I'll admit, I went into Tales from the Borderlands with pretty low expectations. Don't get me wrong: I like a lot of things about the zany world in which Gearbox's Borderlands shooter series takes place, but it's good for... shooting. Tales is an all-story adventure game. Yikes, right?
(Note: minor spoilers ahead. I don't mention specific major plot points, but I do zero in on a couple character moments.)
One gun. One bullet. I never fired a shot.
Tales may wear the Borderlands name and visual style like a Psycho re-purposing the entrails of a fallen foe as a wacky costume mustache, but this is more of a Telltale story adventure—think The Walking Dead or Wolf Among Us—than it is a "true" Borderlands game. Over the course of the entire first episode I only had one gun—not 87 bazillion—with one bullet in it, and as I said, I never fired it.
That's a major part of why I really, really enjoyed the first episode of Tales from Borderlands. It knows it's not a typical Borderlands game, and it goes in unexpected directions because of that. That's not to say there aren't plenty of guns on Tales' imagining of Pandora. Shooting is just not how I, as a player, interacted with the world. Instead I frantically untied my tongue with timed dialogue choices, solved occasional puzzles, and had both my main characters introduce themselves to the same guy by punching him square in the jaw. You know, for laughs.
Yep, I said "both." Tales takes place after Borderlands 2 and stars two main characters, Rhys, a Hyperion business shark begrudgingly turned "executive vice janitor" by rival douchebag Vasquez (voiced by Patrick Warburton to great effect), and Fiona, a tough-as-nails con artist with a heart that's more stone than gold. Rhys wants revenge on his awful boss, Fiona just wants her goddamn money.
The best way to describe Tales is as an interactive movie, a series of scenes, choices, and—yes—quick-time events that live and die on characters and pacing more than they do gibbering packs of baddies and glittering piles of loot. Said quick-time events often look like this, if you're super cool like my personal favorite character (ish thing), Loader Bot:
Or like this in the case of Rhys, whose "fights" are often played off for laughs:
But even more than these scenes, the One Gun I mentioned earlier is indicative of what Tales from the Borderlands is all about: comedy and character drama, mixed into a potent (and slightly explosive) cocktail. A little more than an hour in, a character handed one of my characters that gun. It was a tiny, almost sad pea shooter of a thing. And then the person who gave it to me offered this morsel of wisdom: "Don't use it unless you have to. Remember: you can talk your way out of more situations than you can shoot your way out of."
Tales from the Borderlands made me laugh on multiple occasions, but never harder than in that moment. Here was a Borderlands game using its mechanics—not just its plot—to espouse a wisely passive point of view. Borderlands! The one with more guns than any other game maybe ever, where you shoot first and never ask questions even when someone is yelling at you about meat bicycles. It was then that I realized this game knew exactly what it was, and it was having a ton of fun with it—even in its more somber moments.
While Tales' first episode has a few more bits like that, make no mistake: this is a comedy adventure, not a grim tragedy like Walking Dead or, to a lesser extent, Wolf Among Us. Tales' pacing lagged in a couple places, but I was grinning pretty much the entire time.
Before the One Gun bit, which involved Fiona, I had been playing almost exclusively as Rhys. His side of the story, largely a flashback with brilliant unreliable narrator moments (just wait for "break his heart or blow his mind"; trust me, you'll laugh) was a rollercoaster ride that painted Pandora in a very different light.
This time around I wasn't some untouchable murdergun demigod as I was in other Borderlands games. I was a wimpy office rat, a cowardly Handsome Jack Jr who couldn't even throw a punch, let alone draw blood or break a neck. The best he could muster was a stun baton (if he was lucky) and a neat cyberpunk scanning eyeball, which told me useful information about objects and people. Or jokes. OK, mostly jokes. I could use it pretty much anywhere, like this:
Protip: SCAN EVERYTHING.
Admittedly, Tales from the Borderlands is hardly the first game to pull this sort of strong-to-weak player character switcheroo (see also: Halo ODST, DLC for games like BioShock, brief moments in a handful of other action games), but it's always a breath of fresh air in series where you're usually the thing monsters don't want to find under their beds.
