You might be wondering why, after the relatively superlative review of episodes 1 & 2 of The Walking Dead on here three years ago, you never saw a followup review of episodes 3 through 5. Or, indeed, any other Telltale adventure game. The answer is pretty simple: after doing a pretty stellar job of implementing a genuinely branching plotline and choices that felt like they really mattered, episode 3 of The Walking Dead revealed it all to be a sham as it hammered the reset button by killing off most of the characters who had been introduced in the previous two episodes. After the various choices I’d made were revealed to be ultimately meaningless, and since TWD compromised pretty heavily on being an actual adventure game in order to try and maintain the illusion of those choices, this left a pretty bad taste in my mouth – I never played episodes 4 or 5 as I didn’t want to play it as a game, and once you took away the “choice” I didn’t think it was too hot narratively speaking either. There was nothing left to hook me in.
That experience put me off Telltale games for a couple of years. It seemed like the type of adventure game they were intent on making was extremely at odds with the type of adventure game that I liked to play1, so I stayed away from them. However, after getting numerous recommendations that I should play Tales From The Borderlands (and these weren’t just “It’s pretty good” recommendations either, it was full on “This is my game of the year!” stuff) I decided to dip my toe back in. Perhaps if I went in with substantially lowered expectations – above all, not to expect anything at all from the choices the game would present me with — I could get a bit more out of Tales than I did The Walking Dead.
This turned out to be a great approach to take. Tales From The Borderlands is an absolutely stonking story which follows a pair of main characters: Rhys, an ambitious middle-manager from the Hyperion corporation, and Fiona, a fast-talking Pandoran con-woman. The two collide during a back-channel deal to acquire a Vault key that forces them to become uneasy allies in the cause of tracking down the Vault whilst avoiding bounty hunters, ruthless corporate stooges and the more unsavoury bandit elements on Pandora. Cue various misadventures in which you alternate between controlling Fiona and Rhys – sometimes working together, and other times at complete loggerheads — as you make your way through ten hours of what is now the standard Telltale gameplay of conversations-and-cutscenes.
If none of what I just wrote means a huge amount to you (Vaults? Hyperion? Pandora?) then I wouldn’t worry: Tales From The Borderlands is commendably non-reliant on knowledge of the previous Borderlands games. Some of this stuff is just a macguffin to drive the plot forward, and it does a good job of explaining the rest of it – I’d forgotten nearly everything from the two Borderlands titles that I’d played (except for Handsome Jack) but after a mildly uncomfortable opening half-hour where I struggled to remember what was and wasn’t important, I eventually realised that it didn’t matter. The Borderlands games have always been rather weak on actual plot, and Tales is very intent on using the best aspects of their cartoon setting to do its own thing. There is one semi-important plot point that gets resolved off-screen in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (which is the one I haven’t played) which I found more than a little annoying, but on the whole it’s possible you might get *more* out of Tales if you haven’t played a Borderlands game before as you won’t have that weird adjustment period at the start and can just enjoy it for what it is.
The setting suits what Telltale is trying to accomplish here, too. I wouldn’t have previously chalked Borderlands up as a world crying out for more detailed exploration in an adventure game as it was only ever concerned with providing you childish reasons to shoot the next bad guy and get some loot, but in a way that’s precisely why it works: it’s so one-dimensional Telltale can do just about anything they want with it, and so ridiculously over-the-top Telltale can *really* do just about anything they want with it. Tales is very well-written, with a cast of strong characters that you form genuine attachments to over the course of the story, and a sense of humour that hits far closer to the meta-esque stylings of Archer that the main Borderlands series was shooting for. In fact if I had to describe Tales in one sentence, I’d say it’s pretty much a 10-hour long episode of Archer when Archer was in its prime (circa season 2), when it had just hit its stride and hadn’t yet collapsed under the confusing weight of its own self-referential humour.
