Wot I Think: Tales From The Borderlands Ep One

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

53 Comments

  1. padger says:

    No, but is it funny, really?

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      In terms of surprisingly funny spin-offs, it ranks up there with Michael Haneke’s upcoming comedy, Amour The Merrier.

    • bleeters says:

      As someone who found Borderlands 2 occasionally chuckle worthy and usually eyerolling, I laughed far, far too much at Tales. It’s quite brilliant at times, almost surprisingly so for a setting that has thus far basically gotten by with quote unquote “wacky” characters and little else.

    • 2helix4u says:

      Like the article says its a bit flat at the start, its sort of hit and miss but has at least 3 or 4 proper funny jokes in it that will make you make actual noises with your mouth. Its no Portal, say, but its still in the top 1% of funny games.

      I found most of the humour in the original Borderlands games pretty loathsome and my girlfriend was not at all sold on the idea of a Tales game set there, but by the end of the episode we were both sold and I’m looking forward to the next episode quite a lot.

      The writing is much stronger here, still not 100% but vastly superior to Borderlands, they do some actual comedy semi-deconstructing the tropes of the other games: spoilers e.g. The characters expressing shock and dismay at running over a Skag in the opening montage; Chasing down a vault hunter because if he finds the macguffin he’ll just loot it and buy guns right away.

      I mean really the best thing I can say to convince you that you are in different and better hands with the Tales series is this: No fucking claptrap for the whole first episode. That tells you they know what they’re doing.

  2. Monggerel says:

    “We have kept our appointment and that’s an end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much? ”

    “Billions.”

    • 2helix4u says:

      “You’re really having trouble over there aren’t you?”

      “Haha, yes he is!”

  3. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    The Walking Dead had too much exposition for me to enjoy the start of it, I really liked The Wold Among Us, so much so that I am going to finish the comics before playing it, so I think you just sold me on Borderlands, Adam.

    Havent actually laughed aloud to a game in a long time, hope this one works!

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      Arnvidr says:

      But the game is a prequel to the comics?

      • drygear says:

        The characterization and tone in the game are also different than in the comic. I’d read the comics years ago and only vaguely remembered them, so when I played the game a few months ago it seemed right. But when I went back and read the comics again it was quite jarring.
        I actually like the Telltale version of the city and characters better than the ones in the comic. The final major decision in the game felt like it had a lot of weight and like I was setting an example of the kind of town I want it to be, but the action I decided against is one that is commonly done in the comics with nobody objecting and it was clear that the author greatly approved of.

        • AyeBraine says:

          I played the thing through before reading the whole comic and then after. Nothing really changed, it just became more fun and I had a deeper understanding of Mr. Wolf – now I could really understand that his “gruff” or “renegade” choices are very, very far from simple assholery (like in many choice-based games). They were just little, tiny breaches in a perfectly civil facade, that which hides a horrifying effectiveness and ruthlessness of a demi-God Machiavelli Edgar Hoover (with a heart of gold, of course, – but that doesn’t give those motherfuckers the right to show such impertinence in front of THE Big Bad Wolf. He might just sic Ms. Cinderella on these bastards).

    • ersetzen says:

      I found myself enjoying the game an awful lot. Like, finding myself grinning like the Cheshire cat just because it was a great experience. Fun story, good pacing, not overdoing anything to the point of it being annoying and every so often laughing out loud…

      Really looking forward to future episodes!

  4. ribby says:

    My favourite moment in the first 15-20 minutes is the bit during the intro where they hit a skrag- and then all freak out about it! Heheh that kind of parody makes me smile

  5. SigmaCAT says:

    Is it really funnier than the Monkey Island series they did an immemorial time ago?(ie like 4 years)

  6. eel says:

    Would you recommend it to someone who hasn’t played borderlands? I was planning to make it the first TellTale game to skip since Jurassic Park but your review made me reconsider. I can’t even recall the last time I got to play a genuinely funny adventure game.

    • Philomelle says:

      Given that the game is set from the perspective of someone who had never before been to Pandora, isn’t a Vault Hunter and thus has no idea what a delightfully terrible place it is, I imagine you’ll do just fine.

      • Xocrates says:

        That’s not true, Rhys is well aware that Pandora is pretty darn bad even if he never went to it, and Fiona is a native who does know exactly how bad it is.

