REVIEW: Tales from the Borderlands
Tales from the Borderlands combines the humor and spirit of Telltale’s earlier work, with the emotionally impactful storytelling that’s defined their modern games. The result is their best game yet.
I have no investment in the Borderlands franchise, and I think the writing in those main games is bad. I came into this honestly with a chip on my shoulder against this world because of that. This game won me over, with good characters, good writing, and excellent style. Within the context of this game I came to care about this world. Not in a way where I’m gonna go play a regular Borderlands game, but I think the lore and world are leveraged well, acting as a benefit rather than a hindrance.
Probably the biggest complaint the Borderlands series has drawn is its overuse of internet meme humor. This game has none of that. There were clearly writers writing these gags and jokes specifically for this game. It feels natural and organic, not just regurgitation. That’s not to say the game is above references, or super dumb jokes, but it’s not aggressive about that stuff and it all works. Humor can be subjective to an extent, so I think the easiest way to cover this is just to say that Telltale once had a reputation for making funny adventure games, and they bring those joke telling strengths to bear here. Something they haven’t done in a while.
Visually the game is at its core still just another Telltale game: Not the highest resolution textures, but they do a good job at animating expressive faces to match their style of dialogue heavy games. But in terms of style and making the most of those assets, I think this is their best outing. Wolf Among Us also had a good sense of noir and neon atmospheric visuals, but that was a much more intimate game and there was less for them to do there. TftB is a grand adventure tale. The spectacle is big, and Telltale does a great job of getting that across with the scale of budget and assets they’re working with. Most notable are the musical title card sequences which are fucking fantastic, a highlight of the series. That’s where that style is most brought to bear, particularly in episode 3, which is the only one that uses quick editing paced to the music; I fucking love it. All of that is bolstered by a good selection of licensed music I’ve never heard before that works really well.
Gameplay wise… Yeah, it’s another modern Telltale game: Dialogue trees, quick time events and occasional fixed decisions.
Let’s talk about choices first.
The Walking Dead wore out its welcome with me by too often tying its decisions into whether or not a character would die. The more I’ve seen this design, the more I think this approach is almost always a bad idea, because once this option is presented that character’s ability to be in the game is automatically limited. Specifically in TWD this would mean that the character would be dead soon anyway. It was a meat grinder that made me disengage with the story. However, that’s kind of the nature of The Walking Dead as a franchise so I don’t know how much blame I can put on Telltale for that, considering that really they were just being faithful to the property. I’m more inclined to give them credit for moving away from that meat grinder style when they’ve had the chance to, which they have.
So what are your choices here generally if not about the lives of characters? A lot of times it’s just about choosing between a couple different jokes. Or determining how something will play out, not so much what happens. This kind of player flavoring I think works better for this kind of game, and is more honest on the part of the developers as far as letting the player understand how much control they have over this story. That’s not to say that it’s all that, there are several moments where you just flat out decide someone’s fate, but they’re minor decisions in the grand scheme; more along the lines of: are you going to kill an enemy you defeated or spare them?
The choices you make that do matter are generally a little more nuanced, focusing more on how you’re going to treat other characters. It feels more organic and has more context than the binary abstracts of choosing between two characters to save. There are characters you could become friends/allies with and characters where that will never work, but I’ll get back to this.
Quick time events suck. That’s the conventional wisdom, and I mostly agree. I do think you can contextualize them better than most games do, so that they work ok. Asura’s Wrath for me is the gold standard there, but I digress. Telltale is not the best about them, but not the worst. What gets to me is when you have to mash a button to open a door. That’s never good design, and Telltale is totally guilty of it. The point of quick time events is to abstract out gameplay to accompany a sequence to save the developer from needing to create full action controls (Presumably so they can focus on story, or achieve greater spectacle instead), and/or to make your game more accessible to people who don’t have the gaming dexterity for action games but still like interactive storytelling. Mashing a button to open a door isn’t fun, cool, or necessary. There’s no reason for it.
A quick time event can be fun, if it’s ridiculous enough, and if the connection between the players inputs and what happens onscreen feels coherent. At it’s best it can be akin to a simple rhythm game, although that’s not the norm. There are two quick time sequences in this game that are clever, super dumb, fun, and inventive. They work in a way I don’t think QTEs have in any other Telltale game. That’s nice and I appreciate it, but I am coming to these games for the storytelling, while the gameplay is just kinda there. Those sequences are not good enough to change that dynamic, and if you actively hate that kind of gameplay I don’t know that this will do anything to change your mind, but I had a surprising amount of fun with them.
Storytelling and character writing is what brought me to the dance though, so let’s get to that. As I said, I do think Telltale has good writing, and they need to since that’s the focus of their games. Even with something like The Walking Dead or their Game of Thrones game that I’m less into, they’re still a breeze to play, despite the fact that those stories thrive on taking you to bummer city. Combining that skill with something that’s actively fun and funny is a delight. It also really makes a difference that the characters are having fun, even in the face of imminent death. The thrill of adventure is an intoxicating thing, and video games in particular seem to forget that so often. It’s one the reasons the typical grizzled protagonist is such a bane to me.
TftB has you alternating between two different characters, the con artist Fiona and the Hyperion salary man Rhys. The game is told through flashback with your two protagonists held prisoner and forced to recount this story to their captor. This starts with them on opposite sides of a deal gone south, eventually stumbling their way into an adventure above their weight class. Seeing them start from the bottom and scrape their way through a grand adventure is fun and gratifying as the story finds more and more ridiculous and dangerous scenarios to throw their way.
Telltale’s also been good at being true to the franchises they’re adapting, while at the same time also elevating them. For any shit I may talk about The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, I still like those games more than I like their source material. That’s also true for A Wolf Among Us and I think I’ve made it clear it’s true about Tales from the Borderlands.
What works so well here is the value Telltale placed in these characters, and not just the main cast. There’s no meat grinder for characters here, although there sure is for nameless NPCs. Even when characters die, they get to have their moment, the story respects their place in the story, so I as a player respect the game spending its time on them. And your impact as a player is based a lot on how much you care about these characters, you kinda get out what you put in. The core of this story is a heist, a suicide mission, that big score. And like any good heist, the important thing is having a good crew.
It’s hard to get too much deeper without spoilers, but I will say that I don’t throw around comparisons to Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission lightly. As much as I was loving this game, what really nailed it home for me is how it got the most important part of the ending to matter. That the side characters I put in the effort to care about, were the ones I could call on when the rubber hit the road. It’s the kind of design choice that can seem small, but it’s the most important one for me with story based games right now, and most just don’t put in the effort.
This is easily Telltale’s best game to date, and I really enjoyed it. It used a property I did not care about to tell exactly the kind of story I am into. It was a surprising pleasure to play through.