Tales From The Borderlands Episode One is the funniest adventure game Telltale have released in years. Given that The Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us are the most recent offerings that might not seem like such a big deal. Throw in Back to the Future alongside those two and the average number of decent jokes actually goes down.
But Borderlands would stand out as a winner in any company and you don’t need to know, or be amused by, Gearbox’ games to enjoy it.
Tales From The Borderlands is almost nothing at all like Duke Nukem Forever.
When that bloated corpse of a game finally saw the light of day, almost immediately turning to ash and stinging the eyes of onlookers, I remember thinking that it’s biggest failing – and there were many – was its inability to address Duke’s age. Even if the delays hadn’t piled up quite as spectacularly as they did, the cigar-chomping sack of testosterone would have seemed out of time and out of place. Surely that was the point, or at least one of them? Surely it always had been?
In a world where the gun is god, Duke will always be the most relevant man in the room. I’m sure it would be possible to reframe him within a first-person shooter but it’d probably involve quips about Call of Duty rather than Quake, trapped in gray battlefields shooting generic soldiers forever – “If this warfare is so advanced, why is so much of it on rails?” It’d be like the first sections of Serious Sam 3 stamping on my face forever.
Drop Duke in a Telltale game and he’d be out of his comfort zone. A hero with one solution – shoot it then shit down its neck – forced to talk to the monsters and indulge in adventure game logic.
That’s sort of what’s happening here, except it’s the entire game world that has been forced out of its comfort zone rather than a single character. Tales From the Borderlands is the slapstick game about a kajillion guns reframed as the game about conversation and consequence. It derives a great deal of its humour by planting characters on Pandora and having them realise what a silly and astoundingly violent place it is.
If every gag were delivered with a wink to the camera and a tap on the glass of the fourth wall, Tales From the Borderlands might be as irritating as a call centre full of Claptraps*, but even in the three or four hours of this first episode, Telltale find space for character development instead of simply poking fun at the very idea of a Borderlands adventure game.
Rather than relying on the incongruity of the setup, the humour is mostly character-based. And it’s funny. Laugh out loud funny, to me at least. It’s a caper, setting a mob of misfits on a series of misadventures, with the most dangerous planet in the universe as a backdrop. Everyone in the game is either antihero, villain or maniac – the closest thing to a purely good character is a robot that follows squishing orders with heart-warming obedience – and the folks you’ll be spending most of your time with are split between two camps.
First, there’s the corporate bastards who have been plundering and punishing Pandora. With Handsome Jack removed from the Hyperion hierarchy, there’s a void to be filled, which means power struggles and boardroom barbarism. The game begins slowly, establishing the rise and whiplash fall of Rhys, an ambitious and apparently amoral cyber-enhanced cog in the corporate machine.
He’s relegated to a (HA!) janitorial role by a beard with the perfect voice of Patrick ‘Brock Samson’ Warburton but it’s not until he arrives on Pandora, with a cowardly chum in tow, that things pick up. The jokes in the first fifteen minutes miss the mark with slightly alarming regularity and shortly after Rhys lands on the planet chasing his MacGuffin (it’s a vault key, of course) there’s a prolonged QTE section that left me expecting the worst.
But then…everything after the first half hour or so hit the mark and hit it hard. The two player characters have good performances, selling their personalities as well as their punchlines, and the script fizzes along beautifully. There’s another big action setpiece – Telltale’s longest yet – but by the time it arrives, the episode has found its rhyhthm, and in between the dodging and murderising, there are choices that affect the characters’ already frosty relationships.
The heart of the episode – and potentially the whole season – is the framing story. Rhys and Fiona are telling their story to a third party, but they contradict one another, exaggerating their own contributions or flat-out lying. Telltale make good use of the narrative device, milking it for tension and (mostly) laughs, while also planting the seeds for a beautiful implication. The encounters with an authentic Vault Hunter suggest that Rhys and Fiona might be the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hiding in the wings of the main series, and that’s something I’d like to see more of.
In a world where the gun is god, adventure game protagonists will never be the most relevant people in the room, and – wonderfully – Telltale have mined that predicament to return to comedy, without entirely dismissing their newfound dramatic chops.
There’s even, dare I say, something intriguingly clever about Rhys’ being thrust into Borderlands world of nonsensical and hideous violence. He’s naturally unsuited to it by virtue of his talents – he scans things with a cybernetic eye, which is such a pure adventure game skill – a stranger in a strange land. The touchy-feely-pointy-clicky genre meets the ultraviolent FPS with hundreds of stats, and one of the forerunners of the rat race meets the people on the planet his corporation has been exploiting.
From the distance of a cursor to the business end of a gun in a few bad decisions and clicks of the mouse. When the episode introduces loot-gathering through the lens of the usual Telltale control system, there’s a slightly sombre tone to the scene.
Makes you think. Maybe.
Hell, even if it doesn’t, it’ll almost certainly make you laugh and it’s an absolute delight to play a Telltale episode that isn’t trying to out-bleak the last one in any way. Tales From the Borderlands might not pack the emotional punch of The Walking Dead at its best, or the style of Wolfamongous in full swagger, but it’s bloody good fun.
Tales from the Borderlands Episode One is out now.
*I told my colleagues that if the artificial irritant made an appearance, my entire review would be a photograph of a pile of dead flies