On the surface, the melding of an over-the-top shooter franchise (Borderlands) with a game company known for their episodic, choice-driven adventures (TellTale) is an odd one. Think about all the silly lore on the world of Pandora and it makes a bit more sense. Still, it’s not the natural extension the way The Walking Dead or the upcoming Game of Thrones are. Does it work? Let’s dive into Zer0 Sum, the debut episode of Tales from the Borderlands, and find out.
Whether it’s due to an increased budget or simply a byproduct of moving to next-gen, the controls in Tales from the Borderlands are the smoothest and most responsive I’ve encountered in any TellTale series to date. Of course, most of the game is still dialogue choices and object scans, but the various quick-time prompts and action segments worked better than ever.
TellTale’s take on Borderlands‘ cel-shaded aesthetic works very well. There’s a nice blend of characters (and character types) we’re already familiar with along with an entirely new cast of protagonists that fit seamlessly into the world. The loot-driven planet of Pandora is also masterfully captured in the variety and type of tech and weapons you encounter. In a lot of ways, playing this really drove home what a great job Gearbox did with the source material, particularly in Borderlands 2.
Technical shortcomings have long been the asterisk when it comes to heaping praise on TellTale’s games. As with the controls, however, Tales holds up better in that department. Granted, you’ll still run into issues here and there — lips not moving, scenes looping back a second or two before playing properly — but it maintains peak performance much more ably than its predecessors.
Freed from the all-encompassing bleakness of The Walking Dead, TellTale shows off its range with a diverse and entertaining cast. Rhys (played in another standout turn by Troy Baker) and Fiona co-star as the playable protagonists, and both are excellent in their roles. The secondary performances are also good, though Patrick Warburton as Rhys’ boss is a little too recognizable as Joe Swanson for my taste. The music and sound effects are first rate as well.
Taking place after the events seen in Borderlands 2, Tales from the Borderlands follows the intertwined stories of Rhys, a Hyperion employee who sees his expected promotion undercut when a rival eliminates the old boss, and Fiona, a long-time con artist operating on Pandora.
In Zer0 Sum, the two find themselves at opposite ends of a covert deal. Rhys having stolen 10 million in Hyperion currency to come planetside and purchase a vault key, which is in fact a fake orchestrated by Fiona and her accomplices, Sasha (her sister) and Felix (their mentor). Third and fourth parties become involved, however, and things go awry, forcing them to forge an unlikely alliance. It’s a good setup, and the characters are played so well that you can’t help but get fully invested right out of the gate.
Where TellTale succeeds at the highest level with Tales is in its overall feel. The back and forth banter between characters feels like a perfect extension of Borderlands, and the mixing of humor with legitimate menace that made Gearbox’s titles stand out in an overcrowded shooter marketplace is present, too. There are plenty of little nods for fans of those games, including some cameos, but while some knowledge about the franchise would help, it isn’t necessary to enjoy Zer0 Sum.
Most of the first episode is spent setting the table for the rest of the series, and outside of a lengthy end sequence it didn’t feel like many of your decisions carried much weight. That’s perfectly alright, though, as the slow burn is certainly preferable in a story-driven adventure like this, and the episode ends with a very interesting (and surprising) cliffhanger.
It’s really impressive what TellTale has done in taking a balls-out shooter like Borderlands, removing all the guns and still maintaining pretty much everything that made it unique and fun. The approach holds up extremely well over the two-plus hours contained in the first episode, and its pacing and tone both seem eminently sustainable.
Lovingly designed and smartly written, Zer0 Sum absolutely nails the mix of humor and action that are hallmarks of the Borderlands shooters. The characters are likeable, the story is interesting and the world of Pandora is charming (in a “blink and you’ll die in the dark” sort of way). Tales from the Borderlands is off to a great start, and I can’t wait to see what Atlas Mugged has in store.