I always thought that episodic gaming was an unusual approach. Surely, with the long waits between episodes, you’d forget the magnitude your choices have made? The heavy moments, the funny ones, all the details. And, to a small degree, that did happen. But knowing I was playing a bite sized chunk of something bigger meant that I was paying a lot of attention to this one episode. Knowing that it won’t be long to get a conclusion to whatever is happening right here, right now meant that I could actually feel accomplished in a single sitting.
The Wolf Among Us really changed my mind on the approach, which meant that jumping into Tales from the Borderlands was much easier. I’m a fan of the Borderlands series, where the gameplay and setting work and blend together so well. Having said that, I really love the setting and story that exists in this world, so I was very keen in Tales being solely about the world, and the characters who live in it.
Tales starts after Borderlands 2, with the player controlling two very different people who’s lives collide in a spectacular way. Rhys is a slightly meek, but ambitious salary-man, hoping to move up within Hyperion after the death of their CEO, Handsome Jack. Fiona is a con artist, trying to make a living with her sister in one of the many slummy parts of Pandora.
I’m going to start with gameplay here, because it’s really just the method for how the story is told to you. Ultimately, games like these are just interactive movies. Very, interactive, I should say, because your dialogue responses, and actions actually play a massive role in how the world and story plays out.
These decisions are really the bulk of the ‘gameplay’ in Tales, with choosing what loadout your Hyperion loader bot gets deployed with, to picking what sort of smug face to make all adding up to something much larger. That’s what struck me as really clever- because you were making all these seemingly small decisions for your characters, Fiona and Rhys, you end up getting insanely attached to them. You feel responsible for any and all consequences that affect them, because of your choices. This is true of many games of this type, but Tales had me forget at times that I wasn’t actually these people.
But the gameplay purely exists to serve the story, and boy, what a story. While the first Borderlands had more of a world that existed to justify the loot grind, the second Borderlands added so much to the lore, and characters. Handsome Jack is an amazing ‘love to hate’ villain, and seeing him so up close and personal in Tales was a real treat.
Seeing Rhys go from power hungry with no real clue how to get there, to humbled and truly changed, without any real jarring moments that make the evolution seem unnatural. Helping Fiona go from squandering her talents trying to scam the scummy to make a living, to wanting to become a legendary Vault Hunter, and even getting respect from potential peers Zer0 and Athena. These are long changes that happen over the course of the game, and the decisions you make help you feel like you’ve helped them get there. And those are just a few examples- there’s also Rhys’ best friend, Vaughn, who becomes a whole new person by the end, in a way that you just can’t help but be immensely proud. Loader Bot, who you summon early on in the game as just a means of survival, becomes the bro-est bro in a video game since Garrus in Mass Effect. However, I feel Sasha had a lot of unused potential in comparison, with no real evolution in her character by the end of the game, and almost only used as a plot device in certain moments.
Having said all that, in the big picture, a lot of huge things happen over the course of the game that will forever change the world of Borderlands. Every time something big happens, or a character you know and love appears, it really feels like Tales is properly grounded in the universe. This isn’t like Agents of SHIELD, where a vague reference to the Hulk, or ‘New York’ is thrown in randomly- Zer0, my favourite Vault Hunter, has a significant presence in at least one episode. Athena helps train Fiona to becoming a Vault Hunter, in both technique and philosophy. Even Brick and Mordecai have the stage for a moment, connecting Tales to the story telling device of the Pre-Sequel. And to top it all off, the climax of the last episode has a stupid awesome fight scene ripped straight from the Power Rangers. Not kidding.
And I really want to end this on the music. While the soundtrack to the game is mostly just typical Borderlands (which is great, by the way), the part of the soundtrack that stood out to me was the selection of tracks for the opening scenes of each episode.
You remember how awesome it was to hear No Rest for the Wicked at the start of Borderlands? And then Short Change Hero by The Heavy in Borderlands 2? Imagine that, but 5 times. Yes, the track selection for all 5 episodes is amazing, setting the tone for the rest of the respective episode.
And as awesome as all 5 are, Retrograde by James Blake at the start of the final episode is hands down one of my favourite cinematic moments ever. The impact mostly comes from the context given by the previous 4 episodes, so don’t jump in and watch it on Youtube- you gotta earn it, buddy.
All up, Tales from the Borderlands has given me so much hope. For the future of the Borderlands universe, and for the future of story telling in video games. I finished the game in a state of awe, and I really was just expecting a fun lark set in the goofy universe that has a diamond pony. Telltale Games know how to sucker punch you with feels. Let them sucker punch you in the gut, it’s worth it!