I ended up waiting for all the episodes to come out before continuing Tales from the Borderlands. Part of the reason for this was that Telltale was taking its sweet time releasing subsequent episodes, probably because it was so caught up with its Game of Thrones series. As such, I’m writing this entry more than a year after I played the first episode of the game.
Overall, Tales has been an entertaining and engaging adventure yarn set in the Borderlands universe. It manages to capture, in large part, the anarchic spirit of the Borderlands games while layering a strong and engaging character-driven narrative on top of it. This latter part was largely deficient in the Gearbox Borderlands games and is a welcome and necessary addition here.
Narrative is everything in these kinds of games, mostly because there is so little else on the table to offer in terms of gameplay mechanics. Luckily, Tales manages to keep up the frenetic pace, with brilliant set-pieces in every episode. The humor, while uneven, is mostly on-point, and is at times hilariously self-aware of the wacky tropes of the Borderlands franchise. The cast of characters is largely sympathetic, with a few breakouts – Gortys in particular is an adorable ball of bubbly but canny optimism. And the series wraps itself nicely, with few plot threads dangling, but with the door open for future iterations of the franchise.
However, I do think that the episodes varied somewhat in narrative quality. There is a definite sense that the writers were making things up as they went along. The game is essentially a nested narrative, with Fiona and Rhys telling their own versions of the same story to the mysterious stranger that kidnapped them. The first four episodes recount that story, but do it in such a way that there is a disconnect between the recounted events of the past and how they relate to the meta-narrative that emerges in the final episode. As an example of this disconnect, Fiona and Rhys express hostility to each other when they first meet in the meta-narrative, but their recounted story never really adequately explains why they should be so hostile to each other in the first place. And the mannerisms, characteristics and demeanor of the mysterious stranger that abducts the protagonists isn’t in keeping with his true identity when revealed in Episode 5.
The whole shtick about Tales being told by two unreliable narrators never really takes off after the first episode either. Subsequent episodes pretty much tell a unified and simultaneous story, but I guess that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Also, at times, the series’ penchant for allowing the player to craft characters through their dialogue can lead to some odd situations, plot-wise. For example, Rhys’ backstory as an ambitious corporate ladder-climber and his obsession with Handsome Jack doesn’t quite cohere with my playstyle, in which I painted Rhys as consistently mistrustful of Jack and resistant to his offers to help.
The series also starts to ramp up the character drama towards the end, but this tends to end up feeling a little forced, as if put in there just for the sake of generating pathos by sacrificing certain characters. Although if I know Borderlands, said character will probably show up at some point anyway.
Ultimately, though, my expectations of the Telltale-style narrative adventure game genre have increased since I played Life is Strange. Telltale’s games are not so much games as they are point-and-click, QTE-driven interactive movies. Player choice is largely an aesthetic illusion. While this isn’t a knock on the Telltale style, which is perfectly legitimate, I feel like the genre that Telltale has pioneered is no longer being led by them. Games like Life is Strange are ultimately better games, in the sense that players have more meaningful agency in them. In Tales, almost nothing is interactive, the player spaces were constrained, and side-conversations were extremely limited. The game is largely a cinematic, on-rails experience, with one dialogue option or another largely leading to the same outcomes.
The issue is not that the game is giving the player the illusion of choice, which is necessary given time and budget constraints. The issue is that Tales doesn’t offer much in the way of incidental interest, that every player action has the singular purpose of advancing the story and little else. There is some incidental interest here and there – Rhys’ cybernetic eye is able to scan objects for some (mostly) humorous flavor text. But Tales is much more limited than Life is Strange in that regard, which had similar on-rails storytelling, but a lot more player freedom to explore the playable space, talk to random people, and live in the moment, without feeling like the game is rushing you places.
In addition, Telltale’s non-narrative game mechanics aren’t very much fun. When control is vested in the player, it is either in the form of QTEs or walking around an extremely limited playspace to fulfill a few basic functions in order to advance the story. Telltale would benefit from iterating on its mechanics to make the gameplay feel like a more inherently fun experience.
In the end, the upshot is that Tales is a great story and a fun experience, but it could have been so much more than that. It didn’t necessarily have to be, but it could’ve been. Borderlands is a franchise with a great deal of worldbuilding potential. It’s got a distinctive visual style, great characters, a strong sense of character and place, and a brand of off-the-rails humor that sets it apart from most games of its genre. Here’s hoping that future Borderlands titles can iterate on the foundations built by Tales and previous games to provide both great narratives as well as great gaming experiences.
I give Tales of the Borderlands: 4 out of 5 Gortys Cores