Tales from the Borderlands Episode One review

Apparently, starting off with a bang isn't good enough for Tales from the Borderlands. There are in fact several bangs, and rockets exploding, and people being cut in half or blown up or run over by a death derby monster truck. That is just as dazzling and confusing as it sounds, because this first installment of Telltale's adventure series is gory, crazy, and sometimes so nuts that it's hard to keep track of. Still, its consistent, strong sense of humor adds coherence to the madness and starts this lunatic adventure off on the right note.

Editor's Note: This review will be updated as episodes are released, but we're holding off on a star score until the season is complete. You can check back here and scroll down to see reviews of the episodes as they're released.

How is Episode 1: Zer0 Sum?

Tales from the Borderlands centers on Hyperion businessman Rhys and Pandoran conwoman Fiona, reluctant partners captured in the game's opening minutes and forced to recount their journey by a gun-toting kidnapper. As opposed to controlling one of these characters while the other acts as your wing(wo)man, you play both to tell different parts of the story. 

This can be jarring the first time you're playing as one character and suddenly jump into the other's shoes, or on one occasion where you play both when they're standing side by side. However, the learning curve for controlling both isn't steep, and changing dialogue option fonts work as a nice, subtle signal that you've swapped. Playing as two characters also creates a lot of the game's humor, as their interpretations of events often clash in ways that one or the other will hilariously correct. When Rhys, for example, claims to have sealed a business deal in a hyper-violent way, Fiona's perspective reveals that he did a lot less killing and a lot more begging and crying.

Perhaps what Tales does best is integrate previous Borderlands games into the narrative, which is done in a way that will please fans without leaving newcomers in the dark. The events that set up Rhys' side of the plot are a direct result of a certain important death in Borderlands 2, and Fiona's initial get-rich-quick scheme centers on the mythical vault keys. Well-loved characters from the Borderlands universe take on roles of varying importance, from Mad Moxxi's appearance on a few posters, to Zer0 actively interfering with the protagonists' plans. 

Some of these references will pass by those who haven't played much Borderlands, giving the sense that you're supposed to already know who this character is and shouldn't expect more than a cursory explanation. However, it isn't overly disruptive since the story centers on a brand new cast, and there's nothing you absolutely have to know that goes unexplained. In the end, both Borderlands fans and non-fans will find something to enjoy; it's just that fans will get an extra helping of OH MY GOD IT'S HA****** ***K layered on top.

Since Tales so carefully emulates the Borderlands world and tells two stories while doing it, a whole lot of things tend to happen at once. Where previous Telltale adventures like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us are point-and-click affairs with moments of tense action, Tales flips the ratio: much of the game is spent in firefights and dodging psychopaths bearing fire axes and death-cycles. The action is done well, and you can get yourself killed (my Fiona got run over by a truck before the kidnapper reminded her she was alive and demanded she tell the story right), which makes ducking and dodging to the game's prompts frantic, despite being structurally simple. 

This has an interesting effect on your defining choices as well: Tales' big decisions don't have the crushing guilt of those in Walking Dead or prompt the careful consideration needed in Wolf Among Us, but they have their own fitting sense of urgency. Instead of choosing who lives and who dies, you decide whether you keep your cool in a black market business deal, or whether to save your last bullet as you escape a firefight. That gives this familiar mechanic a different sort of tension, making it unique and appropriate to Pandora's established atmosphere.

Unfortunately, that much action makes some of the story's quieter moments feel comparatively dull. A scene where Rhys and another character bond over his spectacular inability to choke a guard, for instance, is quite funny and character-building, but it's easy to spend that entire time wondering when you're going to get back to the explosions. Overall, this one's a matter of taste: Tales' action-packed approach might not be for you if you prefer the subtler dramas Telltale has created in the past, but if you like the idea of back-flipping onto a speeding caravan or slicing open a giant dog monster with a katana? This is exactly your speed.

More Info

Available Platforms: PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, PC
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating:
Mature: Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence

Explosive and hilarious, episode one starts Tales from the Borderlands off on the right foot, making it worthwhile to buy into the season early.


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