REVIEW: Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 – Zer0 Sum

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Telltale Games are perhaps the most formulaic developers on the planet, so going in to Tales from the Borderlands I expected nothing more than a series of two hour cutscenes broken up by quick-time events (QTEs) and dialogue choices. What I didn’t expect was that I’d actually enjoy it. Which I did. A lot.

The first episode, Zer0 Sum, introduces us to the series’ two protagonists through a variety of embellished flashbacks, as they’re interrogated by a masked stranger in regards to the whereabouts of the mysterious Gortys Project. Rhys, a Hyperion companyman (voiced by who other than Troy Baker), has just been demoted to janitorial duties, and is now caught up in a scheme to intercept the purchase of a vault key ahead of his new boss and rival, Vasquez (the excellent Patrick Warburton of Seinfeld fame). Paired with his loyal sidekick, Hyperion accountant Vaughn (Chris Hardwick), the two successfully meld the expected Borderlands humor and graphical stylings with a dash of Office Space’s cubical-monkey-gone-rogue hijinks.

The other controllable newcomer is con artist Fiona (Laura Bailey), who, along with her kid sister Sasha (Telltale veteran Erin Yvette) and mentor Felix, intertwine themselves in this botched get rich quick scheme from the opposing side with a slew of terrifically written and voiced supporting castmates. Nolan North does an excellent job (as always) voicing new antagonist August, while fans of the series will recognize returning favorites, like Pre-Sequel’s Loader Bot, Tector Hodunk, Shade, and the titular vault hunter, Zer0.

A large majority of the introductory episode is spent fleshing out the new cast, while using Loader Bot in certain combat segments and Zer0 as a way to further the story near the end. At first I wished they would have spent a little more time with familiar characters, but I understood they’ve already had their moment in the sun. By the end of the episode I was so invested in the new cast that I ended up supporting the idea of a brand new story entirely. Watching dialogue play out between the yuppy Hyperion workers and their new Pandoran con-artist companions often displayed conflicting arguments or moments of prejudice that lead me to wonder if things would ever work out in the end. It also made those moments, should I choose for them to occur, to land with a bit more significance.

Gameplay is standard Telltale fare, with you guiding along your character and selecting from a series of dialogue choices. Some of the choices alter the story a bit, or cause your companion’s trust in you to fluctuate, but unlike the more serious tone of The Walking Dead, I felt more inclined to have fun with my choices here. The Borderlands universe is full of unpredictability and humor, and the writing allows you to take full advantage of the fact. One tense moment has Rhys and Sasha sneaking up on two oblivious guards, and after Sasha takes hers out with little effort, you’re given the option to give her a thumbs up in approval, a “meh”, or a thumbs down. Playing the unimpressed asshole that I imagine Rhys to be, I gave her the thumbs down and made my way to the next guard. Figuring I’d show her up with my awesome stun baton, I entered an unwinnable QTE where the weak-Hyperion-turned-janitor struggled to mount any form of offence in the process. Tales from the Borderlands even pokes fun at the usual Telltale tropes, using the pop-up messages in the corner to take cheap shots at your poor choices.

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It’s definitely a Telltale game at its core, which isn’t necessarily bad or good. Outside of dialogue choices and stick waggling QTEs, Rhys is equipped with an ECHO eye implant that allows him to hack objects and scan the environment for flavor text and lore tidbits, while Fiona can find cash hidden about that can later be used for cosmetic changes, like a selection of bandit masks near the episode’s finale (future episodes allow you to purchase new costumes for the cast as well). With it being a Telltame game however, don’t expect to control much of anything else for the approximate 2-hour duration. Unlike other episodic adventure series like Life is Strange or Blues and Bullets, there’s no novel time-warping mechanic or even a tired one like third-person shooting–just downplayed moments of minor exploration, conversational options, and quick-time events. As an adventure genre fan, I see Telltale as light reading. Sometimes I want to sink my teeth in a game with complexities and puzzle solving, like Quest for Infamy, and other times I just want to relax and soak in a well written story with little else to get in the way.

If you’re a fan of the source material, you’re going to pick up on things that others clearly wouldn’t–like Dahl corporation dumpsters, references to Maliwan shock shields, and major characters like Handsome Jack or Marcus, for instance. But don’t feel put off if you’ve yet to jump in to any of the games in the first-person lootfest. All of the new characters and their motives are brought to light in a way that makes prior knowledge irrelevant, and none of the returning characters (aside from Loader Bot) play a significant role. If you’re in to Telltale’s other games, then by all means check out Tales from the Borderlands. It’s easily their most well written entry to date, but it’s not without those familiar Telltale annoyances like lag, crashing, and (from I’ve read, although it’s never happened to me personally) save data issues.

I started my adventure with Tales on the Xbox One. Here, I experienced some noticeable framerate issues and minor stuttering throughout the first two episodes, but it was nothing game breaking. The third, however, was a fucking mess. The entire 2 hour experience was marred by constant stuttering to the point where I was failing QTEs and running out of time during dialogue choices. After some furious Google’ing, I came to the conclusion that this was an isolated incident on the Xbox version. Luckily the PS4 Season Pass was on sale for about $4, and some of my Twitter followers reassured me that their experience with this version went off without a hitch. Trusting their input, I picked it up and restarted it a few days ago. So far, so good. The first episode has absolutely no issues on PS4, but if you’re interested in playing Tales on the Xbox One, all I can say is buyer beware. I was pretty pissed off that I’d spent more money to support such a poorly developed product (from a technical standpoint, of course), but I was really in to the story and wanted to see it through. If it wasn’t on sale though, I probably would have quit entirely after the third episode. It really is just a technical mess on Xbox.

*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I did spend a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. 

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6 thoughts on “REVIEW: Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 – Zer0 Sum

  1. I’m honestly a little tired of Telltale Games. I know exactly what to expect with their games and while it was cool at first the magic quickly left. I love The Walking Dead, and A Wolf Among Us though.

    Everything else is… meh at best in my opinion.

    Great review :]

    Liked by 1 person

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