‘What makes a great game?’ is a question we’ve all asked at one time or another – the same question you ask about films, books and TV shows – and a question everyone has a different answer to. For me I like a great story, great characters and great writing: anything after that is a nice little bonus for my tastes. Yet, since I’d entered that dreadful emptiness that The Last of Us left me with after its final credits rolled I’ve been searching for the next game that’d make me connect with it on such a level. Admittedly I’ve yet to find it but, damn, Tales from the Borderlands came pretty close in a very, very different way.
I’ll confess something here between friends and temporary alliances; I was seven years late to the Borderlands party so I didn’t exactly have my cursor resting on Steam’s ‘Purchase for myself’ button on the day of Tales from the Borderlands’ release. I’ve played a great many of Telltale Games’ titles and after the first series of The Walking Dead I’d been waiting to feel the same attachment; that same brilliant writing that brought thousands of people to their knees when – ck…buh…I’m sorry, I still can’t talk about it…the pain’s too raw. The Wolf Among Us came close in the beginning but filtered off a little bit as the episodes went on as though Bigby grew more pigmented as a character but everyone else faded into washed, weak watercolour. It was because of this and other missed marks that I was apprehensive about putting time into this game but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Tales from the Borderlands is an episodic point-and-click adventure comedy set several years after the events of Borderlands 2. It contains five episodes: 1. Zer0 Sum, 2. Atlas Mugged, 3. Catch a Ride, 4. Escape Plan Bravo, and finally, 5. The Vault of the Traveler. Our story begins with our two protagonists Rhys, a cybernetically enhanced dork, and Fiona, a fast-talking con-woman, being captured and dragged across the Pandoran wastelands. We’re then brought back and forth between past and present, watching the story unfold in fragments as we learn of Rhys’ fall from the Hyperion ranks and his, Fiona’s and their companions’ journey across Pandora. In order to possess a Vault Key, he and his best friend Vaughn, an oddly-ripped accountant, steal ten million dollars to screw their new boss out of his deal. On the flip side, Fiona and Sasha, Fiona’s sister and gun-addict, are the co-conspirators of the devious ploy to sell a false Vault Key for a whole lot of cash. As you can probably tell, things go awry when the boys turn up instead and they lose the money to a bandit boss, despite their best efforts to get it back. Instead they go on the hunt for the real Vault Key and the promise of a priceless bounty.
Telltale’s art style is what has always drawn me to it, though there have been some cases in the past where it might not have fit – I’m still a little dubious about its suitability in Game of Thrones – to use it in the Borderlands universe is the perfect flavour combination: like chicken and thyme; strawberries and cream; bacon and everything. Another thing I loved in Tales from the Borderlands that I haven’t acknowledged in other titles is Telltale’s engaging use of camera work for effect, comedic value, and hands-down the most enjoyable episode introduction I’ve ever experienced, alongside a soundtrack which fits just brilliantly.
That’s not all, however. Like I said before (being a total script snob) my pet peeve is when dialogue is forced or feels out of place, and this goes for every genre out there, but more than anything the romance and comedy genres are the most difficult beasts to tame. One simple mismatch or wrong move could make or break relationships between characters, and some fictional relationships are like watching a four year-old picking up a doll in each hand and banging them together repeatedly. The same goes for comedy, like that friend that tries too hard to be funny, ladling conversations with innuendoes and poorly-timed puns, they may get a ringer in now and again but that’s just the blessing of statistics more than predetermined comedic timing. After that foundation, thankfully, Tales from the Borderlands delivers us gold and then some.
I’ve used the word a handful of times but it’s a narrative triumph and would like to award the highest of fives to all writers involved because I’ve never had a game make me laugh for a consecutive ten hours before – and I mean, laugh: not a chuckle; not a titter; a full-hearted, belly laugh. What I love about the humour is that it’s not one general type shared by everyone, each character brings something different to the table, both working independently and complimenting other characters when together. For example, Rhys and Fiona have their own charms but together they’re like children, especially in the ‘present day’ events as they share hilarious banter, each trying to undermine the other’s tales of heroism. This use of multi-POV was also a first for Telltale, before Game of Thrones, and something I sincerely hope they continue.
What makes this game for me is not just its beautiful graphics and side-splitting gags, it’s the ragtag characters who grow from acquaintances to accomplices to friends to potentially more. The foundation of any good story is good characterisation; without good characters you won’t really care about the story – it’s a vicious cycle. The question to ask yourself is: ‘would I care if this person died?’ If you’ve answered ‘yes’ then the writers have hit the nail on the head. What’s unusual for me is that I liked all of the characters from the start straight through until the end, even the bad guys. In my case when I’ve been playing a game for a while, and bear in mind I completed the five episodes in one sitting, I tend to grow tired of one or more characters which usually results in my wishing death or maiming upon those I’ve had enough of. Mean, I know, but you can’t tell me you didn’t at least try to kill Emily in Until Dawn. In this case the feeling never came and I was engaged with the story from beginning ‘til end.
Alas this isn’t a review without throwing a stick in Telltale’s bike wheel. Remarkably though, my issues with the game were very, very slight. My main issue was from the second part of the third episode where my game glitched during a sequence of dialogue, propelling my character from sitting to standing. These glitches seemed more prominent in episode five when characters had jumped about a bit but again this was very minor in comparison to my experience. I could also bitch and moan about Telltale’s continued lack of cause and effect but I think they’d handled it better in this game than they have in others so far, as my choices throughout the game effect the team mates I can use for a certain activity toward the end of the fifth episode. Some of which I bloody kicked myself for.
The thing that sets Tales from the Borderlands apart from any others in the series so far is that I want to go back and play it again. Like, right now. I want to spend another ten hours just playing it through from start to finish. If that doesn’t scream success I don’t know what does. With a pleasing array of characters, laugh-out-loud humour, excellent scripting and more attention to the cinematics throughout the game I would be a fool not to call this game a riotous success. I can only hope that this style will continue throughout Telltale’s future productions and absolutely can’t wait for a (potential) second season.
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