Tales from the Borderlands, Episode One: Zer0 Sum

There are two sides to every story. When both parties are compulsive liars, who can you count on to tell the truth? This quandary lies at the heart of Telltale’s newest episodic series, Tales from the Borderlands. Up until E3, I was skeptical that the same company behind The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us could design something that matches the sheer lunacy of Gearbox’s shooter. Not that Telltale isn’t capable of embracing absurdity, they were responsible for the Sam and Max revival, but Borderlands has a manic personality I didn’t expect to translate well to an adventure game. I was completely wrong! In fact, if the first episode is an indication of how well the rest of the season performs, Tales from the Borderlands could be the most entertaining game in Telltale’s library.

Borderlands wasn’t a game to play for plot. The story in Borderlands 2 was more palatable than the first, however the overall focus for both was the act of shooting a bajillion guns into the faces of Pandora’s crazed inhabitants. Tales of the Borderlands picks up the slack by substituting gunplay for a finely crafted and hilarious story involving two ne’er do wells brought together by circumstance. After suffering through the darkness of The Walking Dead and the noir-trappings of The Wolf Among Us, Telltale’s Pandora is a wonderful change of scenery and style. The game’s humor is a nice palate cleanser from the crushing hopelessness of The Walking Dead and it truly feels nice to laugh again.

Episode one, “Zer0 Sum,” is presented in medias res, with Rhys, a Hyperion employee, wandering through the ruins of Prosperity Junction. He is caught by a masked bandit and forced to recount his arrival on Pandora. Set after the events of Borderlands 2, the Hyperion Company suffers from a power vacuum caused by the death of Handsome Jack. Rhys, an ambitious and cocky up and comer, hopes to fill the void only to be passed over by the smarmy Hugo Vasquez. During their awkward meeting, Vasquez lets slip his desire to purchase a Vault Key and Rhys sees this as an opportunity to get revenge against his new boss. Armed with ten million dollars, his accountant friend Vaughn, and a stolen company car, Rhys turns a straightforward exchange into a lesson in chaos. His story is interrupted by Fiona, a con artist who has also been captured in the present time, and relays to their kidnapper her version of the events that led to their meetup on Pandora.

The interplay of conflicting viewpoints during the flashbacks gives Tales from the Borderlands its hook. Rhys and Fiona are unreliable narrators who, with the player’s help, embellish the truth until they get called out on their bullshit interpretation of events. An example of this can be found when Fiona is pressed about the aftermath of the Vault Key deal. If you have her lie, the scene shifts to a celebratory tea party honoring a new alliance between herself and Rhys until he yells at her to set the record straight. Getting to see both sides of the story highlights the differences in the character’s personalities. This is also explored through dialog prompts that appear in conversation. Fiona’s dialog choices allow her gift of the gab to will talk her way out of trouble. Rhys is the complete opposite. Put simply, he doesn’t need the player’s help to be a total asshole. The Hyperion superiority complex has rubbed off on him and he’s more than likely to make a smartass comment that lands him in trouble. However, it feels really nice to be a jerk for a change, to be honest.

Beyond the setting and the characters, Tales from the Borderlands has all the trappings of a Telltale adventure game. The episode opens with familiar text about the story adapting to player choices and that characters will remember certain responses and actions. Like any other game, choice does not equal total free will. Scenes follow a specific route that leads to a planned ending. The path may branch, but all roads lead to the same conclusion. Action sequences utilize a generous Quick Time Event system that can steer the scene in different directions if a prompt is missed. Outside of action scenes, Rhys and Fiona can make use of special abilities to get through a puzzle or make conversations easier. Rhys is equipped with an optic eye that can scan parts of the environment for clues and delightful tidbits of non-essential information. Fiona can collect cash and buy her way through situations that might otherwise be trickier to navigate through conversation. A neat feature, though because of Fiona’s late appearance in this episode, there are not enough opportunities to use the loot she collects.

Tales of the Borderlands flawlessly recreates the flavor of the Gearbox shooter, from its interface, cell shaded art style, and twisted sense of humor. I always thought Pandora to be an interesting place, but there never seemed to be enough time to take it all in. Borderlands kept pushing you to find the next gun or fight the next mob of enemies. When you were afforded a moment of calm, Pandora often felt lifeless and superficial. With the gun porn removed, Pandora and its collection of eclectic inhabitants get the attention they deserve. Giving the main characters their voice is an impressive list of seasoned talent. Troy Baker kills it as Rhys, Patrick Warburton gives Hugo Vasquez the perfect amount of condescending sleaze, and Laura Baily makes Fiona shine. Nolan North, Telltale veteran Erin Yvette, and the Internet’s own Chris Hardwick round out the cast. I may not know much about Hardwick other than an occasion pass by his podcast, but he plays Vaughn with the perfect amount of nervousness.

Even though I’m only one episode in, Tales from the Borderlands is an amazing addition to the Telltale library. As much as I enjoyed Borderlands, getting to play in its world without having to shoot stuff over and over is a huge draw. The style of humor is just right and I dare say it’s better than Gearbox. At any rate, Tales from the Borderlands is awesome. Episode one is a very strong start and introduces players to some new storytelling tricks that could only work within the confines of the Borderlands experience. Telltale puts its own spin on things but fans will appreciate their faithfulness to the source material.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.