Things are funnier when they go terribly wrong.
Tales from the Borderlands, Episode 1: Zer0 SumPublisher: Telltale Game
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 2014-11-20
I don't like the Borderlands series. I find the games drab, repetitive, and more than once the act of playing them has put me to sleep. Not an exaggeration. On the other hand, I do like adventure games and Telltale's brand of them in particular. Between these two things, you'd think there would have been some conflict in my mind about playing this new series, yet Borderlands has always been a series desperate to tell an involved story of heroic outsiders, villainous corprocrats, and a large cast of deranged and colorful characters. Pity all the shooting and looting tends to get in the way of that.
Watching the opening cutscene of the original Borderlands made me wish that the game was a TV show, introducing a kooky cast of characters that would, perhaps, be soon participating in spaghetti western style adventures. Sadly, though, that amazing intro was immediately undercut by the game's endless cycle of shooting and looting. I had the same feeling watching the intro to Borderlands 2 and briefly while watching the opening to Tales from the Borderlands. However, Telltale finally took the narrative idea and made it into a series that focuses on the theme rather than just the gunplay that it implies.
On the Telltale side of things, they've moved into new genre territory. While their games The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us are dramas set in a zombie apocalypse and in a gritty fairy tale world respectively, Tales from the Borderlands takes the same gameplay formula and spins it into an action story peppered with comedy (a la Guardians of the Galaxy or Hot Fuzz).
If you don't know anything about Borderlands, don't worry. A short voice over intro sequence gets you caught up on all the main concepts of the universe of the previous games. Tales from the Borderlands does take place after the events of Borderlands 2, and there are also a few nods to the events of that game. Zer0, one of the player character choices from that game also makes a cameo, but for the most part, Tales looks to be a self contained narrative. If you know more about the lore of Borderlands, great, you'll catch a lot of these references, but prior knowledge isn't necessary.
In Telltale's game, you play as Rhys, a Hyperion company man, who has an eye to working up the corporate ladder. With the help of your friends Vaugh and Yvette, you finally get to have your chance at promotion only to have it stolen out from under you by a character named Vasquez. So, you, of course, seek revenge by attempting to screw him out of the deal of a lifetime. Shenanigans ensue.
You also play as Fiona, a con-artist, looking to make good on the score of a lifetime by selling merchandise which is not really legit in any way whatsoever. With the help of her mentor Felix and her sister Sasha, you manage to keep everything from completely collapsing around this erstwhile band of grifters. Shenanigans also ensue.
What's really happening is that both Rhys and Fiona have been captured by someone. It's a guy in a mask holding a gun, so who it is isn't quite as important as that the two of you keep telling the story of all your adventures. This set up deals with an ongoing problem with this style of branching narrative game quite nicely. What really did happen? Who can say? With dual protagonists, neither of which really likes the other, contradictions are not only bound to pop up in their Rashoman style storytelling, but are also told with relish and with a flair for the ridiculous.
The Borderlands games have always prided themselves on being comedic -- pride that is misplaced, in my opinion. What the characters are saying may be funny, sight gags may be amusing, but the delivery has always sucked any humor out of the developers' attempts at comedy. The end result has routinely ended up being cringeworthy. Tales has the same nihilistic, devil-may-care sense of humor as the other games in Gearbox's series, but matches that sense of humor with the necessary timing to actually be funny.
We know that Telltale can deliver pathos. With the release of Tales from the Borderlands, we now know they can deliver on laughs. Comedy is more than just characters saying funny things. It requires the right build up and most importantly the right pacing. Freed from the first person perspective, Telltale is able to build jokes visually. They can cut to a new shot at just the right moment to undercut Rhys's bullshitting or to highlight Fiona's sardonic nature. However, probably most importantly, the characters of Pandora get to do more than just yell violent inanities (though that still happens). Now they can talk, and such conversations inevitably turn into routines with you at the helm.
Tales from the Borderlands is an action-comedy game, and Telltale has delivered the action part of that equation in the past through its use of long quick time event sequences, sometimes with a choice thrown in. Tales continues this trend, but the formula fits far better here than it did in The Wolf Among Us. Instead of merely serving as padding, the frantic pace allows comedy to emerge through the action. It also seems that the timing necessary to complete quick time events is a lot more generous, recognizing that a comedic flow is more important than a sense of danger if you're driving for laughs.
Actually, the dialogue options also seem a lot more generous in how much time they give you to make a choice. Maybe Telltale has lengthened the timer, or maybe it's just because I don't care as much about making a mistake in Tales from the Borderlands. The world, tone, and genre all mean I'm not twitching in paranoia about what decision to make next.
Things are going to go wrong. We know that because the first scene sees you being kidnapped and dragged feet first through the desert. That's okay. Hell, things are funnier when they go terribly wrong. You are not making life or death, "Oh, God, what am I going to do?" choices. They're more like the, "I'm kind of busy having people shoot at me and you want me to deal with this shit right now?" sort of choices. Someone might remember what you did or said, but with Tales from the Borderlands, I'm here for the ride, not the destination.