It’s also incredibly well-directed. That’s not something I usually say about a game, but since Tales is more of an interactive movie than it is a game it does let Telltale do some really, really inventive things with the camera (when you’re playing it) and with the cinematography (when you’re watching a cutscene). The intro sequences to every one of the five episodes – each of which is a montage set to some excellent choices of licensed music — are nothing short of works of art, and far better than anything I’ve seen out of an AAA title this year. There’s a lot of re-use of assets from the Borderlands series, but this is only fair; the only real complaint I can make about the way Tales looks is that it’s using the same engine as The Walking Dead did three years ago, and that thing was creaky as hell even back them. Time has not improved it any, and while the cartoon art style again comes to the rescue to paper over the basic limitations of what the engine can do, there’s still several scenes where it’s obvious the game team are struggling against those limitations to tell the story that they want to tell.
Now, about the “game-altering” choices that have been the questionable hallmark of every Telltale game since The Walking Dead: fortunately this time I knew what to expect and went into Tales with very low expectations, which meant that I got nowhere near as irritated with it as I did TWD. It helps that the stakes are much lower; Tales is a much more upbeat series in tone, and while it does have time for some serious and particularly heartbreaking moments (like the entire introduction sequence to Episode 5) there’s never really a point where you have to make a decision that is life-and-death for a given character. As with TWD you’ll end up in the place where the plot wants you to end up and with the people it needs you to end up with; what your decisions change is how you get there, and Tales is at least a little inventive in how it varies the story according to the conversation choices you make. The broad narrative beats and important plot points are the same, but you have enough latitude to make the story your own through control over the little details – and some of the choices *do* come back to haunt you in the final episode, when certain characters are available to help (or not) depending on how you treated them during the rest of the game.
If I have one genuine issue with the choices it’s that Tales isn’t particularly good at justifying how it railroads you back on to the main storyline, resulting in some rather convoluted reasoning as to why (for example) the bad guys aren’t just shooting you in the face after you refused to ally with them. Again, though, because it’s Borderlands I had trouble taking this quite as personally as I did when TWD pulled the same stunt. I have a more serious complaint about the gameplay outside of those conversation choices, however, because it’s pretty much non-existent. Probably 70% of Tales is either a cutscene or a conversation dialogue; another 20% are some admittedly well-judged quicktime events that are played mostly for laughs (and which don’t have a failure state, as whoever you’re controlling out of Fiona or Rhys will do the thing anyway if you don’t push the button); and the final 10% is the walking-around-interacting-with-bits part that used to constitute the majority of traditional adventure games. Even during these sequences there is nothing in Tales that even remotely resembles a puzzle, and they’re used as an opportunity to crack even more jokes, some of which are quite subtle2.
So pretty much the entire game is one big ten hour long interactive cutscene. That’s the sort of thing that *could* have gone horribly wrong if Tales wasn’t quite so charming and funny as it’s turned out to be; I’ve lambasted plenty of FPSes for pulling exactly the same thing and while the adventure genre is at least more traditionally structured around a strong narrative I think I’d be far harsher on it if the quality of that cutscene wasn’t so damn high. As previously mentioned, some of the directing is so strong they could easily screen this thing on television as a miniseries and I’d happily sit through every episode of it completely hands-off – the ability to influence the narrative in small ways here and there is just a nice bonus. This is how Tales neatly sidesteps my fundamental issue with Telltale adventure games outlined in the opening paragraph: by being good enough as a narrative that I didn’t care that it wasn’t actually much of a game. It’s not afraid to cut loose with silly jokes and some ridiculous QTEs (Episode 4’s “gun” fight and the entirety of Episode 5’s ending spring to mind), yet at the same time it never lets these over-the-top sequences eclipse the story it is trying to tell, which has a lot of heart and a surprising amount of pathos. Calling it my GOTY would be overselling it more than a little, but it’s more than enough to get Telltale back into my good graces. And considering how irritated The Walking Dead made me? That’s quite an accomplishment.
- There was also the minor point that I have no interest in Game Of Thrones, little interest in Minecraft outside of Minecraft itself, and not enough interest in Fables to play a game based around it. ↩
- Like the first interaction you make with Fiona hinting at her being able to use money to bribe people to get special dialogue choices, and then never presenting you with this choice again and instead having her spend all the money she finds on new outfits for her and her friends. ↩