If I were to try to distill what components you would need from the Borderlands franchise in order to make it feel like the popular shooter franchise without actually being a shooter, it would seem kind of difficult. The strength of Borderlands has never been its story, but rather its loot-driven gameplay and highly random weaponry – two things that do not exist in Tales from the Borderlands. Instead, Telltale Games have taken the quirkiness of the series and its humor to craft what might be their best game to date.
I have no affinity for the Borderlands franchise or Telltale’s brand of adventure games. Despite that, I found myself genuinely hooked to almost every aspect of Tales from the Borderlands‘s first season. Every time a character was introduced, I clung to them immediately (with a few exceptions). Whenever a decision needed to be made, I never made it lightly. What works most of all – this is important to stress – is its ability to make me feel emotions that most games of this sort would rarely nail without beating you over the head with it. For the purpose of this review, I will be spoiling one or two moments of this season of Tales from the Borderlands, as it will be nearly impossible to discuss what works and what doesn’t in such a narrative-driven title.
Following Rhys and Fiona, the season starts off strong by playing with the story for the sake of jokes. A mysterious figure captures the two and forces them to tell of how they became acquainted with each other and eventually opened a Vault. Surprisingly it works, as the characters try to make themselves seem super important or powerful in their retelling of events, leaving the other character to cut in and tell the actual way things occurred. By the third episode, this trick gets thrown to the side because the story has now built itself in a way where it is comfortable simply telling the story. There are also moments when Rhys and Fiona are not together in the flashbacks, so it would not make sense for the other character to dispute what the other claims, though they can doubt what actually happened.
There are plenty of characters to get attached to, even if Rhys and Fiona are the protagonists. Rhys’s sidekick, Vaughn, makes for good comedic relief, even with a cast of characters that can all handle the weight of a joke. I found the two robot characters of Gortys and Loader Bot to be especially endearing, with each having genuinely touching moments despite being robots. Handsome Jack is one of the only characters I noticed from the Borderlands franchise that is in this season, and his rapport with Rhys makes for some great laughs but also a terrifying struggle for power. One of the bigger arcs of the season is this struggle that Rhys has with Handsome Jack, who is dead and stuck within Rhys’s mechanically wired head. I found myself trying my best to not give in to Jack’s requests for control, even in situations when it made sense for him to be let in, but even I got to a point where it made logical sense to let Jack take control. What is amazing about Tales from the Borderlands is that it tricked me into thinking my decision was good, without ever changing the way Handsome Jack behaved, then made me regret my decision as the character almost immediately.
While characters are well-developed throughout the season, there was a specific arc within my story that wound up feeling forced and out of place. Fiona’s sister, Sasha, seemed to randomly become a love interest for Rhys during the third episode, which made no sense to me because I always felt her and Vaughn were going to be a couple. Part of me felt my save file was misremembering decisions because it just felt so out of the blue. By the end of the game, I resented the relationship and established that we were just friends, but it was off-putting to have the story try to force something onto me that should only happen organically by my decisions.
This was the only arc that failed for me. My season wound up with me saying goodbye to several characters, and whenever I did, I was devastated. Even characters that were initially annoying had grown on me, unlike the Sasha-Rhys relationship. I had no problem trying my best to stay away from characters I didn’t like, but it became almost impossible to not find something incredibly charming about everyone. Sasha overall was the only character that just never worked for me, and I can’t even tell if that’s because of her writing or Rhys’s sudden interest in her. Regardless, the characters are the reason you’re going to want to play through this game because they work so well together, and it really does feel like a band of misfits by the end of the journey.
They all have fairly humorous interactions with each other, but what struck me most is how much of the violence the game kept from the Borderlands series. There is plenty of extremely graphic bodily humor, such as an eye being scooped out of someones head and having to peel a face off of a bandit. The characters react appropriately to the situations, but these all wind up feeling like necessary moments that happen to be funny. That kind of situation-based comedy is something that Tales from the Borderlands revels in. Yes, you are going to have to input some controls to peel someone else’s face off, but that doesn’t mean its going to be quick and painless. The game frequently makes it uncomfortable and draws out the awkwardness for extra laughs.
It wouldn’t be a Telltale game if it didn’t have some framerate issues, though. For the most part it runs fine, but I found there to be a bit too much slowdown when a lot was happening on screen. There is also the issue of texture pop-in with the game’s typical Telltale art design. That being said, the game’s cel-shaded aesthetic works really well with the Borderlands world. This may be because of their similarities in art direction already, but it also helps that the games both carry that tongue-in-cheek humor. While the plot seems to matter a lot more in Tales from the Borderlands, it still feels like the right amount of care-free atmosphere to make it a fun time. Even the introductory credits to each episode (which sometimes happen three chapters into an episode) feel appropriately fun with their accompanying hand-selected licensed music.
Ultimately, that is what this season offers above otherTelltale games. It has a story that becomes more and more interesting as layers are added to it and characters develop, but it also manages to use humor to make the emotional moments happen. By the end of it, I never felt like there were long stretches of seriousness, yet I still came away feeling like the characters (and I) had experienced something powerful. Tales from the Borderlands makes the case for why Telltale needed to do a dour series like The Walking Dead after doing more light-hearted fare. This is the perfect blend of those two eras of Telltale, which makes me excited to see where they go from here.
Tales from the Borderlands Season One$24.99
- Extremely funny in both situations and dialogue
- Most characters become loved by the end
- Neat tricks with storytelling are never used too much
- The voice acting is all top-notch
- Framerate drops and texture pop-in is still a Telltale problem
- Why did my character suddenly like another character, three episodes in?