Here’s a tip for anyone who owns the rights to a popular entertainment franchise and wants to turn it into a video game: Get on your knees and beg Telltale Games to make it for you.
Telltale is better at making licensed games than just about any company on the planet. They’ve proven this numerous times over the past few years with the episodic series The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. Their new game, Tales from the Borderlands, proves it once again, with a delightfully over-the-top story that feels right at home in the Borderlands universe.
Borderlands, for the uninitiated, is a series of first-person shooters set on the Wild West-like planet of Pandora, where vaults filled with loot and riches are sought out by the toughest “vault hunters” around. It’s a rugged, lawless planet populated by vicious aliens, armed-to-the-teeth robots, and schemers and crooks of all stripes. It’s basically what you’d get if you put Deadwood, Star Wars, and Kill Bill in a blender. It’s a great setting for an adventure game.
In Tales of the Borderlands, Telltale has taken that locale — along with all the rest of the trappings of the Borderlands series — and crafted a humdinger of a story that you help shape as you play. The full game is divided into five episodes that will be released over the coming months. For this review, I played the first episode, entitled Zero Sum, which is available now on nearly any modern gaming platform (with the exception of Nintendo).
You alternate between playing as Rhys, a fed-up lackey working for a mega-corporation located on Pandora’s moon, and Fiona, an up-and-coming con-artist who grew up on the mean streets of Pandora. The story kicks off with a deal involving a vault key and a briefcase stuffed with $10 million. From the two characters’ perspectives, you get to guide how both sides of the deal play out, and what happens in the aftermath. No character is telling the full truth. Everyone has ulterior motives. It’s the stuff of great drama, and it’s presented with style to spare.
Much of the game plays out like a movie, with occasional input from the player. Generally, you’re in charge of exploring new environments, selecting replies during conversations, and executing quick button-presses during action sequences. Player input is limited compared to most games, which might be a bad thing if the story were less enthralling. The game also does a good job of making it seem like your choices drive the narrative.
This episode took me about two-and-a-half hours to beat, but I wanted to play it again immediately, just to spend more time with the characters and to see how different choices would play out. It’s a truly bonkers narrative that doesn’t let off the gas for a second. It’s pure fun. It’s pure Borderlands.
You don’t need to be familiar with the other Borderlands titles to enjoy Tales from the Borderlands, although of course it doesn’t hurt. The game does a great job of introducing players to the unruly world of Pandora and the fascinating characters who populate it.
If you have played Borderlands, you’ll probably be impressed by the game’s devotion to the source material. The art is cel-shaded, as expected, and Pandora looks exactly the same, with outhouses and treasure chests everywhere, and grungy lowlifes littering the town. Even the font of the subtitles is the same. But the story is all new, with original characters who fit right in. This game’s creators obviously have great respect for the Borderlands games, and they manage to add to it with a terrific story of their own. It’s a remarkable feat.
I played the game on Xbox One, and the only issues I noticed were the occasional stuttering frame rates and brief, jarring freezes when the game was loading. The other recent Telltale games have suffered from the same issues. It would be nice if they ironed those out, but they don’t detract from the overall experience.
Playing Tales from the Borderlands is like strapping yourself into the craziest carnival ride you can imagine. It’s a tense, silly, gleeful, gory, action-packed game that I found impossible to stop playing once I started. It’s sharply written and well-acted, and worth every penny. I can’t wait for episode two.
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