Tales From The Borderlands: Episode 1 - Zer0 Sum Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360, PC, Sony PS Vita, Sony PlayStation 3, iPad and Microsoft Xbox One
Telltale Games have been on a rather impressive winning streak lately. After a number of years perfecting their story-driven, choice system formula for a number of interactive adventures based on Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, and CSI , they truly became a force to be reckoned with when the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking take on The Walking Dead hit consoles, tablets and home computers back in 2012, greeted with both critical and commercial success. Now the studio hopes to unlock the vaults of Pandora in the hopes of finding fortune, with an all-new spinoff title inspired by 2K Games and Gearbox Software’s Borderlands.
Tales From The Borderlands puts the already vibrant mythology from popular, Mad Max-like multiplayer-based role-playing first-person shooter series to good use. Set on what was once a world that promised vast resources and great opportunity for huge intergalactic corporations, Pandora has now become a dangerous cesspool of violence and greed. Psychotic bandits and monstrous aliens now terrorise what’s left of the planet’s population, while daring adventurers use whatever weapons they can scavenge in order to survive barren wastelands in search of the fabled vaults the supposedly contain a wealth of alien technology.
Set after Borderlands 2, this game takes a very different approach to it’s predecessors. While the series has been built on a “shoot now, ask questions later” mentality, this game uses Telltale Games’ popular game mechanic to show you that it is indeed possible to survive the dusty, junk riddled planet of Pandora without immediately drawing your pistol. By building upon the already fascinating mythology, Episode 1, subtitled Zer0 Sum, is a well-paced, exciting adventure that will leave you wanting for more, even if you’ve never played another Borderlands title in your life.
Unlike other games in Telltale’s library of more hits than misses, Tales From The Borderlands features not one but two playable characters this time around. The opening scene introduces the first of these - the cybernetically enhanced company man Rhys in media res. After being captured by a mysterious stranger in the middle of the desert, he begins to recount the story of how someone of his supposed high stature wound up in the dangerous battleground that is Pandora.
Rhys is a rising star within Hyperion, one of the last surviving corporations to have dealings on Pandora. With the help of his silver tongue, as well as his friends Vaughn and Yvette, he quickly finds himself up for promotion within this soulless, money-hungry company. Unfortunately, he soon realises that his old boss has been replaced by his nemesis Vasquez, who quickly demotes Rhys back down to a janitorial role. Swearing revenge, Rhys comes up with a plan to snatch a huge deal right out from underneath Vasquez’s nose. However, it doesn’t take long for him to realise he’s bitten off more than he can chew when within minutes of arrival, he finds himself up against the blood-thirsty, axe-wielding maniacs of Pandora.
In a scene that is witty, clever, and brilliantly executed, the story takes an unexpected turn and we are introduced to Fiona - a con artist who has survived thanks to her street smarts, her sister Sasha, and the help of her equally conniving adoptive father Felix. Having recently befriended one of Pandora’s most notorious bandits as part of a con, the three are on the cusp of executing a plan that could net them a huge cash prize to the tune of ten million bucks. It all seems too good to be true, until the plan goes sour and she’s forced to make an uneasy alliance in order to make bank.
Tales From the Borderlands goes to great lengths to prove that neither of these characters boast the same stamina or have access to the same arsenal as the vault hunters from previous Borderlands games. Both characters claim to have the gift of the gab, thus putting a lot of emphasis on Telltale’s already tried and tested conversational mechanics as the key method of survival. Throughout each act, you’ll be given a number of timed responses to choose from when interacting with other characters that aren’t only crucial in forging alliances and staying alive, but also dictate what way the overarching story will pan out. The most obvious response however, isn’t always the best and one wrong word will see you with an axe to your throat, with a mask-wearing maniac screaming about he’s going to eat your eyeballs.
