Tales from the Borderlands recap: Balancing out around a ‘Zer0 Sum’ game

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SPOILER ALERT: This is a recap, not a review. We’ve decided to start treating episodic releases from Telltale Games and others as incomplete for review purposes until a given “season” concludes. Reviews tell you what we think, but recaps are all about conversation. Let’s talk about the episode, water cooler-style. Where do you think the story’s going? What do you make of the characters? By all means read on, but the spoilers are strong with this one.

On the alien world of Pandora, all mysteries inevitably lead back to a Vault.

You don’t need to know much about Gearbox Software’s comedy-fueled first-person shooter series when you fire up the first episode of Telltale Games’ Tales from the Borderlands, but it helps to know that. Pandora is a frontier world inspired by California’s 19th-century gold rush, with the “gold” here amounting to hidden caches of alien technology. Vaults.

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The people of Pandora know a thing or two about Vaults, and about the folks that seek them. There are Vault Hunters, heroic warriors armed with a bajillion guns and an array of abilities that would give even Chuck Norris pause. And there’s Hyperion, a ruthless weapons manufacturer that – thanks to competitor Atlas’ discovery of the original Vault – has ruined the lives of Pandora’s average citizens with its extensive mining operations.

Episode One: Zer0 Sum opens with Hyperion in a precarious position. The company’s ruthless CEO, Handsome Jack, was killed in an attempted conquest of the planet. There’s a power vacuum in Hyperion’s executive offices, and low-level company man Rhys hopes to take advantage. He’s got a lead on someone selling a Vault key, and – with the help of Hyperion accountant Vaughn and requisitions officer Yvette – he hopes to use $10 million in stolen company funds to get the key and climb the corporate ladder.

Rhys is a bit of a putz. He dresses like Jack, looks like Jack, even sounds a little like Jack. He’s nowhere near as ruthless as the deceased CEO – at least, not yet – but he aspires to reach Jack’s “lofty” heights. The degree of Rhys’ putziness is ultimately in the hands of the player, with dialogue choices that range from funny a-hole to dickish a-hole.

Sitting opposite Rhys in the starring (read: playable) cast of Tales from the Borderlands is Fiona, a Pandoran grifter. She’s a smooth talker just like Rhys, but she’s much more composed and savvy in the ways of the world. Fiona’s dialogue choices help to establish her degree of expertise. The two stars are alike in a lot of ways; swap their backgrounds and you might find that Fiona turns into a corporate dick and Rhys, a sly con man.

Fiona and her kid sister Sasha were raised and trained in their dishonest profession by Felix. We don’t know much about Felix, beyond the fact that he’s good enough at what he does to still be breathing. He also seems to have some kind of agenda where Hyperion is concerned, but who knows? Everyone on Pandora hates Hyperion. Felix is kind of a jerk too, but we’ll get to that later.

On the alien world of Pandora, all mysteries lead back to a Vault.

Rhys and Fiona’s paths intersect around the sought-after Vault key, which is actually a fake cooked up by Felix. Fiona’s crew enlists August, a crime boss-slash-bar owner operating out of Pandora’s Prosperity Junction, to act as the seller. He doesn’t know his product is a phony. He just knows that a Hyperion stooge is willing to pay $10 million to collect the thing.

That stooge is actually Vasquez, Rhys’ chief rival at the company. Rhys might idolize Handsome Jack, but Vasquez embodies the fallen CEO’s ruthlessness. It’s suggested that Rhys committed some not-so-awesome acts in order to position himself for the promotion, but Vasquez grabs the reins and steals the new job for himself – and then some – when he tosses the executive standing in his way out of an airlock.

That’s what prompts an angered Rhys, freshly “promoted” by Vasquez to senior vice janitor, to steal the key deal out from under his new boss. So he and Vaughn head down from Hyperion’s orbital base to the planet, with their illicit $10 million in hand.

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Everything goes smoothly at first. Rhys and Vaughn hook up with August, who’s accompanied by Sasha. There’s some initial confusion over Vasquez’ absence, and subsequent worry that the con will be uncovered when Sasha notices Rhys’ prosthetic robot eye, which could out the fake. But Fiona, watching the meeting in secret, saves the day, and the deal, with a secretly planted EMP device. Sort of.

Rhys also has a prosthetic robot arm. It, along with his eye, is deactivated when Fiona sets the EMP off. And since the robot arm is the one holding the key as Rhys prepares to inspect it, the fake falls to the ground and promptly shatters. Not good. But not an immediate problem either, as this crew has a bigger situation to deal with.

Zer0, a robo-ninja Vault Hunter from Borderlands 2, happens upon the deal just as it goes bad. He’s pursuing a dubstep-loving bandit boss, and their scuffle ranges into the space where the fake key sale is going down. Chaos ensues, and the bandit makes off with Rhys and Vaughn’s briefcase as a prize, completely unaware that it contains both $10 million and a bomb that’s set to detonate if there’s a forced entry.

An unlikely partnership forms, with Rhys and Vaughn convincing the grifters to let them use their Hyperion tech to track the money. In return, they get to keep on living. It’s a pretty great deal for all parties while the money’s still missing. As for who keeps the cash once it’s found … well that’s a non-issue, as it turns out.

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Our crew ends up caught in the middle of a bandit-sponsored destruction derby/death rally, with Rhys, Fiona, Sasha, and Vaughn all chasing after the case – which is the event’s grand prize – as it gets knocked around the arena. Zer0 shows up too, to end his feud with the bandit boss once and for all. A big mess ensues, and in the confusion it’s scheming Felix who finally gets his hands on the prize.

Yes, Felix is a betrayer. It’s not yet clear what his motivations are. Fiona catches him in the act, and he seems apologetic even as he holds a gun on her. Felix doesn’t get to explain himself though. He might never have a chance, depending on how the episode’s final choices play out. Does Felix blow himself up when he tries to force open the booby-trapped case or does he toss it away in time? That’s for you to decide.

The driving events of Zer0 Sum ultimately unfold as a flashback, as Rhys and Fiona share their own sides of the story while a masked, shotgun-toting stranger holds them at gunpoint. Who is this stranger? What does he or she want with our luckless duo?

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As you learned at the start of this recap, it all comes back to a Vault. The key that got everything going might have been a fake, but Rhys and Fiona’s discovery of an Atlas lab below the bandit death rally leads them to something called the “Gortys Project” and an apparent map to a very real Vault. Zer0 knows about Gortys. So does the masked stranger. And Handsome Jack.

Yes, the deceased CEO pops up in the final moments of the episode as a digitized spectre that only Rhys can see. It’s not clear what his motives are, or how a dead guy like him can even have motives, but it probably not good considering Jack’s history. August and Vasquez are still out there too, and they’re no doubt scheming up their own revenge plans.

All of Pandora’s mysteries may lead back to a Vault, but only so many people can claim the secrets stored there. Rhys and Fiona are on the hunt, but at whose expense? One way or another, their search for fame and fortune is bound to turn into, as the episode’s title suggests, a zero-sum game.

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