So, you want to hear another story, eh? How about a story from some of the best storytellers in the business? Telltale Games’ recent release o the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands kicks off what is sure to be another amazing series with lots of explosions and tough decisions – all wrapped up in the quick, sarcastic wit that makes up the world of Pandora.
When it was first announced, taking Gearbox’s wildly popular FPS loot-em-up and repurposing it as an adventure game seemed like an odd fit. While Borderlands and Borderlands 2 did have a story, they were always secondary to the action. Most missions were delivered via static text box outs, and while Borderlands 2 certainly improved on the story of the original, it could never be said to be a sci-fi opus on par with something like Bioware’s Mass Effect series. So it’s perhaps not surprising that more than a few eyebrows were raised, Handsome Jack-style, when Telltale first started talking about Tales from the Borderlands.
Thankfully, based on the evidence here, Tales from the Borderlands isn’t the disaster it could have turned out to be. This is just the first episode, of course, but if Telltale manages to continue with the level of quality on display in Zero Sum, once the full season has been released Tales from the Borderlands will be able to stand tall as yet another notch in the developer’s rapidly-expanding belt.
You don’t have to be a Borderlands fan to enjoy Zer0 Sum, though it certainly helps. Anyone who loves previous Telltale titles can enjoy the gameplay without fear of losing out on any aspects of the story, and while there are references and plenty of nods to the previous games, you’re not going to miss too much if you’ve never played Borderlands in the past.
Over the last few years, the developer has created an incredibly successful method of storytelling interwoven with key decision-making moments that drive the plot forward. While previous titles like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us presented players with choices that are diametrically opposed – do you save a man from dying slowly and alone in his apartment, or do you save your friend who’s getting beaten up at this very moment? – the choices in Zer0 Sum seem much less dramatic, but no less important.
It’s perhaps because the previous Borderlands games were relatively light on narrative that Tales from… works so well in this regard. With the freedom to work with new characters and settings in a universe that has, so far, only been loosely defined, Telltale is able to craft a story quite different from what you might imagine from a game in the Borderlands series.
You play as two different characters in Zer0 Sum: Rhys, a middle-management robotics manufacturer at Hyperion with dreams of aspiring to Handsome Jack’s level, and Fiona, a street-wise Pandoran native always on the look-out for her next con. Each character has their own circle of close compatriots, either helping Rhys as he tries to scramble up the corporate ladder or Fiona just trying to scrounge an existence on the lawless planet.
In an interesting twist, both Rhys and Fiona are dictating their respective stories to a mysterious masked figure with a voice modulator, and the stories alter themselves depending on what choices you’ve made previously. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Zer0 Sum is watching the interactions between the captured Rhys and Fiona, as they argue about what really happened while the masked stranger looks on in silence.
As the story progresses, the Vault Hunter Zer0 (from Borderlands 2) is introduced, and even if you may not have played Borderlands 2 or used Zer0 as a character, his badass moves, penchant for speaking only in haikus, and his expressive emoticon face shield are so cleverly displayed that both returning Vault Hunters and new players to Pandora will instantly appreciate how awesome he is.
Rhys and Fiona each have their own special ability and opportunities to use it (or not) during this first episode. Company man Rhys has “requisitioned” a loader bot, which he can call down and customize with various weapons and abilities to get him out of a tight spot. Rhys also has an eye scanner, activated at one key plot point but it can also be used during non-key points to scan surrounding objects for some extra Borderlands trivia.
Fiona, by contrast, has a hidden pistol up her sleeve with a single shot which she can use to get her out of sticky situations. I had one opportunity to take a shot during the action, but decided against it. I’m curious to see how often you’ll get the opportunity to use that one bullet and, if you do or don’t, what those consequences will be. As a con-artist, Fiona can also loot money from nearby chests or take other opportunities to lift funds from her fellow citizens.
There was only one point at which to spend money in Episode 1, and it didn’t seem like it would have made much of a difference what your choice was. More importantly, I realized I must have been extremely unobservant in the course of my playthrough, since I was about $50 short of the next available purchase option. I’m not quite sold on Fiona’s money skill at this point, but there are four more episodes to get through, so I’m not going to pass judgment just yet.
When it comes to presentation, Telltale has done a good job of staying true to previous Borderlands titles in their graphics, music, and sound effects. The stylized art and cel-shading of Pandora is on the money, and little inclusions of certain sound effects in key moments really drives home the feeling of being on familiar turf: for example, the opening of an ammo chest will bring a smile of satisfaction to any former Vault Hunter.
Well-known voice actors like Troy Baker (The Last of Us), Laura Bailey (Warcraft 3), and Patrick Warburton (Family Guy, Skylanders) gel so well together that it adds to the cinematic feel of Zer0 Sum. It’s not going to take you long to complete, either; I clocked in around 2 hours to completion – but remember that there are still four more episodes to go.
Taking a step back to look at Zer0 Sum as a whole, it feels much more like an action movie than a point-and-click adventure game, and that’s totally fine with me. Each character feels like an independent entity with their own motives instead of a set of stock people along for the ride, which makes for a vibrant and multi-faceted experience.
Borderlands was always a good FPS with a wide range of characters that never got much in the way of attention (even the Vault Hunters themselves), and Tales from the Borderlands allows for a broader character development than can be seen in a straight FPS. Meeting characters from previous games is exciting, and I found myself wanting to know how they’re going to fit into this new narrative. I’m engaged in the story, and for a game that’s 98% narrative, that’s incredibly important.
Zer0 Sum might not have the same kind of kick-in-the-pants decision making of Telltale’s previous titles (at least, not yet), but it’s still a fantastic adaptation of Gearbox’s mythos into Telltale’s iconic narrative. In fact, I believe Telltale has done very well for itself, and I’m very interested to see if future episodes will feature tougher decisions and take its engaging narrative to the next level.
Fans of either series should definitely experience this Telltale/Gearbox mashup.