Choose your own reality in Tales from the Borderlands

Telltale Games is doing something different in Tales from the Borderlands. Functionally, the game works similarly to every other episodic release that we’ve seen from the studio since the start of The Walking Dead. Choice and narrative still form the core of the experience, and “adventure game” is still the most appropriate — if increasingly inaccurate — genre identifier to apply.

Layered heavily on top of that is the spirit of Gearbox Software’s Borderlands games. It’s more than just style and tone, though. The gameplay — devoid as it is of the source material’s first-person mechanics — has a more active feel. There’s choice not just in your words, but in your actions. There’s loot. There’s subversiveness. As we learned from an E3 peek at the premiere episode’s opening half-hour, Borderlands doesn’t have to play like a first-person shooter to be Borderlands.

Story/Concept

Rashogun. We won’t touch too heavily on spoilers, but for those that wish to avoid any knowledge of the story in Tales from the Borderlands, here’s your obligatory SPOILER ALERT. If you want to stay safe, skip down to the Gameplay section. Got it? Good.

Tales from the Borderlands follows two characters — Rhys and Fiona — as they relate similar-yet-different stories of their time spent in pursuit of a Vault key, and the immense wealth that they believe comes with it. There’s a framing encounter at the start of the game that reunites these characters after some time apart and sets up their flashbacks; much of the driving action unfolds in the past.

Meet Rhys. The premiere episode’s first “movement” gives Rhys the floor. He’s a Hyperion employee, stationed way up above Pandora on the company’s H-shaped space station. The death of Handsome Jack at the end of Borderlands 2 triggers a power struggle that ends with Rhys missing out on a big promotion, passed over in favor of his douchey office rival, Vasquez (voiced by Patrick Warburton).

Our questionable hero learns of Vasquez’ plans to purchase a Vault key, and he concocts a scheme with a pair of friends to embezzle money from the company and snatch the key out from under the new boss. Rhys and his pal Vaughn — a Hyperion accountant — head down to Pandora with the freshly stolen $1 million dollars and proceed to mix it up in a bandit town before meeting the Vault key contact and trying to cut a deal.

That’s not how it went. Rhys’ account concludes with an interruption from Fiona, who says, no, that’s wrong, things didn’t go quite the way he’s saying. At this point, players are presented with a set of dialogue options which — true to Telltale form — influence how Fiona’s own account plays out.

We’re told that each episode in Tales from the Borderlands follows this basic pattern, with one character laying out their story, then the other. At the end of the episode, it’s up to players to decide which version is the actual truth, and the story carries forward from there, with that decision shaping what happens next.

Gameplay

Shooter. There’s some action in the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands when Rhys and Vaughn face off against a town full of bandits. Neither of the main characters is combat-capable, but they’re both backed by the power of mighty Hyperion and its robot Loaders. To deal with the bandits, Rhys summons a Loader — a process that includes selecting the robots primary and secondary weapons — to kick off an elaborate, multi-stage quick-time event. 

ToB---Rhys-loaderbot

More than once, Telltale flips to a first-person perspective through robot eyes. It’s still more QTE than traditional shooter, but the flavor of the latter is apparent in the way that you’re using familiar crosshairs to target enemies and the trigger button to give them a thrashing. It’s a clever marriage of two seemingly disconnected genres, capably capturing the spirit of both.

Looter. This is a Borderlands game, so loot plays a key role. Telltale isn’t quite ready to delve into the specifics of how what appears to be an in-game economy actually works, but Rhys (and presumably Fiona) has a bank account, and searching loot containers, corpses, and the like carries the possibility of adding to your cash total. 

There’s a new HUD element at the top of the screen as well, marked by several icons: a lightbulb, a phone handset, and LB/RB controls that cycle between a briefcase, a dollar sign, and something that looks like a ticket with a Vault logo stamped on it. It’s likely that at least some portion of this connects to loot-gathering in Tales from the Borderlands, but we’ll have to wait until Telltale is ready to share more details.

Presentation

Mash-up. The Telltale DNA is evident all throughout Tales from the Borderlands, from the dialogue selection menus to general exploration. Fundamentally, this game works the same way that The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us do. You walk around carefully designed sets and highlight different points of interest with a reticle that you can then interact with using a contextual set of commands.

ToB---Zero

The Borderlands vibe is everywhere, though. The music, the screeching of Rakks in the sky, the grunt of bandits, even the unfortunate death of a Skag during the opening credits … it’s all there. It’s just further enhanced by Telltale’s playful, self-consciously referential spirit. When Rhys and Vaughn turn the unfortunate Skag into roadkill, they pause for a moment to reflect on how sad it is. Or Vaughn does; true to form, Rhys responds to that however players tell him to. 

Takeaway

Telltale Games continues to prove itself as an agile team of storytellers, capable of molding and shaping a variety of tonally and thematically different fictional sources into impactful experiences that all share a common DNA. Tales from the Borderlands shows every sign of being yet another faithful realization of that notion, a story by Borderlands fans, for Borderlands fans that takes something familiar and frames it in a very different way.

Look for Tales from the Borderlands when it premieres on virtually any and every gaming platform you can think of later this summer.

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