What's great about the two central characters, voiced by video game voice acting veterans Troy Baker and Laura Bailey, is that their personalities are established very early on. You’ll become attuned to the way they think and speak, and your responses will reflect this, by more often selecting a reply that’s more in line with the character’s attitude than your own. Rhys’ cocky swagger is a front, masking his actual bumbling idiocy leading to, depending on your actions, some moments of true comedy gold. Fiona on the other hand is much more cunning and throughout the episode, has a number of much more pivotal decisions to make that could potentially see her transform from a swindling con-artist to a reluctant heroine.
Along for the ride are a number of supporting characters that can be influenced, offended, and befriended in ways that could either have good or bad repercussions in later episodes. Rhys’ nerdy best friend Vaughn and Fiona’s sister Sasha are not only key players in the story but also serve as a conscience for both main stars. Generally, a lot of the conversing will be bounced off of them so keeping on their good side, at least for the time being, seems like the best way to go. There’s also an appearance from Zer0, the assassin class vault hunter that was a playable character in Borderlands 2 who speaks in haiku and delivers his feelings via emoticons on his faceplate, paving the way for further potential cameos from the Borderlands’ rogues gallery in later episodes. However, the show stealing performance comes from Vaughn, the game’s villain, who is played with utter douchy perfection by Patrick Warburton of Family Guy fame.
It’s not all talk and no play however. There are moments when you get to control the character during their travels across Pandora. While the puzzle solving elements are limited, especially compared to Telltale’s other recent victory, The Wolf Among Us, the addition of some new mechanics help to firmly establish the game as a primarily Borderlands experience. Rhys’ cybernetic eye allows him to scan his environment for clues and information relating to his surroundings. For the most part this will simply expand the existing Borderlands mythology, but it also comes in useful when searching for items or hacking electronic equipment in order to move the story forward. Fiona on the other hand can use cold hard cash to help her throughout her journey. Money is usually earned via some moral dilemma, but if you’re prepared to be a little greedy, having a few bucks handy will unlock new conversation choices and items that can change your influence over other characters and indeed the way certain scenes pan out.
If you don’t have the money, or you’re just a bit of a miser, then be prepared to put up a fight. As is usual with these games, quick time events are at the heart of the combat, but again they too have been given a twist in order to fit in with the parent series. Cowardly Rhys’ first combat scene naturally involves requesting a robot to do the fighting for him. Before it lands, you’ll be given the opportunity to select what weapons and defences it has. Depending on whether you’re hoping for a quick distraction or a complete bloodbath, these loadouts can be varied, before taking part in a QTE combined with traits of a traditional first person shooter.
It’s all very on-the-rails so don’t expect a complete throwback to the previous games, but it helps to maintain the canon that the series has built up over the past few years. The rest of the quick time events play out as expected. Pressing X is just one of the many ways NOT to day as you’ll also have to swiftly move the analogue stick in varying directions in order to avoid bullets, knives, axes, and even a huge rabid skag at one point. Telltale have walked a tightrope appealing to both the FPS Borderlands audience and the interactive wannabe story-tellers, and while the action does lean more to the right in this case, it’s a nice way of syncing the two up.
The same goes for the graphics. Borderlands has always been cel-shaded and given that Telltale like to work in this medium, the pair are a match made in heaven. Nods and tropes to the main series all appear, from weapons and masks used by the psychos, to the loot crates and corresponding coloured highlights that define how rare an item is. The dusty, chaotic world of Pandora is captured perfectly, from the highest sand dune, right down to the smallest, babble-spewing midget dwarf. What’s even better is that the game doesn’t suffer from the same framerate issues that unfortunately affected The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, particularly after making their jump from last-gen to current-gen. No more do trails of dialogue rambled on while the characters on screen pause, only to play catch up a moment later.
In fact, the only thing holding back Tales From The Borderlands from being another runaway success is its release date. Given that Telltale’s other big game of the season was released in the same week, you may find yourself downloading the spin-off of HBO’s Game of Thrones first, before heading off to the distant world of Pandora. However, given that this first episode is the same price, a measly few quid, it’s totally well worth giving a spin. The world of Pandora has a vault full of lore and stories to offer, so if this game matches the critical and commercial success of other Telltale games, then we may only have begun to scratch the surface.