Review: Tales from the Borderlands Episode 1: Zer0 Sum

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When most people think of Borderlands, they probably think of shooting stuff, watching gobs of money and sweet loot burst out of defeated enemies, equipping better gear, and repeating the process over and over again. For me, all that stuff is fun but not necessarily the highlight of the game. The original Borderlands had a mysterious mythology that slowly unveiled itself over the course of the game. Borderlands 2 and the recent Pre-Sequel used the original building blocks of what Pandora and Vault Hunting was, but then spun the story into a treasure trove of pop culture references and overly kitschy characters and interactions that made the dark, grim, barren wastelands of Pandora a hodgepodge of slapstick humor. While that has added a certain level of charm to the series, on a personal level it has also distracted from what I initially found most interesting about the world of Pandora.

Now Telltale Games is looking to explore a different side of Pandora with Tales from the Borderlands in a five episode series closely following the narrative-driven adventure formula the studio knows best. Before offering a final say when the full season has concluded, here are my thoughts on the series premiere.

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The first episode, ZerO Sum, introduces players to protagonists Rhys and Fiona, as well as other new characters like Vaughn and Yvette, who (except for Fiona) work for Hyperion in the space station Helios and plot to retrieve a Vault Key on the planet Pandora before their boss, Hugo Vasquez, voiced by Patrick Warburton, can claim it for himself. Rhys and Vaughn, performed by Troy Baker and nerd legend Chris Hardwick respectively, travel to the planet’s surface and immediately become the obvious ducks out of water in a completely hilarious yet bloody and violent encounter with bandits.

The first episode then switches perspective from Rhys and Vaughn’s side of the story to Fiona, Sasha, and Felix, who are residents and grifters from Pandora. Fiona and Sasha are sisters who have been raised by conman Felix, and over the years they have perfected a three man con that has allowed them to thrive in the chaos that is Pandora.

I think what makes the narrative work so well is the fact that the core Borderlands games have been built up around a shoot first and ask questions later sort of mentality that Rhys and Vaughn aren’t accustomed to, which provides a fun variety of choices to pick from as the story progresses. Choosing to play them off as bumbling doofs provides plenty of laughs, while having them act like macho tough guys (which clearly they are not) against psychotic bandit killers is almost just as hilarious. What I like about these characters is the way that they show how not everyone on Pandora is a gun slinging Vault Hunter. This episode helps to define a side of the Borderlands universe that has been ignored by the two sequels of the franchise.

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ZerO Sum is not a long play session (Steam clocked me in at just over two hours from start to finish), but I found myself laughing at jokes that were perfect for the characters and the situations that they were forced into. The jokes are natural and rarely poking fun of pop culture, which is a wonderful change of pace for the franchise. In typical fashion, gameplay is mostly driven by conversational choices, but from time to time quicktime reflex moments add a bit more interaction. What has also become a signature to Telltale’s narrative style, Tales from the Borderlands has incorporated the notion of NPCs remembering choices made during conversations. These choices play out during the course of the current episode and presumably will have a lasting impact in the later episodes. A statistical snapshot comparing a player’s choice versus the rest of the players in the world’s choices also is provided. This is a fun feature to the game as it is interesting to see how your choices compare to the rest of the folks playing this game.

Telltale Games does a fantastic job of providing divergent choices during conversations and peppering in just enough quick time events without sucking or dragging down the pace of the game. As the title implies, vault hunter ZerO from Borderlands 2 plays a role in the hijinks that ensue throughout the course of this first episode. I’m looking forward to seeing if other key characters from the main series make an appearance and how deftly Telltale can weave them into this new story on Pandora as the season progresses.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Fun characters
+ Divergent conversation choices
+ Exploring Pandora without shooting and looting everything in sight for a change

Cons:
– None so far

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Steam, also available for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and mobile devices
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 11/25/2014
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.