Tales from the Borderlands Episode 1 – Zer0 Sum

I consider myself a fan of the Borderlands games. In particular, the games’ setting, Pandora, is a heady pastiche of surreal humor and ultra-violence, with loads of potential to tell great stories. Unfortunately, the mainstream games in the Borderlands series only go skin-deep into the setting, and the plot, while full of great characters, takes a backseat to the frenetic gunplay and the ever-present fountains of arterial blood and explosions. The Borderlands 2 DLCs, particularly the excellent Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, try to provide some character depth, but the world still remained a largely undeveloped cipher for the more important shooty elements.

Enter Telltale Games. These maestros are responsible for the Walking Dead adventure games which are pretty much close to the pinnacle of contemporary gaming in terms of story. Their products are less games than interactive adventures with strong stories and the illusion of player choice. Their more well known creations of the recent past have been somber and tragic, but they return to their comedic roots with the new Tales of the Borderlands series, and boy, do they deliver.

This first episode of Tales of the Borderlands is a good start to a Borderlands game that is more about the story than the gameplay, and Telltale Games manages to capture the frontier, wacky spirit of Pandora almost pitch-perfectly, while putting some of their distinctive branding into it. The narrative focuses not on the overpowered vault hunters of Gearbox’s three FPS releases in the franchise, but relatively more down-to-earth characters with motivations that can be shaped, to some degree, by the player. For the first time, Pandora feels like a place people actually live in, as opposed to a theme park of walking, easily-ruptured sacks of viscera.

While a Telltale game in truth, it is also a lot more fun to play than The Walking Dead, which, by virtue of its setting and circumstance, required the player to make painful and agonizing moral choices. In Tales of the Borderlands, the player characters are largely amoral (though likable) bastards. One is a power-hungry suit in the world’s most evil corporation and the other is a con-artist. These characters are motivated by their baser desires, and although you could play them a little more straight if you wanted, it’s more fun to choose the most ridiculous sounding conversation option and watch everything unfold into chaos. But as ridiculous as these options may be, they are always appropriate to the context of the plot, and have real dramatic payoffs.

I took about two hours to play this first episode. The first episode is a pretty standalone adventure, and its narrative arc is self-contained. It feels like a good first movie in an expanding franchise, and I applaud Telltale for resisting the temptation to end it on a cliffhanger. However, it certainly opens up the way to the following episodes, which are slated to come out in two-month intervals.

Tales of the Borderlands demonstrates Telltale’s uncanny aptitude at creating spinoffs that add to the richness of the original franchises by filling out the lesser-explored interstices of their world-settings. I heartily look forward to more blood-and-guts-with-a-dose-of-heart action.

I give Tales of the Borderlands Episode 1 – Zer0 Sum 4.5 out of 5 Vault Keys

+ Great self-contained introduction to the season
+ Captures Pandora perfectly
+ Great characters, hilarious campy villains

– Ended far too quickly
– Can explore Pandora more
– Handsome Jack is overused. Let it go, already. (subject to reevaluation if future episodes find a good way to use the character)

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