Dying is easy, comedy is hard, and a whole lot of both goes on in Tales from the Borderlands. But as difficult as comedy can be, Tales from the Borderlands pulls it off without breaking a sweat. Staying consistently funny for ten-plus hours, maintaining an engaging story, and being enjoyable to play is about as easy as juggling flaming chainsaws, but Tales from the Borderlands pulls it off with as much grace (and as many explosions) as you could possibly hope for. Basically, it's brilliant, and it's what other comedy games should want to be when they grow up.
Set after the events of Borderlands 2 and starring two wildly different protagonists - cybernetically-enhanced dork Rhys, and fast-talking conwoman Fiona - Tales from the Borderlands is all about a crew of misfits and the wacky hijinks they get up to in their quest to hunt down the Vault key that will lead them to incredible riches. Complications naturally arise, and they find themselves getting involved with gang warfare, long-dead corporations, betrayal, revenge, and one very unfortunate use of a spork. Rhys and Fiona share storytelling duties, each describing how things went from their particular perspective, exaggerating here and embellishing there so that they always end up looking clever, heroic, and daring.
That leads to some hilarious back-and-forth when one calls the other out on their skewed version of events, like when Rhys claims to have sealed a business deal in a hyper-violent way and Fiona reveals that he did a lot less killing and a lot more begging and crying. While that happens quite a bit in the game's opening episodes, the tone of their alternating narratives shifts later on, with Rhys filling in blind spots in Fiona's version of events, and vice versa. It’s a creative approach to the rivals-ending-up-as-allies trope, allowing them the chance to transform into genuinely charming and likable characters along their journey. The supporting cast, especially Loaderbot, Vasquez, and Sasha, are equally memorable and round out the action with delightful dialog and antics.
All of these folks working together serve to elevate the two things Tales wants to highlight most: action and comedy. Being able to go anywhere and do anything with the story lets the developers get extremely creative with the game's scenes of mayhem (forcing the protagonists into makeshift death derbies, launching a travel trailer into orbit, building an entire sequence riffing on a cartoon from the 80s), which are perfectly executed and extremely fun to go blazing through. In terms of controls you might be limited to swiping left and right with some button-mashing thrown in, in keeping with Telltale's standard model for episodic interaction. Still, the action is so colorfully and ridiculously realized that unless you have an abiding issue with the format, you probably won't notice.
Despite their stark differences, Tales from the Borderlands takes a page out of The Walking Dead's book by letting your choices affect who accompanies you in the final fight. You don't deal with as many moral conundrums here, so it's less about who you pandered to most often and more about what singular favors you happened to do for them. It works out to a very satisfying conclusion that may not wildly alter the course of the story, but does make for one incredible final act.
Of course, while it would've been easy for those scenes to blur together into a smear of indistinct car crashes, explosions, and bullet-hurricanes, Tales’ comedy is expertly used in a variety of ways to make every sequence feel memorable. Sometimes it's situational, like when two characters fall off a cliff and share a heartfelt goodbye before realizing they're two feet off the ground. Sometimes it elevates the action into something unique, as during a chase scene where our heroes dodge death-beams in a collapsing Airstream trailer while fleeing a genitalia-faced superbeast. Sometimes it's downright juvenile - how else do you describe a hologram using its lack of physical body to make it look like someone's tender bits are talking?
Plus, when the moment is right, a lack of comedy hits that much harder than it would in isolation, as it's made even starker by the frivolity surrounding it. It's a tricky balance to strike well, and the season does slip up in spots - early on it's a bit too heavy-handed with its drama and less effective with its jokes, and drags as a result. Thankfully, it picks up in the middle with stronger comedy and better drama, and by the end they truly work in harmony - even with intense tragedy pressing up right against ridiculous physical comedy (literally zero seconds in between), the whole thing flows naturally and feels perfectly on-point.
Of course, part of the reason all of that high-octane hilarity feels so right is because it's so perfectly Borderlands, and Telltale's loyalty to the franchise remains consistently clear. More than just using the Borderlands universe as a convenient backdrop, Tales is a canon addition to it, and liberally integrates characters and bits of lore from throughout the franchise's history. The story is almost entirely about a treasure recovered from the defunct Atlas Corporation, the protagonists hunt Psychos and run from skags while searching for a Vault, and beloved characters like Athena, Zer0, Scooter, and of course Handsome Jack show up in roles perfectly carved out just for them. Not only does that make Tales feel like a true addition the series, but it doles out that sweet fanservice like candy, giving fans a peek into the lives of their favorite characters in a new game that's worthwhile in its own right.
Yet those references are never so esoteric that people who never played the Borderlands games will feel lost. The worst you'll get is a sense that a person who just showed up probably isn't a brand new character, but Tales does a good job of explaining why they're important now and not leaving you twisting in the wind. Fans might get more out those cameos just by their nature, but there's still plenty here for non-fans to enjoy.
Back when Tales from the Borderlands was first announced, there was a lot of speculation about how it could even work. How do you take a series like Borderlands, known mostly for its rat-a-tat action and ridiculous one-liners, and make a narrative story out of it? But as this bloody hilarious rampage comes to a close, Tales has proven that not only can it be done, but it can be done brilliantly, as long as you come at it with a boatload of love and laughs. And yes, guns too. Hilarious, heartfelt and high-octane, Tales from the Borderlands is a must-play game that sets a new standard for comedy games to come.
This game was reviewed on PC.