Tales From the Borderlands Ep. 1: Zer0 Sum Review (Kinda Badass)
The one worry in the translation from first-person shoot-'em-up to story-driven episodic point-and-click was mostly execution - and not just in the tasty meat-bicycle-go-smoosh kind of way.
After all, Telltale Games has made a household name of themselves with their (much better) rendition of The Walking Dead Season 1 and 2, and for the critically acclaimed The Wolf Among Us. Both were praised for their intricate storytelling, atmosphere, and action - which comes as a bit of a departure from shiny loot showers, heaving Moxxie bosoms, and anything out of Handsome Jack's mouth that we've learned to love from the Borderlands franchise. So the important question was this:
Does it still feel like a Borderlands game?
The answer is... yes. Yes it does.
Starting the moment you load into the main menu, the feeling is akin to sinking into a comfy, familiar, internet sofa. While you log into a Telltale account rather than Gearbox's SHIFT, the look and feel is identical to setting up Borderlands.
When you jump into the game, the opening cinematic is voiced over by the same narrator. The dry, skeleton-laden dustbowl is familiar even if the rusted road signs aren't, and you still get to see a skag forcefully meet the business end of a motor vehicle. (Even if our intrepid heroes Vaughn and Rhys have to wax effulgent over the poor clam-faced mutated dog monster.)
At the same time, it contains hallmarks of a Telltale point-and-click - timed dialogue choices, "Clementine will remember"'s, small-situation point-and-clicks, quick-time events, and from time to time, painfully slow character maneuverability.
The story in Tales is told in retrospect - forcibly knocked out, hogtied, and kidnapped by a stranger with a gas mask and a voice changer, you meet Rhys (you), the Company Man. His talents include scanning secret files with his robot eye, corporate kowtowing, and crushing (imaginary) hearts in his fist. Retelling the events that led up to his inevitable capture, we are drawn into the tale of this run-of-the-mill corporate kiss ass who's just trying to get back at his newly-promoted arch-nemesis (and new boss) by stealing a vault key with stolen company funds.
Of course, not all is as it seems, so we get to meet Fiona (also you), grifter and fast-talking con-woman, to hear her side of the story.
Well-paced with swift-moving dialogue and action, this is a good story told well. The humor is a tempered mix of Borderlands and Borderlands 2 - plenty of slapstick and unholy humor, but toned down and less try-hard in nature - what is, in my opinion, the perfect mix.
Telltale is known for its action sequences, and Tales comes as no exception. There are a few jump scare moments (perfectly acceptable in a game not about zombies and/or grisly murders), a number of quick time events where you dodge Storm Trooper-level gunfire and fight off the hoard with your electro-stick, and a few minutes of gameplay where you get to control a Loader Bot loaded for bear and bandit alike.
While QTEs can be touch-and-go in terms of playability and user enjoyment, they work well in a story-driven point-and-click environment, and don't feel out of place in this game. It's actually pretty fun how quickly you're thrown back into the action after sitting back for a cutscene.
In between these moments however, are a number of scenes where you control your character at a near-glacial pace around a room or a small stretch of alleyway. Where the immersion tries to take you into the familiarity of Borderlands (e.g. with the inclusion of openable loot boxes, albeit ones that still remain greenlit after they're opened unlike in actual Borderlands games), this snail-level pace at which you control your character feels like a removal from there where, if you didn't happen to have Lilith-level Phasewalk powers, you could at least run in the first person shooters. (And you did run. You ran everywhere. There was so much running.)
With respect to character cameos, one of the easiest traps to fall into for an outside studio when making a new entry into a franchise is to overuse a number of familiar characters as if to say "this is really a Borderlands game. Really. Really really. Doesn't it look Borderlands-y? Let me put some more Borderlands into your Borderlands just to make sure."
This game doesn't do that.
There are a few of them, but never to the point where they're simply popping up out of the woodwork at every given moment, and they figure in with the new faces just as easily as they would in a Gearbox game. It's quite masterfully done, actually - a pleasant mix of faces you know with faces that you don't, but you never begrudge the new characters' screentime.
While this first episode did not play through perfectly, my criticisms are mostly nitpicks.
The mouse cursor in the PC version of the game is difficult to see against most of the backgrounds so in the case of most dialogue choice screens, I did run into several occasions where I simply couldn't find the cursor fast enough to choose a dialogue option before the timer ran out (thankfully none in which staying silent actually harmed or hindered). This is not an issue shared by the console version of the game where the dialogue options correspond with specific buttons rather than by point-and-click.
Upon startup, the game defaults to windowed mode - a super, teeny tiny 800x600-or-thereabouts window wherein the first order of business is to bump the resolution up to native as quickly as humanly possible. Once done, this is not an issue in subsequent startups of the game. Where this doesn't phase me in the least, I have known PC purists to take it to Facebook and beyond when games don't immediately recognize their native resolution for them "in this day and age." (Guys. Chill.)
Beyond that, I hit a few audio bumps in the road where the main dialogue simply wouldn't play properly the second time I booted up the game. Not relishing the prospect of relying 100% on subtitles to carry me through the playthrough experience, it took some restarting, checking my local files, cursing at the gods, and diving down into the dark, dusty cesspit under my desk to check all my cables. (I'm also pretty certain all of this can be chalked up to user error however, since poking around down there definitely seemed to be what fixed the problem.)
Told you. Nitpicks.
These relatively small issues aside, this game plays like a dream and the only real problem I have is that it's too short - barely two hours of play before I have to buckle down and continue playing the waiting game for Episode 2.
For those of you interested in trying this one out, I highly recommend having played Borderlands and/or Borderlands 2 before you begin. While I suppose it might be possible to play this as a standalone game, it really rides on a great deal of background info from the parent franchise to really get into the story... and it doesn't help you cheat by summarizing.
If you're all set and ready for this, look for Tales from the Borderlands currently on Steam sale for 15% off for the holidays.
Check out the review for Episode 2!