(Click for reviews of episode one, episode two, episode three, and episode four. This review is going to be revealing a lot about the past episodes, and will have some minor spoilers from episode five to review the narrative structure. If you want to go in completely fresh, play the game before reading this review.)
Tales From the Borderlands enters its last episode with so much in need of resolution. Jack is now in control of Helios, and despite whether you went along with it or not, loyalties among the ragtag group of heroes are being tested. There’s a real sense of finality going into episode five, as the ramifications of past choices mean that there is no turning back in many cases.
Very quickly into the episode, we see the opening credits sequence set to the destruction of Helios. It’s traditional dark Borderlands humor, and Jack is quick to remind us that the things we do as the hero may not be so different than those actions of a villain. It was a moment that made me step back and think about Rhys and Fiona’s journey to this point. Were they the heroes? Or were they just another couple of fortune seekers who would murder countless other people to lay claim to the prize at the end of that bloody tunnel?
The Gray Area Between Hero and Asshole
It’s this unique ability to offer depth, humor, emotion, and mass carnage in a single package that really makes Tales from the Borderlands succeed. My own connection to the characters made me try to justify the killing of so many, and when Jack pointed out that I was doing just that, I couldn’t deny it. There’s a gray area of identifying as a hero or villain, and Telltale does a great job of showing that it’s all about perspective.
Most every major unresolved plot point is given a conclusion in The Vault of the Traveler. Rhys wrestling with Jack in his head. Fiona carrying Sasha’s present from Felix. Vaughn’s ultimate fate since we last saw him. The identity the of the kidnapper. The only issue was that some of it felt disjointed instead of all tying into the final conclusion of the game. The fall of Helios brings an end to the Jack/Rhys conflict in a brutal and cringe-worthy manner, and closes the struggle with Vallory and her crew, but then seems to abruptly jump forward in time to the current day with the kidnapper, which kicks off the second half of the finale, and the true ending of the game.
Undeterred by this sharp separation of plot points, and perhaps a little bit because of it, we get both solid conclusions for individual character development arcs, and a resolution for the group as a whole and various character relationships. How you decide to play my subtly affect these outcomes, but Telltale is giving closure no matter which direction you decide to go. It’s not exclusive to Fiona and Rhys either. You can get a sense of finality for characters like Sasha, August, Vaughn, and even some characters that may have seemed to play a bit part in the series.
Vault Hunters, Assemble!
The second half following the reveal of the stranger shows just how far of an impact decisions made as far back as episode one have on a certain final choice. Did you allow Felix to live or die at the end of episode one? The bifurcation of whatever outcome you got will be made painfully obvious. Having a sweet series of button combos reminiscent of old fighting games is a nice touch, but hardly enough to help me forget that I didn’t have enough money to hire the mystery vault hunter going into the final mission to seize the vault.
The writing and flow, apart from the sudden cut after the Helios disaster, are once again top-notch, and Telltale flexes their unique ability to cast a known property in a light that feels completely different, yet retains the crucial elements that keep it rooted in the source material. They’ll take you on a roller coaster, and have you laughing, crying, disgusted, and questioning every NPC that you’ve ever killed in a game. It’s the perfect kind of madness that finds a balance in toying with every emotional state you have available.
It’s important to note that I did experience more technical problems with Vault of the Traveler than any prior Tales From the Borderlands episode, which isn’t saying much as I didn’t really have any notable problems with episodes one through four. Episode five’s main issue seemed to be characters snapping into place to prep for new scenes. The game itself never froze or slowed down, but sometimes character arm and head positions would suddenly snap to where it was supposed to be instead of actually animating there. While it never impacted my gameplay, the four or five times it happened were enough to make note, especially considering how good the engine has been running until now.
In a way, I’m more excited to see what Telltale has up their sleeves for Pandora in the future. It’s not that I don’t like Gearbox’s shoot and loot style for Borderlands — they did create the universe after all. I’m just eager to see what deeply personal stories Telltale has to tell set against this psychotic and darkly humorous backdrop. They’ve always been great at showing as another facet of known properties, and Tales From the Borderlands’ first season could very easily be my favorite season Telltale has ever done. That’s no small feat after a certain Lee Everett first met a little girl named Clementine.
Tales from the Borderlands Ep. 5: Vault of the Traveler review code provided by publisher. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.