In Tales it allowed for some great perspective (especially when certain familiar faces got involved) and even better comedy. My favorite character in the entire episode emerged from a scene involving Rhys' general inability to harm so much as a mutated million-eyed Pandora fly. He was (spoiler warning) a loader bot—called down from Hyperion's moon base to defend Rhys from bandits—with some, er, personality quirks. "WHY DOES THE UNIVERSE PUNISH THE GOOD," the massive bot's tin can voice bellowed. "WAR... DOES NOT COMPUTE. WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?" (end spoiler)
By and large, the episode does a great job of switching back-and-forth between moments of over-the-top wackiness and serious, endearingly human interactions that make you realize, "Oh shit, I actually kinda have emotions about what's happening here." It's the mark of a good adventure tale: the core is simple fun—quick laughs, ridiculous action—but it's fun you care about. Tales has actual heart that many video game action-adventure stories lack. It's still, you know, a basic action-adventure, but its characters are more Uncharted than Call of Duty, or even typical Borderlands, for that matter.
That said, the core four-person crew is littered with archetypes. You've got your douchey main dude with generally decent intentions (who, again, is a little too similar to Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel's not-evil-yet Handsome Jack), badass lady who's hiding some serious hurt (Fiona), gearhead girl who goes gaga for all gadgets (Fiona's sister, Sasha), and booksmart dude who's awful at everything else (Rhys' best friend, Vaughn).
What makes Tales work—and I mean really work—is that it takes all of these archetypes outside their comfort zones in wildly amusing ways. And when they're briefly split up into pairs and forced to really get to know each other? Those are probably the best segments in the whole game. So many charming little nuances, not to mention possible glimpses of character developments to come.
This is where Telltale's much-loved/occasionally loathed dialogue system really shines, too—in these slower moments, these scraps of incidental character development. Rhys, for instance, is kind of a dick. That's his whole thing. And it's tempting to play up that side of him in dialogue choices because a) he's constantly making an ass out of himself anyway and b) Pandora is an extremely hostile place; it almost feels right to snarl and bare your teeth back at it. I rarely play characters that way, and even I was doing it almost unconsciously.
But then I realized I was seeing him at a crossroads, between being a total jerk and an alright guy with dickish tendencies. Each dialogue choice was a map of his thought processes. I could steer him one way or another by choosing things like whether to emphasize Vaughn's role in Rhys' (short-lived) rise to power or take all the credit for it, snatch the holy grail and gulp the glory. In that sense, it's cool that he's—on a surface level, at least—similar to Handsome Jack, because I feel like this is the not-a-cartoon-super-villain version of Jack's character progression. I felt in control of the subtleties of it. I really liked that.
That said, THIS SERIES REALLY NEEDS TO GET OVER ITS HANDSOME JACK OBSESSION. He was a pretty solid villain, but please do something different already. That's all I'll say on that point. Anything else would involve major spoilers. Play Tales and see if you agree with me.
Oh, you might have noticed that I'm discussing Rhys a lot. That's because Fiona isn't nearly as interesting. At least, not yet. Her segments aren't boring or anything. They just don't really pop. Arguably even her supporting cast is better than she is, but we also get to know Rhys a lot better in the first episode than we do Fiona. I'm hoping for more from her in future episodes. Right now she's kinda just A Borderlands Leading Lady—which is to say, tough and capable, but stoic and a little dull. Her scenes involve some fun, tense deception (she is a con artist, after all), but I never found myself caring about her the way I did Rhys, Vaughn, or even her sister, Sasha. Oh, and Loader Bot. I cannot forget Loader Bot. I will never forget Loader Bot.
Beyond that, my complaints are the sort often leveled at Telltale games: character animations are stiff, there are some audio glitches, and the quick-time events—while fairly benign in the grand scheme of QTEs—are kind of an antiquated way to involve players in a story. They're a giant set of [INSERT GAMEPLAY HERE] brackets, only nobody ever filled them in.
But man, I felt such a mix of joy and relief when the credits rolled on this one. It could've been a disaster given that this setting was made for shooters—not character drama comedies—and the main characters seemed like a bunch of Borderlands B-teamers. Instead I found a heartfelt (albeit hardly revolutionary) adventure tale, one that exuded a sense of no-holds-barred zaniness from every pore. I've always enjoyed Borderlands, but I've never really cared about it. If Tales from the Borderlands keeps this up, that may very well change.
Tales from the Borderlands: Episode One will be out later today. It's the first in a five-part episodic series that will release in the coming months. I played the Steam version, which last me a little over two hours.