Publisher: Telltale Games
Welcome (Back) to Pandora (Again)
I’ve come to expect great things from Telltale Games and their adventurous, point-and-click, quick time narratives. The quality of their work on The Walking Dead games is easily on par with the source material.
If you’ve read my reviews of Borderlands 2 (BL2) and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! (Pre-Sequel), you know I’m a fan of the series and that I’m acquainted with the Borderverse’s overarching narrative. BL2 is easily a modern classic with fast-paced game play, RPG elements, and an interesting plot and memorable characters. With some judicious DLC (we’ll see what happens), Pre-Sequel could reach similar heights.
So the bar was high when I clicked “New Game” on Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands (TFTB), a story by a developer I trust in a fictional universe I appreciate. Was I disappointed? Well…let’s talk about it.
…Fine. I wasn’t at all disappointed.
Two Sides to Every Coin
TFTB picks up some time after the events of BL2. It cannot yet be determined if TFTB takes place before or after the events of the prologue and epilogue of Pre-Sequel, where Athena the Gladiator narrates the story of Handsome Jack’s meteoric rise to power.
TFTB, like Pre-Sequel, is a story within a story. We start off with a cyborg Hyperion code monkey, Rhys, being dragged through the dust by a strange, masked character who demands to know what brought Rhys to Pandora. The punishment for being uncooperative? The Pandora Special: shotgun to the face. Mmm.
Thus begins the flashback to a cleaner, differently-dressed Rhys who is about to get demoted to vice-janitor (or something?) by his corporate rival, Vasquez. Rhys and his buddy Vaughn—not wanting to take anything sitting down—decide to gank ten million big ones from Hyperion and buy a vault key out from under Vasquez’s nose. The catch is, the contact is on Pandora, and Rhys and Vaughn aren’t exactly vault hunters.
The two of them head to the deal, and just when we’re about to learn what happened, we’re jettisoned back to the present. Rhys has just been dragged to the stranger’s lair, which houses another prisoner: Rhy’s one-time ally-turned-rival, Fiona.
Fiona is a con artist who grew up in the seedy underbelly of the Pandoran cave city, Hollowpoint. From Fiona’s perspective, we learn about the true nature of the vault key Rhys and Vaughn are about to buy, how it got to the Pandoran meeting, and what precisely Fiona, her sister, and her adoptive father have to do with it.
Now that Rhys and Fiona are together in the present, the story jumps back and forth between their playable portions of the game. The narrative is punctuated with interruptions by the strange, masked captor or the other protagonist objecting to the version of the story presently being told (“That’s not what happened! This is how it really happened! Oh shut up! No you shut up!”).
The plot climaxes in a bandit arena, where all four main characters are forced to work together to survive a Pandoran version of Death Race, complete with the jibberish-spewing psychos and masked little people fans have come to know and love. Ominously, the last thing we see before the screen fades out is a digitized version of Handsome Jack throwing his arms up on the shoulders of Rhys and Fiona. This jerk again.
Episode two begins after our heroes recover the macguffin from episode one. The quartet is quickly broken up thanks to a Rakk Hive, and we spend about half the narrative getting the guys and the girls back together. As the guys are stranded, the digital Jack, who no one but Rhys can see, offers humorous commentary and temptations toward devious actions (an achievement is called “Devil on my Shoulder”).
We’re treated to the same intermittent narrative interruptions either by a (1) contradiction by one protagonist or another (because no, Rhys did not in fact fall off a balcony and explode in a spew of blood that went everywhere, despite what Fiona might like) or a (2) question from the duo’s mysterious captor, usually involving the aforementioned shotgun.
After meeting up at Hollowpoint, the four “friends” make their way to a location from the other games I won’t spoil for you, where they discover a secret laboratory. After activating some long-lost technology, episode two ends on a cliffhanger that will leave you itching for the next episode’s premier.
Same Old Same Old
Everything from my reviews of BL2 and Pre-Sequel apply generally, and feel free to follow this helpful link for an in-depth discussion on the godless world of Pandora. For those who just wanted me to specify about the ESRB rating: violence/gore (it’s actually worse here than in the other games), language, sexual innuendo, etc. In short: not for your little tykes.
At one point, you literally scoop a dead guy’s eyes out of his head with a spork.
“Come with Me if You Want to Leave”
The game alternates between low-stress scenes of exploration and narration, where your character examines the environment, usually stumbling upon some off-color bit of humor (by which I mean “poop jokes” and “NSFW”) before pushing the plot forward. Action sequences will have you pressing a button rapidly, which I imagine is easier on a controller than a keyboard, or responsively clicking your mouse or hitting up/down/left/right to avoid being shot in the face, dismembered, eaten, etc. Your successes, failures, and choices will be noted in the top-left corner of the screen: “Character X will remember you did this,” or “Character Y didn’t like that.”