        Would I recommend the game to someone who never played Borderlands? I don’t know, and I certainly won’t know without seeing how the rest of the series plays out, but I can say that there’s plenty references to the games that would be completely lost on those who never played it.

        • kael13 says:

          My girlfriend had never even heard of Borderlands and while she certainly found it pretty crazy in places, she said it was ‘the best way to spend tonight’ – I think she needed cheering up.

          Don’t forget to use your echo eye to randomly click on stuff any chance you get.

    • 2helix4u says:

      Yeah, its still worth a play. I’ve only played the first couple hours of both Borderlands but its still enjoyable. As long as you know its based on a loot-shooter set on a hellhole planet fulla vaults of loot you’ll get all the jokes I do.

  7. Pazguato says:

    Not so much an adventure game but an “Interactive movie”, I’ve read in Eurogamer. Maybe even a good “interactive movie”, but hardly an adventure game.

    • mpk says:

      It’s pretty much on a par with The Walking Dead games, so yeah, interactive movie with occasional QTE. And a lot less bleakness.

    • nunka says:

      It’s an adventure game; a piece of interactive media in which you go on an adventure, and have some control over what happens. Thus, adventure game. We really need to stop allowing this silly debate over what qualifies as a game or a true entry in some particular genre of game get in the way of enjoying the damn things.

      • nemryn says:

        On the other hand: the distinction between “Is it more like a movie with QTEs, or do I get to poke around and mess with stuff and maybe get lost?” seems like an important one to acknowledge, especially in the context of a review where it could affect a person’s decision to buy or not. It might even be worth it to have some sort of standardized terminology for the two sub-genres.

        • Pazguato says:

          Agreed. Personally, I’d go with the term “Interactive movie”, it’s spot on.

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            Adam Smith says:

            Yes, that’s totally fair. I’m using ‘adventure game’ as shorthand for ‘Telltale adventure game’ at points here, which is a bit silly.

            I’m at the point where I’d draw attention to the fact it didn’t fit the current Telltale formula rather than the fact that it does. No boats are rocked.

      • HadToLogin says:

        There is clear distinction between Adventure Game and Telltale Game.

        In adventure game, you get stuck because you can’t figure out that you need to combine deodorant and Zippo to create flamethrower to burn that pesky bush you could walk around.

        In new-Telltale game, you get stuck because you’re blind and can’t see big white dot to click.

    • Zelos says:

      That’s what all telltale games are, and you should know that by now.

      • Janichsan says:

        The earlier ones (Sam & Max, Tales of Monkey Island, BttF to some extent) where quite adventure-y.

  8. DigitalSignalX says:

    You just know there was a boardroom meeting with an item on the agenda: “To claptrap or not to claptrap”

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      I’ll be damned if the decision wasn’t “Save it for a later episode, when people are clamouring for it!”

  9. Eight Rooks says:

    I hated the story of Borderlands and its sequel enough I just can’t believe I’d like this, but regardless, Adam, you get a free pass for a whole lot of future sins for

    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

    <3

  10. CMaster says:

    “call centre full of Claptraps*,”
    I actually physically shuddered at that thought.

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    gritz says:

    Would it be funny to someone who thought the jokes in Borderlands 2 were obnoxious and dumb?

    • mpk says:

      There are dick jokes, but also some nice visual humour.

    • SkittleDiddler says:

      If your sense of humor is – as I suspect – closer to Big Bang Theory than Metalocalypse, then you most certainly will not enjoy the jokes in Tales.

  12. HamsterExAstris says:

    No Claptrap? That’s disappointing.

  13. mpk says:

    Just finished a play through and have to say that it easily passed the Kermode test. Entertaining, and I hope the rest of the episodes are at least as good.

    EDIT: And now that I’ve read the review, which I agree with, some thoughts:

    3-4 hours of play? I finished in two, so now I’m wondering if I manged to miss something. This would most vexing, especially in a game that as unashamedly linear.

    The faux cel-shading art style of Borderlands is a perfect match for Telltale’s standard look.

    Adam’s right in that it gets funnier as the game goes on. It’s not laugh a minute, but there are some quality lines. The exchange between Fiona, Vaughn and the Bandit guard is brilliant.

    I didn’t play any Telltales games before The Walking Dead, so I don’t know if they were ‘proper’ adventure games, but the three titles I’ve played so far (TWD S1 and S2, and this) are very definitely interactive stories rather than adventure games. Although this game does have an inventory. So… yeah.

    Looking forward to the next episode(s).

