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Review: Tales from the Borderlands Episode One – Zer0 Sum

Telltale Games – makers of narrative games full of moral ambiguity and difficult decisions – and the Borderlands games – funny, over-the-top shooters full of guns and more guns – are both things I love, though I’d never have thought of mixing them together. They seem to sit on opposite ends of the pretentious game spectrum, so the announcement of Tales from the Borderlands was completely unexpected. An episodic adventure game from Telltale Games, set in the Borderlands universe? I was apprehensive, but I was also sure I’d be playing it the day it came out. And, strangely, this collaboration seems to have worked, because the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands is downright awesome.

You’re Rhys, an employee of Hyperion – everyone’s favourite evil corporation – trying to climb the corporate ladder after the death of Handsome Jack. Cheated out of a promotion by his rival, he heads to Pandora with plans to buy a mysterious vault key that’s sure to get him back in Hyperion’s good books, but when he crosses paths with con artist Fiona – also you – his plans go awry and things quickly go from bad to worse.

Gameplay is typical Telltale fare – there are dialogue options, quick time events, occasionally you can interact with the environment, and your choices shape the story and the characters. You swap between controlling Rhys and Fiona as they narrate their – sometimes contradictory – stories to a captor in the future, and switching between the two works well and is never confusing.

Both Rhys and Fiona are fun, engaging characters, and the supporting cast is just as strong. Tales from the Borderlands shows a different side of Pandora than the main games, focusing on characters who don’t have a ridiculous arsenal at their disposal and can’t solve all their problems by shooting at them. It works surprisingly well, and that’s because of the strong characterisation and great dialogue. Though this is far less serious than Telltale’s recent games, the characters are well-rounded and interesting and their interactions are often entertaining.

Borderlands‘s trademark humour is back – I laughed more in the couple of hours of gameplay here than I did in the entirety of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel – and so is its relentless energy. I’d thought the Borderlands games were pretty much defined by their gameplay, but this feels like a Borderlands game, not just a Telltale game with Pandoran trappings. Several familiar faces from Borderlands 2 show up, the UI is suitably Borderlands-y, and though there are loads of references for Borderlands fans it’s also accessible for newcomers. It’s funny and irreverent while still having a heart and caring about its characters, the action is fast-paced and ridiculous and pretty awesome in places, and it’s all so energetic and just plain fun.

The Borderlands setting has always had potential for great storytelling, and Tales from the Borderlands is a treat for fans of the series and for anyone who’s been interested in the games but was put off by all the shooting and gun-comparing. Tales from the Borderlands proves that Borderlands doesn’t need a gazillion guns to be fun, and Telltale’s storytelling works in genres that aren’t all doom and gloom. The only problem is that we’re going to have to wait a couple of months for the next episode, and I want it now.