By Jonathon Dornbush
Updated March 17, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Tales from the Borderlands has transformed a hilarious series about shooting and dick jokes into an examination of the nature of trust—while still managing to be really funny.

“Atlas Mugged,” the second Tales episode, maintains the quality of the pilot while diving headfirst into the tricky thematic waters of trust. Despite the occasional misstep, it succeeds in carrying the series’ momentum and delivering one of Telltale’s most engrossing series yet.

Tales’ pilot is the strongest debut of Telltale’s recent episodic series, but worries about a sophomore slump still loomed over “Mugged.” The pilot ended on a terrific cliffhanger, with the franchise’s Big Bad, Handsome Jack, appearing (albeit in hologram form) to Rhys. “Mugged” picks up immediately after this revelation. Only Rhys can see Jack, and he has to console this seemingly self-aware projection with the news that Jack is dead, while Fiona works on uncovering the mystery behind some Atlas Corporation technology.

The episode then kicks into another action-packed chase sequence, but “Mugged” quickly becomes something much more personal and introspective. Rhys and Fiona are separated from one another, Rhys stuck with his fellow Hyperion coworker Vaughn while Fiona travels with her sister Sasha to a location the entire group wanted to investigate.

And when the story splits, “Mugged” weaves two parallel but distinct stories. Both Rhys and Fiona must struggle with the trust, or lack thereof, in their respective relationships, as well as how much they trust one another.

In Telltale tradition, it’s up to the player to determine how much Fiona and Rhys can rely on the characters surrounding them. Rhys and Vaughn’s friendship is put to the test, and Fiona has to work to maintain Sasha’s confidence. Players can alter those relationships, and “Mugged” makes those decisions difficult but also earned in the story’s context.

Jack’s intermittent appearances add an extra layer to Rhy’s side of the story—if he’s the only one who can see Jack, does Jack really exist? Or is there something else much worse happening to him? Jack may be one of the most evil people to grace the evil planet of Pandora, but should Rhys listen to some of the things he’s saying? The episode doesn’t answer those questions, but it doesn’t need to, instead using this plotline to make things even more problematic for Rhys—and entertaining for the player.

The Borderlands universe is one filled with lies, backstabbing, and lunatics doing whatever it takes to stay alive. It’s a world where it’s much easier to trust yourself than anyone around you. “Mugged” presents characters in scenarios that may earn them the player’s trust, or prove that Pandora is a planet best suited to lone wolves.

For the most part, “Mugged” moves along expertly, thanks to its central thematic goals, the script supporting them, and the voice actors bringing those ideas to life. The episode becomes a bit bogged down in its penultimate chapter thanks to a rudimentary puzzle that, thanks to how characters are controlled, is more chore than fun. It brings the pacing to a screeching halt, but is thankfully saved by the episode’s conclusion.

Without giving away the particulars, “Mugged” culminates in a final decision based entirely on choosing who to trust. It’s a final decision I had immense trouble with, seeing the logic in both options. But instead, I went with my heart over my head. Will that lead to everyone’s deaths? It very well could, but “Mugged” left me dying to know, good or bad, the result of my choice.

“Mugged” lacks the constant bombast of the pilot, but it’s just as intriguing a look into the Borderlands universe. And it’s one that retains the original series’ hilarity and gives it a heart I wouldn’t have expected. Borderlands may not have the broad appeal of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, but “Atlas Mugged” proves that skipping Tales would be to miss out on one of Telltale’s strongest franchise starts.

Tales from the Borderlands

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