(Please note: This review is of the first episode in the series entitled "Zer0 Sum". The title of the review does not specify this.)
As a frequent critic of the Borderlands series it is rather jarring to admit that something unprecedented has occurred. Even as a regular customer of Telltale's products the unequivocal quality of the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands comes as nothing less than a shock.
The Borderlands franchise developed by Gearbox Software is known far more for following a formula of guns, loot and crude humor. Despite having one hundredth of the action Telltale has accomplished something I deemed impossible months ago: it turned a franchise that could not care less about story into a engaging, immersive narrative. The first episode of Tales from the Borderlands is stunning in introducing a world that some gamers may not know and immersing the player before any questions can be raised. The game catches the player's attention within the first few minutes and retains that focus until the credits roll by. Prior titles by Telltale such as The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead required a few episodes to lay the groundwork for the player to craft their story but Tales From the Borderlands is paced so quickly and effectively that exposition is done on the fly rather than in slow, intense dialogue sessions. This is without question the best-paced and most charming opening to a Telltale game that I have experienced.
I wrote not all that long ago that the cast of Tales from the Borderlands would be star-studded, it very much was and the voice acting experience shows. Troy Baker as Rhys, a Hyperion executive aspiring to be on the same level as Handsome Jack, is yet another brilliant character for the well-known actor to voice. The character is capable of delivering very creative humor and Baker's emotional input helps greatly. Laura Bailey voices the more cynical Fiona, an experienced but relatively unknown Pandoran con artist hoping for a big score. Fiona has less humorous commentary to offer than Rhys but her moments in the first episode tend to be far more serious. Fans may have to keep in mind that living on Pandora shapes a person differently than living as a Hyperion employee. This fact is talked about at several points in the game as making the characters of both settings requires a touch of humanity unseen before in the Borderlands series.
The supporting characters are well voice acted and feel necessary in the conversations. Erin Yvette as Fiona's sister Sasha comes across as the most down to Earth person in the episode despite being a Pandoran criminal. Chad Hardwick as one of Rhys' best friends and his tagalong to Pandora is panicky but resourceful. It is also worth mentioning Patrick Warburton as the current antagonist Vasquez, Rhys' new boss and rival. Warburton delivers a few early one-liners that remind the player what is at stake. The conversations that occur in this game are rife with wry commentary and push the boundaries of anything said before in the Borderlands franchise. The cheap laughs and more juvenile than creative humor of standard Gearbox titles has been replaced with a better-written script. Every character, protagonist, antagonist or supportive, offers the player a meaningful personality to admire or despise. No one is left to fill a roll, rather they all compliment an already impacting cast.
Tales From the Borderlands has an eye on aesthetics and color as the previously earthy palette of older Gearbox games is there but settings are defined more by bright reds or blues. Each of the main cast of characters are also very colorful. The attire of both Rhys and Fiona in particular has many instances of symmetry present, obviously drafted by the art team to make the pair stand out. Pandora is a rather bleak and rundown planet so it is good to see the creative team at Telltale makes it a point to empathize the individuality of each character. The musical score of Tales from the Borderlands near perfectly complements the world of Pandora. The mixture of older Borderlands tracks and electronic ingrains the player in the feeling of a chaotic, fantastic setting.
In previous Telltale titles the creative team sacrificed pacing for minimal exploration. Players could move about a few locations, talk with other and when ready move forward but Tales From the Borderlands removes that old standard. Some may label this more of an "interactive movie" than what would traditionally be considered a game but the creative team made a conscious decision that I believe is paying dividends. The controls seem to be a tad more forgiving than other Telltale titles. There will be a few points that the player may miss a keystroke but the game pace may be the reason it will allow the occasional mistake. Tales from the Borderlands offers more choice for an opening episode, not that all of it is weighty or will be accounted for later but the inventory of each protagonist is meaningful. The moral choices made by the player also feel far different from past titles. Rather than shaping a character or molding relationships Tales from the Borderlands feels as though a general gauge of morality is present. Each protagonist makes decisions that influence their leanings towards loyalty and teamwork rather than just their general demeanor. The game offers no commentary on your choices other than the basic principle that characters will recall the events of the situation, a pleasant change, and the result is giving power to the player to decide what sort of pair Rhys and Fiona becomes overtime.
Tales From the Borderlands comes across more as a test for the player than it does a examination of Telltale. Even if this were not your favorite genre or the Borderlands setting lacks appeal to your personal taste I would recommend this first episode as an introduction to Telltale titles. This episode unequivocally set a new standard for narrative pacing in a Telltale game and should act as a litmus test for whether outsiders would want to play games from this developer. This may not be the role-playing game some gamers expect from every new title but it is one of the strongest Telltale games to date. I consider this title a "must buy" in every way and for the very low price offered I would highly recommend picking up a copy now rather than later.
(Please note: The author purchased the copy used to write this review.)