It’s lucky for us that at the 2012 Spike Video Game Awards, representatives from Telltale Games and Gearbox Games found themselves sitting at adjacent tables. The two studios had collaborated before - Claptrap, the Borderlands robot appears in Telltales’ Poker Night 2 - and during the awards ceremony they serendipitously got to talking about doing a more substantive project together.
Now, after the fact, it seems so obvious doesn’t it? The gorgeous cell-shaded, color-comic-book-come-to-life graphic look that Telltale does so well is a perfect fit for the look of the Borderlands universe. Plus, the Borderlands games are hilarious, and the script writers for Telltale are extremely good. Not to mention that the lore of Borderlands is surprisingly rich, considering that it’s a very straightforward shooter/action RPG hybrid. It’s very easy to imagine that there could be more stories to tell from the Borderlands universe than could fit into the rowdy, plot-thin action of the Gearbox Games.
The deliriously happy result of this meeting is Tales From the Borderlands, a new episodic game series. I just finished playing through the first episode, Zer0 Sum, and I’m one very happy camper.
But before I get into the game proper, I must say a word or two about Telltale’s recent modus operandi, specifically licensing versus collaboration. One of the genius things Telltale has been doing lately is the fact that the company seems to be truly collaborating with the creatives, not merely licensing their IPs. Tales From The Borderlands benefits hugely from this. Telltale didn’t simply pay Gearbox a fee and make a game. It truly collaborated with them, and the results are magic.
This no doubt eased one of the obvious challenges Telltale faced when developing Tales From the Borderlands, specifically the genre shift. Borderlands is a fast-moving action/RPG while Telltale makes dialog-driven adventure games. Pulling off this shift couldn’t have been easy. Playing the game made me wax lyrical about other times in game development when the developers needed to pull off some kind of 90-degree shift in the point-of-view and bring the player along with them. It has been done successfully several times. First, there was the transition of three of Shigeru Miyamoto’s franchises - Zelda, Mario and Metroid - from 2D to 3D. Then there was turning the first person 3D shooter into a stealth mechanic a.k.a. Thief. But probably the greatest example of this successful shift was Blizzard’s amazing re-imagining of their Warcraft universe from a Real-Time Strategy game to a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying game.
I think Tales from the Borderlands is worthy of being mentioned with those other great transitional games.
The story is told from two perspectives. First, there’s Rhys, a robot-armed low-level suit from the late Handsome Jack’s Hyperion Corporation, and Fiona, a con artist and thief from Pandora. The two find themselves on opposite sides of a deal involving an incredibly valuable Pandora Vault Key, and that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot because it’s too fun to spoil. Be assured that much mayhem ensues.
The first thing that makes the game work is the fall-down-on-the-floor hilarious script. It’s so great I’m going to list all of the credited writers: Pierre Shorette and Adam Hines, with “Additional Writing” by Sean Ainsworth, Jeremy Breslau, Stephan Bugaj, Chuck Jordan, Matt Ritter, and Eric Stirpe. Not nearly enough do games make me laugh out loud, and even fewer make me laugh out loud all the way through. Not only that, but the jokes are Borderlands funny. Evidently the Telltale writers consulted the Gearbox writers frequently, and it really shows. The script is a shiny, polished gem.
Telltale’s success in writing a consistently funny game is even more impressive when you consider it’s a game full of different dialog choices.
Which brings me to the mechanics of the game. If you’ve played any of Telltale’s recent games, you’ll know what to expect: Limited but meaningful exploration of the environments, fun interactive dialog, choices the game remembers, and lots of Quick Time Events.
Mechanically, Tales is lighter on its feet than The Walking Dead. There are no real puzzles to solve, and the interactivity is breezy and easy. It’s essentially an interactive 3D comic book story come to life. The only way I think you could possibly not enjoy it is if you find the gameplay lacking substance. Which, to be fair, it does. You make dialog choices, scan and investigate the environment, flick the control stick and press buttons to make it through action sequences, and otherwise just enjoy the ride.
But who cares?? Seriously, you’re having too much fun to be bothered by this stripped-down approach to gaming.
In addition to the snappy writing, you have top-of-the-line voice talent bringing the characters to life: Laura Bailey, Chris Hardwicke, Patrick Warburton, Nolan North, and current V.O. “It” Boy, Troy Baker.
The musical score, by Jared Emerson-Johnson, is also energetic and effective
It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: The more you know about the Borderlands universe, the more you will enjoy the game. There are constant references to the Borderlands games, not surprisingly. But you should play those games anyway, if you haven’t. They’re awesome.
But back to Episode 1: Zer0 Sum: The characters are so fun, so compelling, and the settings are so colorful and enjoyable that the entire experience is impossible to resist.
The only problem? It’s over in less than three hours. Waiting for the next episode will be excruciating!!
+ Amazingly funny script
+ Great voice work from some of the biggest names in the business
+ Gorgeous and effective art style
+ The Borderlands universe feels just right for this kind of game
- For some grumpy players, the level of interactivity may seem lacking
- You'll miss a lot of the jokes and references if you're unfamiliar with the Borderlands universe