Read our full Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel review.
Athena is the ninja of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. She doesn’t look anything like Borderlands 2‘s Zer0, and she doesn’t even have a head cowl like the first game’s Mordecai did. In truth, Athena looks like a hardened soldier. That’s accurate. Aided by her Kinetic Aspis energy shield Action Skill, Athena is well-suited to take point in any encounter. Zer0 relied heavily on stealth and flanking maneuvers, Mordecai did his best work from a distance. Athena is a front-line ninja. Her shield absorbs incoming fire, doubling down on and releasing that stored-up energy in an explosion when the Aspis is thrown like a projectile.
Fans of the series last saw Athena in T-Bone Junction, one of the locations featured in the first game’s The Secret Armory of General Knoxx DLC. She was introduced as a former assassin for the Crimson Lance who defected, and she helps out the Vault Hunters after they rescue her from a bounty hunter. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel picks up before any of that. Athena is a mercenary, working for the Hyperion stooge who will one day be known as Handsome Jack. We’re not clear on why she hitches her wagon to Jack’s star, but he’s lucky to have such a potent warrior backing him up.
Regardless of which skill trees you drill down into, Athena is best suited for medium and close range engagements. The Aspis is difficult to aim as a projectile since there’s no “iron sights” to rely on, so it’s best to get nice and close before you release all of that stored-up energy. The shield is automatically thrown at the end of the Action Skill’s usage time, but you can also manually throw it before the timer runs out by pressing LB (Xbox 360 controller). Each of the individual skill trees — Phalanx, Xiphos, and Ceraunic Storm — complement the Aspis in different ways.
Players that like to support co-op teammates will want to invest in the Phalanx tree. There are multiple skills that funnel absorbed energy from the Aspis to friendlies, reinforcing health, shields, and even granting bonus Second Wind revives. At higher levels, the Prepare for Glory skill turns Athena into the equivalent of an RPG “tank,” taunting enemies into focusing their fire in her direction while the Aspis absorbs much of the damage.
This skill tree emphasizes keeping that shield active as much as possible during firefights. To that end, anyone who invests in Phalanx should max out the Hold The Line skill, which boosts the length of time the Aspis remains active. The extra time also means that many more seconds for the shield to absorb — and eventually release — enemy fire. The tree’s top-level capstone skill, Wrath of the Goddess, bounces the shield between up to four different enemies when it’s thrown, dealing less damage with each ricochet, but the extra energy absorbed during Hold The Line’s bonus time ensures that the fully-leveled Phalanx Aspis is still an effective tool for crowd control.
The Xiphos tree is a good choice for lone wolf players, as its skills emphasize boosting Athena’s combat capabilities, both as a gunfighter and a melee combatant. The Rend skill, unlocked at the midpoint of the Xiphos tree, adds a bleeding effect to Athena’s melee attacks, causing enemies to take damage over time. This pairs well with the Bloodlust skill in the very next tier, boosting health regeneration for the duration of any active bleed effects. Xiphos is an ideal tree to build into early on in the game, since its initial skills provide immediate boosts to damage and health.
Overall, Xiphos most directly reinforces the notion that Athena is built for close-range throwdowns. Just about every skill exists in the service of boosting Athena’s ability to deal damage, both in an immediate sense and over time. The top-level capstone Blood Rush embodies this perfectly, giving Athena a melee override skill that causes her to dash forward and deal increased damage with melee attacks. There’s a cooldown on the melee override — using melee during the cooldown results in the same standard punch that the other characters have — but the cooldown resets instantly if the attack inflicts bleed or kills a target.
Here’s a peek at Athena in action with a Xiphos build:
The final tree, Ceraunic Storm, powers up Athena’s mastery over the elements. It’s the most technical of the three skill trees for a variety of reasons. There are only five points that can be spent in the first tier, meaning all players that drill down into Ceraunic Storm have to grab Storm Weaving, which temporarily increases fire rate and elemental effect chance every time you swap weapons, and Maelstrom, which is this tree’s key skill. Once unlocked, Athena generates stacks of Maelstrom anytime she deals incendiary or shock damage. It’s similar to the Borderlands 2 Mechromancer’s Anarchy skill, with each stack of Maelstrom boosting Athena’s elemental damage.
Subsequent skills in the Ceraunic Storm tree tie additional advantages to the Maelstrom stack total. Conduit boosts Athena’s shield regeneration whenever there’s an electrocute status effect active, with the percentage regenerated dictated by how much Maelstrom you’ve got. The later kill skill, Unrelenting, boosts weapon swap speed and fire rate based on your Maelstrom total each time you take out an enemy. You can even temporarily pause the drain of Maelstrom — stacks naturally go away over time — by grabbing the Flash Freeze skill and inflicting the freeze status effect on enemies. Smite is a handy pickup for anyone that chooses this tree, as it applies incendiary and shock damage to any enemy you shoot while airborne.
The final capstone skill, Hades’ Shackles, modifies Athena’s slam attack (a new feature in The Pre-Sequel, enabled by low-gravity environments) so that nearby enemies are temporarily linked to her by shock tethers. In addition to the electricity damage, any enemy still tethered to Athena when the tether duration expires — they can sever it by breaking line of sight — explodes in an incendiary nova blast that earns you bonus Maelstrom stacks for each enemy affected. The nova blast also applies to any enemy that dies while still tethered. Much like melee override skills, the powered up slam provided by Hades’ Shackles operates on a cooldown.