Tales from the Borderlands is brilliant proof that professional fan fiction can be a beautiful thing. The first episode “Zer0 Sum” sets a high entry bar into the series but one that’s fun to surmount. If you come looking for the simmering anxiety of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, you will find none of that here. Instead, you get an adrenaline-fueled circus of frantic smooth-talk and constant motion that is definitively Borderlands from top to bottom. Telltale has masterfully set up a plot that feels like a Borderlands campaign. It moves between plot points with little downtime in between, and with each scene feeling like a rapid uphill sprint. Rarely do conversations exceed five minutes, and the two longest dialogue-focused scenes are tense, high-strung affairs. The sense of urgency hanging over every conversation makes response time for dialogue choices feel shorter, stringing you through negotiations with criminals and attempts to smooth over verbal blunders.
Borderlands games are about shooting and looting. You do both of these in Tales, because nestled within its narrative-based nature you confront several lengthy action sequences. The first episode alone features brutal skirmishes resulting in more than a few exploded heads. While there is no shooting in the traditional Borderlands sense–you won’t run around gunning down Psychos or skags–there are opportunities to operate heavy machinery and fire off a round. These scenarios require fingers always on thumbsticks, chaining together the familiar moving and ducking commands from Telltale’s previous episodic games. So when you’re not moving analogue sticks to dodge-roll away from cleaver-wielding bandits, you’re mashing buttons to break a guard’s neck or bash Psychos in the face. You’re running away, jumping onto moving vehicles, grasping for weapons, and slamming them into an attacker’s face, and dodging bullets. You aren’t given the luxury of mulling decisions for long. Motion is constant, because nothing on Pandora waits for anyone. It’s incredibly satisfying to wrap up a 20-minute vehicle chase with a few explosions and an axe kill or two to a face before moving on. And unlike in Telltale’s other games, when dealing with others, silence is rarely a good option.
As in other Telltale games, players have a limited amount of time to select one of four dialogue or action options when dealing with other characters. The way the studio has tweaked its choice system for Tales from the Borderlands adds another layer of depth to an already complex feature. Both Rhys and Fiona are telling their side of a tale and, as a result, provide different (and sometimes conflicting) details about what happened. You get the opportunity to control both of them, offering your own take on the character.
Rhys is a Hyperion employee, and everyone on Pandora hates the company. He’s viewed as another cog in a machine that destroys lives. Other characters have a real beef with Hyperion as well, and these prejudices dictate how they interact with Rhys. As Rhys, you have to choose whether to flaunt that powerful connection or appeal to others by being vulnerable, telling them how the company has screwed you over too. Fiona appears to have little vulnerability other than love for family, but it’s up to you how successful she is as a con artist. You can dissemble to save your skin, but Tales does an amazing job of forcing you to think hard about who to throw under the bus and how badly your actions will bite you in the ass later. The game begins with the pair being interrogated, each asking for their side of a story involving an elaborate con and a lot of money. That’s about all I can say, as the story takes off so quickly that anything else would be a spoiler. The openness with which the two characters are written adds to the player’s responsibility. Because of the openness of choice here–two noted liars spinning their own stories within a narrative path determined by the player–more than ever, this is your story to tell.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast in this first episode feels less real than Fiona and Rhys. Vaughn, Rhys’s sidekick, often overshoots “funny” into “annoying.” Villain August doesn’t feel threatening just yet, and Fiona’s sister Sasha tends to ping-pong emotionally. The one exception is the bandit lord Bossanova, who appears only briefly but adds a bright splash of Borderlands-baddie flavor to the whole affair.
You also get to tinker with some technology from the mega-corporation Hyperion. Rhys has an Echo Eye, an implant that allows him to scan objects in exploration sequences for more information. The Eye is used to gather more information about the environment and reveal more objects to click on and interact with. Rhys also gets to build and choose equipment for a Loader Bot, a self-aware piece of machinery that fights for you. You pick his equipment–grenades and a riot shield, for example–and let him loose, occasionally taking control from his perspective to shoot bandits. Other cyborg implants on Rhys allow him to hack systems, uncovering sensitive information pertinent to the plot by snooping his boss’s computer screen or sifting through a stronghold’s security system. It’s a nice, smart touch.
Telltale’s Pandora is beautifully realized. The cel-shaded art works perfectly, and several times during my playthrough I forgot I was looking at a game that wasn’t from Gearbox’s canon. I rode in a lightning-fast car across Pandora’s surface, kicking up sand into a glowing sky and whizzing past brightly-colored billboards and slavering skags. I stood in the pit of a dingy, dusty battle arena, alone in a maze of dazzling debris as fluorescent spotlights beat down on me.
But it’s not just the look, it’s the sound too. Dialogue moves at a fast clip and retains the same dark humor that colors Borderlands. Sometimes jokes are a little cringe-worthy, but the wit is there, along with several well-placed gems. Fiona muttering jibberish and trying to imitate a Psycho, Rhys sweet talking another character and “blowing his mind” by moving him to tears, and a character using a voice-distortion machine to mask his high-pitched squeaky voice all made me audibly giggle-snort. Snark and smarm are ever-present in the tone, but characters don’t sound like they’re trying too hard to be funny. The writing just works, as Telltale nails another pillar of the Borderlands aesthetic.
I would be remiss not to mention the superb Tales soundtrack, which feels like something pulled right out of a Borderlands score. Jared Emerson-Johnson, who scored both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us for Telltale, has created tracks that make one think of bloody chases across Pandora’s sandy surface and the violent clang of bullets and machetes on steel. During a scene in which Rhys summons a Loader Bot to help take out a group of bandits, the music swells to a pounding half-rock, half-techno frenzy that brought me back to my first firefights in the first Borderlands. Everything about the soundtrack is Borderlands–the tonal ambience inexorably drags you into battles and inspires them to press on.
Telltale and Borderlands are the peanut butter and chocolate of the current gaming landscape, creating a piece that is too rock-solid in its own convictions to be labeled simply as a mashup. It’s hard to even call it professional fan fiction. Tales from the Borderlands is a Borderlands game, but Telltale has opened up Gearbox’s Pandora in a way the original Borderlands games haven’t and can’t as shooters. Through exploration of the little people struggling in the shadows of Vault Hunters, you gain a deeper opportunities to explore the world.