience, but they did leave a pretty nasty impression that continued throughout the series. This all culminates in the last episode being the most disastrous of the lot, partially crippling what is otherwise a brilliant and emotionally potent final chapter. I’ve talked with other people who didn’t have these issues at all on different platforms, so it could just be the Xbox One versions of Tales from the Borderlands that is broken, but still such an excuse is unforgivable for the caliber of developer which Telltale has proven themselves to be in the past.
Tales from the Borderlands is one of the funniest, emotionally poignant, and technically broken experiences that I’ve ever had in a video game. Telltale builds an incredible cast of relatable and interesting characters and takes them through many hilarious and heartbreaking situations. Tales from the Borderlands is easiest the best piece of fiction to come out of the entire Borderlands franchise, and in general one of the best stories in video gaming. But even without the myriad different technical issues I ran into didn’t exist, the terribly realized character specific gameplay system really hurt the pacing of the experience, and without it Tales from the Borderlands is left as a very basic , extremely linear adventure game. It says a lot for Tales from the Borderlands' storytelling that it can overcome all of these technical and design hurdles and kept me extremely engaged throughout the series, but this adventure deserved better.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)