Tales from the Borderlands is a bit of a departure for Telltale. After two seasons of The Walking Dead and one of A Wolf Among Us, Telltale has proved the studio can deliver powerful, dramatic story and character beats like few other game studios do these days. But what if Telltale tried to be funny?
The answer to that is “Zer0 Sum,” a funny, exciting excursion into the world of Gearbox Software’s Borderlands series with a smart meditation on the idea of trust in a world where so little of it actually exists.
“Zer0 Sum” is another promising start from a studio that makes pilots better than most of those debuting on network TV. The debut for Borderlands is no exception, setting the stage for another excellent and surprising entry in Telltale’s brand of storytelling.
Borderlands, for all its humor, has never made the story its focus or most impressive aspect. So Telltale pulls from the events of Borderlands 2, but establishes an entirely new set of characters. Players control both Rhys and Fiona (Laura Bailey). The former is an employee of the evil Hyperion corporation, which is now struggling with a power vacuum after the death of its leader Handsome Jack (Daemon Clarke).
The story of the episode is actually told by Rhys and Fiona to a third party, and one of the many comedic highlights is catching the differences in their individual accounts. Rhys is looking to undermine his new boss at Hyperion, Vasquez (Patrick Warburton), while Fiona is hoping to scam Vasquez, and then Rhys, with a fake but valuable vault key. Unfortunately, an ambush breaks up their meeting and forces Rhys, his sidekick Vaughn (Chris Hardwick) and Fiona’s sister, Sasha (Erin Yvette) to lose the money involved in their trade.
Tales is first and foremost about its characters and stories, allowing players to define the flow of conversation and how actions play out. And in that regard, Telltale nails this initial outing. The action is well paced so that the occasional puzzle never weighs down the momentum, and thankfully the humor hits far more often than it misses. Telltale channels Borderlands’ sense of humor, and its knack for fantastic intro theme songs (this time around it’s “Busy Earnin'” by Jungle), but injects Tales with genuine heart and intriguing story beats.
That’s largely thanks to Rhys and Fiona. Each character has unique but relatable motivations that, in the context of Pandora’s Mad Max-like world, fall perfectly in line with even their most unseemly acts.
It’s tough to shake knowing Chris Hardwick is playing Vaughn for someone who has listened to hundreds of Nerdist episodes, but the character is an effective foil for Rhys. Sasha is perhaps the weakest of the main four. She’s performed well and shares one particularly hilarious scene with Rhys, but her actual personality is difficult to nail down. I wavered throughout the episode on feeling like I understood her motivations.
But on the whole, this makeshift team and the surrounding cast—the great Loader Bot is essentially the Baymax of Tales—help to fill out a world that usually players are too busy shooting through to notice how interesting it can be.
Where Tales really grabbed me, though, was in how it made me consider the various layers of trust at play. There’s the dependability of Fiona and Rhys’ accounts, the confidence they place in their partners, and the trust they choose to give to—or withhold from—each other to survive. Telltale has put an interesting spin on a world that has one important law, to paraphrase how Fiona describes it-—on Pandora, you wait for the bigger guys to kill each other and then take whatever you can. Not exactly a world full of honor and integrity, is it?
Other than dialogue choices, a few sequences in which players must tap specific buttons propel the action, though a few new twists help to shake things up. Fiona can use money at certain key junctures to get her way—or risk not doing so and talk her way through a situation. Meanwhile, Rhys has a mechanical eye that can analyze the environment and notable items.
These additions don’t dramatically alter the formula, but they lay the groundwork for what could be exciting opportunities to further investigate the sense of trust that pervades the proceedings.
And if it hasn’t been stated clearly enough before, Tales is a funny game. Sure, some of it is incredibly low-brow, but that’s in line with the Borderlands spirit. Much of Tales‘ best humor comes from its new characters. Rhys wants to be more than a company man, but he easily falls prey to his ego. Fiona is tough and witty but she’s acting from a more emotional imperative. The conversations—both real and embellished—among the four core characters are some of Tales‘ most engaging moments. For all the lunacy and well-executed action, it’s often more than enough to just listen to them banter.
Tales from the Borderlands surprised me. Whether in the decision-making, the twists on expected narrative conventions, or just in how well the game captures both Gearbox and Telltale at their best, “Zer0 Sum” is a tremendous start.
It does, really, what any pilot should do—leaves me satisfied, yet dying to know what happens next.