    • Xocrates says:

      I too got 2 hours-ish out of it, even when looking and clicking everything I could find, and I’ve seen reviews mentioning a similar runtime, so I assume it’s just Adam taking it (very) slow.

      About the telltale games, they were proper point and click games up to Jurassic Park, at which point they shifted into the current style. Though they did change from strictly point and click to wasd movement somewhere after Sam And Max Season 2 (Wallace And Gromit, I believe)

    • Rizlar says:

      The faux cel-shading art style of Borderlands is a perfect match for Telltale’s standard look.

      Aw yisss.

      Totally unrelated: I’m calling it now, Telltale’s Tales From The Borderlands = good, Game of Thrones = crap.

    • Geebs says:

      What’s the Kermode test? Is it a sort of start-to-crate-esque thing where you measure the time it takes somebody to mistake The Exorcist for a good movie?

  14. Persona says:

    Is this really 3 to 4 hours long? That’s nice to hear. Telltale has been reducing the length of their episodes quite drastically; pretty much all of TWD’s Season 2 and Wolf Among Us episodes were around 90 minutes.

    Edit: Just read the comments above. Seems like those 3-4h might be a bit on the optimistic side.

  15. Hidden_7 says:

    It sounds like this is a recommend to people who don’t like Borderlands, but do like The Walking Dead. What about to someone who DOES like Borderlands, but who doesn’t like the Walking Dead direction Telltale went in? I see a lot “you don’t need to like Borderlands to like this” but if I do, will that carry me through a format I don’t particularly like?

    • Persona says:

      Do you enjoy the current Telltale framework, the one they’ve used for both seasons of The Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us? If you do, this seems to be pretty much the same but applied to the Borderlands universe. If you don’t, I very much doubt you’ll enjoy this game.

      • Hidden_7 says:

        I didn’t like it in Walking Dead, I prefer when they were more traditional adventure game style of wander around and solve puzzles, but I also very much dislike Walking Dead as a property, so it’s hard to tell how much was from that and how much was dissatisfaction with the format. I haven’t tried Wolf Among Us.

        I suppose I’m just curious whether this sells better to Walking Dead fans, or Borderlands fans? Most of the commentary I’ve seen on it (here and elsewhere) seems to come from the standpoint of “Ok, now I know you don’t like Borderlands, but that’s ok, because remember how much you liked Walking Dead?” I’ve not seen much for those who are the reverse. It sounds like it’s probably not for them.

        • Xocrates says:

          The problem is more along the lines that the gameplay between Borderlands and this is very different. Plot-wise, if you liked Borderlands you’ll probably like this, so the question is not whether or not you liked Borderlands, but whether or not you like the TellTale style gameplay.

          (For reference, I quite like Borderlands, haven’t played the Walking Dead, but have played the Wolf Among Us, which I liked well enough)

        • mpk says:

          Structurally it looks like it’ll be along the same lines as The Walking Dead – five self contained episodes, some with cliffhanger endings, that tell an overarching story. Very much like a TV season (which is how they’re pitching TWD after all).

          I’ve enjoyed both TWD seasons so far, and I think I like the Borderlands universe more than I do the games, so it’s in a sweet spot for me.

  16. SuicideKing says:

    That’s cool, may pick it up then. When’re the next the next episodes coming out? I’m wondering whether I should play all together.

  17. ribby says:

    The bits with the bandits towards the end made me giggle xD

  18. AyeBraine says:

    It must be my English-as-a-second-language showing, but I loved the writing of Borderlands 2 so much. Not simply the jokes (most of them were quaint and silly in a cute way), but the whole framework, the flow, the feather-like brightness of it all (even in the most heavy-handed bits). It really made me smile with joy, at the game world, at the characters in it, and at my own actions and achievements. So many little surprises.

    I really can’t understand how one can dismiss such a gigantic piece of work as simply stupid “fluff”. I mean, if Borderlands 2 didn’t take its world and writing seriously, it wouldn’t have thousands upon thousands of strings of voiced lines, hundreds of handcrafted sidequests and a seemingly unending amount of references and easter eggs and little details peeking at you from every corner. I mean, sure, all of this can be irritating and grating to no end for somebody, I can perfectly imagine that. But it’s like the “Titanic” the movie: you just can’t call it “that little silly romantic comedy, extremely simple and par-of-the-course, some guy got an inheritance and shot it in his spare time several years ago”.