With the shocking surge in momentum enjoyed by Borderlands‘ loot-and-shoot series following the game’s sequel, it went without saying that the developers were going to be pumping out more content than ever before. But fans and casual audiences were stunned to see Tales from the Borderlands, a choice-driven story from Telltale Games set within Gearbox’s fictional universe, announced seemingly out of the blue.
Now the first episode of the series, ‘Zer0 Sum’ has arrived in just as unexpected a fashion, offering the first glimpse of just how Telltale has turned their recent knack for tense, excruciating decision-making to work on the over-the-top, off-kilter characters of the Borderlands universe. Unsurprisingly, it seems to be a (at-times uneven) departure for the studio – but one that many fans of the shooter will find irresistible.
Thankfully, those unfamiliar with the Borderlands series’ fiction need little background to grasp Tales‘ central premise: with overpowered weapons/robotics manufacturer Hyperion fueling the search for Vaults on the planet Pandora at the expense (and safety) of those residing in its ramshackle communities, players take control of two different protagonists; Rhys, a Hyperion employee out to hurt a corporate rival, and Fiona, a grifter from the surface looking to lie, cheat and steal just to survive.
The paths of the two are fated to cross, with both sides retelling their stories to a third party. As a framing device, it’s a clever twist that fits perfectly at home in the Borderlands sensibility. The differing accounts of Rhys and Fiona (far less significant in story terms than some fans may expect) are played for laughs, and the mystery of how the two found themselves in their current predicament – now being forced to explain what led them to it – is enough of a hook to keep players interested for the whole of ‘Zer0 Sum.’
Predictably, slipping on the persona of Borderlands‘ irreverent and manic action takes its toll on Telltale’s now-signature format (seen in both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us) almost immediately. The only real threat facing Rhys (and his right hand man, Vaughn) is an expected promotion being sabotaged, meaning the series’ first episode takes plenty of time to get moving.
That wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Tales relied as heavily on exploration – actually handing control to the player in a tactile sense – as Telltale players now expect. But the developers have made their emphasis on storytelling over traditional gameplay clear (imagine Wolf Among Us without clues or questioning). Thankfully, that focus proves promising once Rhys hands the episode’s reins over to his partner in crime, Fiona.
Blessed with an origin story that is far more compelling (Rhys’ path to Hyperion is still a mystery), and the more colorful characters of Pandora proper, Fiona’s story line will be what captivates those unfamiliar with Borderlands‘ universe and convinces them to stick it out for the first episode – with the climax banking on exactly that.
It’s hard to argue that Tales from the Borderlands isn’t a faithful adaptation of the property it’s based on; the humor is alive and well in almost every interaction, but where the line is drawn between the path charted by Gearbox and what Telltale has brought to it can be easy to spot. For existing fans of Borderlands‘ sense of humor, finding the value in Telltale’s writing won’t be hard. But for those who found the story or texture of the shooter series too odd, too off-putting, or too secondary to the gameplay, its survival here may prove a turn-off.
The first episode is certain to produce a few laughs, as Rhys attempts to take down a murderous Bandit only to be mistaken for a prankster co-worker, or Fiona’s attempts at intimidation criticized as simply rude. And while the player’s impact on a Bandit rendition of ‘Death Race’ may be minimal, simply watching the action unfold and hitting the button prompts as they pop on-screen, there’s no denying the sheer entertainment in watching these more pedestrian characters thrown into the deep end of Pandora’s lunacy.
All things considered, ‘Zer0 Sum’ may not be what Telltale fans will expect – put simply, it’s the Borderlands experience adapted to a different form. That itself is quite an accomplishment, with the pairing deemed a poor match by many skeptics early on. So in that regard, Tales from the Borderlands is a surprising success. Even if the overall experience feels more restricted, and more scripted than either The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us.
But the weight of decisions only becomes clear as time passes; for now, the choice of how to outfit one’s Loader Bot, or just who will be the recipient of Fiona’s single bullet lack the typical Telltale gravity. What the developers are attempting here is a new and singular challenge, so we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that there’s more weight coming soon enough.
As it stands, Tales is a no-brainer for Borderlands fans seeking another story set within that universe, and those just as fond of the fiction as the fighting. For Telltale fans, it’s a chance to see the developers tackle a lighter setting, and prove there’s no source material they can’t recapture.
Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 is available to download now for PC, PS3, PS4 and Xbox One, with an Xbox 360 release coming December 3.
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