Tales from the Borderlands Ep. 1: Zer0 Sum Review – No Rest for the Wicked (PS4)
Is it Telltale? Or is it Borderlands? It’s always an exciting opportunity to get to see a crossover between two titans such as these, but it’s even more ineffable when the lines between that crossover are so finely blurred that you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. Telltale is a narrative powerhouse, telling excellent stories and offering player driven anecdotes that are guided by choice. Borderlands is a modern gaming staple that has made a massive impact on the industry with its noteworthy graphical style and shoot-and-loot style gameplay. Is Borderlands ripe with narrative fruit, or are Telltale in over their heads?
Upon starting the game, I almost couldn’t discern that I was playing a Telltale title. The Borderlands aesthetic — both visually and aurally — is adhered to with a certain care and precision. Even down to the rotating main screen that feels ripped straight from Borderlands and every sound effect as I shuffled through the menu options. If I had any doubt that this was definitively Borderlands, that fear was long gone before I even passed the main menu, and the Borderlands look and feel carried straight on through to the credits. As I said after my E3 preview of the game, Tales from the Borderlands is not Telltale’s own take on the franchise, but rather the Borderlands we know and love with Telltale as our tour guide.
A Corporate Stooge and a Con Artist Walk into a Bar…
Telltale’s games are all about choices. What do you say in this scenario? What do you do in that situation? These choices effectively place you in control of defining who your character is, which is one of the things that I loved the most about The Wolf Among Us. This time around, we get the benefit of defining two characters: Hyperion’s corporate lackey, Rhys, and a con artist from Pandora, Fiona. Zer0 Sum tells the story of what brings these two together, and each one tries to spin the narrative in their own way. Playing as both gives a unique chance to craft a tale from each of their stories in a way that only Telltale can achieve.
Between the two characters, I felt like Fiona was the more versatile and ductile character. Her dialogue trees and big decisions in the episode gave more sense of a branching path than Rhys’ fairly unidirectional options provided him. He is unfortunately tied down by being affiliated with Hyperion, which instantly makes him look like a complete asshole to everyone on Pandora. While Rhys did have some big decisions to make, most of them felt overtly obvious, and the very skewed stats at the end proved to me that these were not adjudications that most people wrestled with. He is a slave to the idea of the corporate ladder in the most extreme sense, and so far we have been given very little option to craft our own Rhys that isn’t constrained by money and corporeities. In Zer0 Sum, Rhys is either kind of a naive pushover, or an outright dick, but he’s still Hyperion. Some light shone through in a couple of dialogue options, and my fingers are crossed that the next episode will dive a bit deeper into his character, whom I think has great potential.
Fiona, on the other hand, can be a relentless killer, a kind-hearted thief, or a cross somewhere in between the two. Who your Fiona becomes will be based on less obvious dialogue options and I personally struggled more with selecting what she would say or do next. As with all Telltale games, I go with my gut instinct and carry the game forward from there (no reloading the last checkpoint for me), and she is the only character where I feel that I may come to regret some of my hastily made choices in a future chapter.
Wit and Cunning Shall be our Weapons
Unlike previous Telltale games — particularly The Wolf Among Us — I didn’t feel that I was given enough in the way of choices within the action sequences. I wanted some alternate takes based on whether I was dodging the the left or the right, or if I was jumping over versus ducking under. The episode’s penultimate Death Race style arena scenario felt like a cutscene fueled by linear quick time events. Even if these choices don’t have a long term effect, it’s still fun to feel the sense of urgency and decision as you have to pick between dodging to the left or the right, and the different scenarios that each one may place you in. The stark contrast to that linear sequence was the game’s first action packed portion, featuring a loader bot that you customize with different weapons before taking on a bunch of bandits. Machine gun or shield? Grenades or rockets? These decisions will affect how the ensuing chaos plays out, even if during the battle the directional prompts find themselves remaining fairly linear overall.
The best part of the whole thing is getting a different view on Pandora, the various weapon manufacturers, and even the bandits. Borderlands usually puts a gun in your hand and barely lets anyone get a word in edgewise before blowing their brains out. In Tales from the Borderlands, Rhys has scant options outside of his quick wit, and Fiona is armed with little more than deception. This is a story about two people who find themselves a lot less capable than the usual band of Vault Hunters, and given the unpredictable nature of Pandora, this is a great look at how other people live in Borderlands when they don’t always have their hands on a gun.
Telltale has given us an excellent first chapter in what is gearing up to be one of their best series. While it had its hit and miss moments with the humor, and some of the choices outside of dialogue were less than impressive or nonexistent, I loved getting a different view of Pandora and the Borderlands universe. Putting you in the shoes of people who don’t have the mindset of ‘shoot-and-loot first, ask questions later’ brought an experience that I didn’t even know I really wanted on Pandora. I thought that I was content with how Borderlands told its stories, but Telltale proved that there is another side to hearing the tales of the vaults with a superb inaugural episode that barely lets up and ends on a note that left me wanting so much more. Let’s just hope they can keep up the pace, humor, and bring more choice to the action for the other 80% of the season.
Tales from the Borderlands Ep. 1: Zer0 Sum review code provided by publisher. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.