Tales from the Borderlands, Episode 1: Zero Sum - Review & Gameplay

By Published November 27, 2014 at 7:03 am
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Telltale Games has a recent history of expanding existing games, film, and comic book franchises into episodic adventure games. The San Francisco studio has taken its formula from The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us and applied it to the Borderlands first-person-shooter series, spawning “Tales from the Borderlands” (TftB).

I had played part of Episode 1: Zero Sum at PAX Prime last August and enjoyed Telltale’s blend of original storywriting and comedic references to 2K’s IP. Tales from the Borderlands certainly gives us a break from the run-shoot-loot formula from 2k’s games, which we had gotten tired of with Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.

Tales from the Borderlands is available on most mainstream platforms.

This review has limited plot spoilers.

Tales from the Borderlands Video Review & Gameplay

About Tales from the Borderlands

Telltale Games adopts a similar formula from their other recent adventure games for Tales from the Borderlands. TftB is mostly a cinematic and dialogue-driven game that emphasizes careful player choices, each capable of influencing the outcomes of key moments during the game. Players will explore environments through point-and-click mechanics, examining objects, commenting on strange characters, and moving the scenes along.

Each episode also contains a couple of action scenes that are mostly comprised of quick-time events. Players have to press the correct button displayed on screen, mash a particular button, or align their cursor with a reticle to execute the correct action.

You can read more about Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 in our PAX Prime preview.

“We’re gonna get twisted, bro.”

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Tales from the Borderlands puts players back on the planet of Pandora, a world that contains Vaults with bounties of alien loot and weapons stashed away. The Telltale game puts players in command of two characters whose paths cross, but whose stories of vault-hunting adventure conflict.

TftB is set following the demise of Borderlands 2’s Handsome Jack. Our two main characters include Rhys and Fiona. Rhys is a naive Hyperion “company man,” unaware of his corporation’s actions on worlds such as Pandora. At the other end is Fiona, a con artist trying to make her way out of the seedy Pandora way of life.

Fiona and Rhys cross paths when Rhys lands on Pandora in search of a Vault Key; the company man hopes that a Vault Key will help him bring down Vasquez, the new Hyperion boss replacing Handsome Jack. Episode 1: Zero Sum shows Rhys and his accountant (Vaughan) trying to distance themselves from Hyperion’s corporate ways, but doesn’t really communicate how Vasquez is bigger and badder than Handsome Jack. Hopefully the series will get into this more in future episodes.

Fiona’s specific motives have also yet to be revealed, although she has an obligation to get out alive with her sister Sasha.

Nothing to Throw Shade on

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Zero Sum is up-front in using Telltale’s adventure games IP, so it makes for a comfortable experience for anyone who has played The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. The emphasis on dialogue and player choices make the game feel like a Telltale game that happens to be set in the Borderlands universe.

That said, fans of the Borderlands postapocalyptic B-movie presentation and humor will enjoy the various comedic references to previous games -- many of which are viewable when Rhys uses his “Echo Eye” scanning ability. The game brings in a few new characters, such as our protagonists and Vasquez, and returns characters from previous games. Perhaps the most notable of Borderlands 2 ilk would be Zero, who enjoys some of his finest moments in combat, and the ever-so-quirky Shade, who likes pretending that he’s dead.

A noble profession.

Supporting these characters is a strong cast of voice actors. Troy Baker (Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite, Joel in The Last of Us) lends his voice to the occasionally smartass Rhys. Laura Bailey (Rayne in Bloodrayne, Chun Li) provides a smooth-talking, composed persona for Fiona. Patrick Wharburton’s (Joe in Family Guy) deep, authoritative voice enhances Vasquez’s intimidating appearance and condescending tone. Most of the characters returning from previous Borderlands games have been joined by their voice actors, including the voice of Zero, Michael Turner.

“I will name my first-born...Loader-Bot”

Like in recent Telltale games, action scenes in Tales from the Borderlands play out as cinematic events populated by quick-time events. Tales from the Borderlands expands on the quick-time gameplay very little, but the mechanics behind it feel fluid enough to make each scene frantic and rewarding.

The main scene that adds some variety is Rhys’ use of the Loader-Bot, a mech-like droid that bails Rhys and Vaughan out of their first bandit encounter. Upon entering battle, the player selects the weaponry the Loader-Bot wields when requesting assistance. This doesn’t affect the outcome of the battle, but it gives players a choice of how they’d like to see the scene play-out. I’d like to see more of this in the series, although I don’t know how much the Loader-Bot will be used.

Tales from the Borderlands Verdict: A Vault worth Hunting?

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Episode 1 of Tales from the Borderlands presents an intriguing, dual-path storyline that I’m excited to explore. It builds a fun, diverse cast of characters, replicates the Borderlands humor while adding its own quirks & wit, and expands the universe by exploring the relationships among its characters. The title also gets me excited for the rest of the series with its Episode 1 ending, including a quasi-cliffhanger near the closing scene.

I enjoy the Borderlands games, but I’m not an enthusiast of the universe. That said, I think there may be an opportunity for Telltale to elaborate on some of its tie-ins with the franchise while sticking to its adventure game formula. For example, maybe Rhys could unlock some valuable decision-making information when he uses his Echo Eye scanner. It would also be great to see more customization before entering battle, whether that’s using the loader bot or multiple weapons for Rhys and Fiona.

On the technical side, I notice some freezing in between game saves and achievement unlocks, sometimes leading to a repetition of dialogue. I’ve noticed there’s usually little time between Telltale announcing a game’s release date and its actual launch, so maybe there was a rush to get this out. Hopefully these hiccups get resolved in the next few episodes.

We’ll be covering the rest of Tales from the Borderlands as each episode releases, ideally with a bit more heads-up next time.

- Nick "stuBEEF" Pinkerton.

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