As with other Telltale projects, TFTB is far more about story and choice than skill. Still, I found the experience refreshing in the choices you can make. For example, at one point Rhys calls in a loader bot to help himself out against an overwhelming swell of bandits. As the player, you get to pull up a little cybernetic display on your arm and choose the bot’s weapon loadout. Shield? Grenade? Rifle? The choices are yours, and the game responds appropriately.
Upon completion of the first chapter, I watched the credits for about fifteen seconds before pressing the space bar to exit. Then, in the top left corner of the screen, I read:
“Telltale Games will remember you did that.”
And I was just like:
The quality that fans of the Borderlands series have come to expect is not lacking in TFTB. I have no complaints about the graphics. They are consistent with the other games, being sharp and colorful, and fit in perfectly with the established world and lore. A nice touch was integration of a menu scheme/in-game interface that mimicked the menus from the FPS games.The cinematography and animation are both also top-notch. These are no mere back-and-forth stock shots, friends, but thoughtful, artistic approaches to storytelling. Funny shots accentuate the comedy while more reflective and serious moments are handled expertly and subtly.
The music is appropriate both narratively and thematically (some favorite tracks from previous games return) and the voice acting is, as always, stellar.
Rhys’s voice was oddly familiar, and set my nerd senses tingling. I had no choice but to consult Dr. Google after I finished chapter one. I clapped and shouted “Yes!” when I realized Rhys is voiced by Troy Baker, who has worked on everything from Call of Duty to the Arkham games to The Last of Us (Joel). Most notably for me, Baker voiced Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite. His performance as Rhys is just as entertaining as in any of the other big name titles.
Laura Bailey as Fiona was also a treat. In addition to being involved in a comparable number of games as Baker, she voiced my favorite companion character, Serana, in the Dawngaurd DLC of the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Serana was a notable companion character in that she actually had a personality and wasn’t always griping about being sworn to carry my burdens. If you’re gonna gripe about carrying my burdens, why did you swear to, Lydia? Now hold these stolen cheese wheels.
Nerds and normcore aficionados everywhere will appreciate Patrick Warburton (Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove; appeared as a recurring character on Seinfeld) as a primary antagonist, Vasquez. Warburton takes his voice role seriously, but his trademark meat-and-potatoes timbre is famous by now, and almost disarmed me. Unfortunately, when Vasquez talks, all I hear is Kronk.
All the voice acting is top notch. Old favorites return with their original actors, and other notable voices from the series are heard on occasion. New characters are acted just as well as the old, weaving a consistent sci-fi world that is entirely engrossing. I must once again commend whoever is doing voice hiring for these games. Just…keep doing what you’re doing.
Itching for More
As usual, Telltale brings the money when it comes to writing. The dialogue and narrative shifts from humorous and whimsical to adventurous and serious. Decisive moments for the player (you’ve got one bullet, who are you saving it for?) shift to meditations on what it really means to live on a savage, amoral world like Pandora. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in one of the early sequences of episode one, where Rhys and Vaughn accidentally run over a skag. Fans of the series will recall that each BL game opens with a musical montage, and at some point in that montage, a vehicle runs over a skag. But when Rhys and Vaughn run over a skag, they don’t then leap in slow motion from a fiery explosion while shooting submachine guns or chucking grenades. Instead, they flip out—they just killed something! They’ve never killed something! The player, controlling Rhys, has the option to shrug off the skag’s death, but Vaughn is disturbed. And as the car rolls onward toward the next plot point, the camera pulls out and you see the skag trembling in its death throes as a pool of blood creeps out in a halo beneath it.
This is the kind of smart storytelling Telltale consistently delivers. Whereas Gearbox and 2K Australia kept the good times rolling and occasionally interrupted them with clear reminders of the grisly reality of the amoral Borderverse, Telltale is more intentionally showing us that all stories are reflections of reality. Someone who played this game has hit a dog or a cat or even a larger animal with their car at some point, and, forced to watch it writhing in the road, has had to decide whether they should just move on or put it out of its misery. We’re dealing with the real stuff of the human experience, here. That is, and always will be, the most fascinating thing about storytelling.
Also, Rhy’s personal loader bot makes a bunch of omages to Terminator 2. The classic thumbs-up. “Come with me if you want to leave.”
So. There’s that.
Agree? Disagree? Something nice to say? Leave it below.
+ Great story
+ Fantastic presentation
- We have to wait for more
- If they could find another avenue for player interaction other than pressing Q really fast, that wouldn't hurt