James Stephanie Sterling
Tales from the Borderlands Episode One: Zer0 Sum Review
A captivating start to what’s looking set to be a damn fun series.
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Format: iOS, PC (reviewed), PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Released: November 25, 2014
Copy supplied by publisher
The announcement of a Borderlands episodic game series in the same style as Telltale’s The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us was… surprising, to say the least. In fact, news of its development was met with a lot of puzzled skepticism, as people tried to imagine the loot-driven shooter turned into a slower, more considered, story-heavy adventure game. It pleases me to say, then, that Telltale has come out strong with the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands, demonstrating that its particular brand of narrative gameplay can be applied to the most unlikely of premises and still feel totally natural. Zer0 Sum makes it seem as if Borderlands was born for the adventure game treatment, and gives Gearbox’s universe a much-needed dose of added personality.
In a little over two hours of story, Tales from the Borderlands does more to flesh out the world of Pandora than its three first-person shooter predecessors put together. While the main Borderlands games have plenty of funny dialog and several memorable characters, they’ve never done much to expand upon the history and culture of their in-game universe. In Tales, the various psychos and raiders that historically act as so much cannon fodder are given some substance, transforming Pandora from a glorified, intensely “game-like” shooting gallery into something a little more believable. Yes, they’re all still characterized as deranged, chaotic evil bad guys, but getting to see them in their own environments, capable of at least some higher thought and affable personality traits, makes a huge difference. This in turn leads to an overall funnier environment – the hyper-violent atmosphere of Pandora is played for macabre laughs, as we get the sense it’s the “bad part of town” for the entire universe, and the contrast between the two protagonists’ reactions to it – one a fresh-faced Hyperion executive, the other a cynical, lifelong Pandoran resident – works extremely well.
Zer0 Sum is a lighthearted caper story at its core, as a group of morally questionable characters form a tense alliance after a con job goes wrong. Company man Rhys steals ten million dollars from Hyperion in order to obtain a Vault Key, a deal influenced by scam artist Fiona. The fallout of their meeting makes up the majority of the story, with Rhys and Fiona, along with their respective partners Vaughn and Sasha, trying to fix their mutual mistakes while avoiding getting horrifically murdered. With some genuinely funny moments, likable characters, and a classic crime comedy structure, Rhys and Fiona’s adventure is not the heartbreaking, depressing stuff you’d find in The Walking Dead, but all that effective emotional baggage has been replaced with equally successful humor. While I didn’t find any true belly laughs, the jokes all pretty much landed well – I got a good chuckle from some of the well-timed physical goofs, while Rhys’ fish-out-of-water schtick and pitiful inability to handle Pandoran violence is most pleasing. The reliance on established characters is minimal (it’s obvious from the title that Zer0 shows up), and the all-new ones introduced for Tales are all very well defined. Of particular note is the dubstep-blasting, sonic-powered bandit leader Bossanova, who I wish had gotten more screen time.
Rhys and Fiona exist to tell the story from different perspectives, and the “unreliable narrator” trope kicks in, as they contradict each other while presenting the bulk of the narrative in flashback form. Fundamentally, there’s no difference between the two, as Telltale’s by-now codified gameplay is used. Our two protagonists deal with most situations via dialog choices, and characters remember what was said while choices may effect later events and episodes. Some of these decisions are felt crucially throughout this episode, as it becomes possible to collect cash and save items for use later down the line. For example, Fiona can choose to steal some money and thus have more in her wallet when it comes time to buy something later, allowing for the purchase of a more expensive item. Similarly, she has a gun with a single bullet, and there are multiple opportunities to use it throughout the episode, giving her less or more options depending on when it’s been spent. Tales takes the opportunity to poke fun at Telltale’s own mechanics, too, with references to how a character’s face “will remember that” should you choose to slap them, among other fourth-wall breaking nods.
Rhys has one little unique trick up his sleeve, possessed as he is of a cybernetic eye that can scan data. While there are times when its use is compulsory, one can utilize it in optional situations, allowing the player to get a little extra background information on people and objects. It doesn’t have a dramatic effect on the story, but its a nice little extra.
These enhancements aside, anybody who has played a prior Telltale adventure will know what’s up. Choose one’s retorts wisely, influence the story, and get into the occasional quick-time event when the action ramps up. Rhys’ action sequences are given an extra kick by the ability to call down a Hyperion Loader robot, which can be customized with weapon choices. Again, the choices don’t have a huge impact on progress, but it’s fun to kit up the Loader how you want and create something a little unique to you, plus it does influence exactly how the Loader fights and thus provides some satisfyingly tailored carnage. I’m particularly interested to learn where Tales is going with the Loader, as its suggested the entire line of Hyperion robots are evolving in unexpected ways following the events of Borderlands 2.
That latter point is indicative of something else I dig about this game – it already comes across as more than a disposable spin-off, with a plot that ties into the main Borderlands canon in both direct and indirect ways. As well as giving hints at a far bigger narrative throughout, we get to see how Hyperion is dealing with Handsome Jack’s fate, and Episode One‘s ending provides a revelation that’ll have fans quite excited for what’s to come. It’s clear that the events of these five episodes will be a big part of Borderlands overall, and with its extra emphasis on narrative and accomplished world building, that can only be a good thing.
As with other games in Telltale’s recent library, there are still weird stutters and graphical glitches that show up, particularly when transitioning from one camera angle to the next. While I’m on the complaints section, a few parts of the story feel rushed through somewhat, with a couple scenes glossed over quickly, and one particular character twist toward the end coming out of nowhere and being resolved just as unceremoniously. Hopefully future episodes will be able to give the plot more time to simmer now that the introductory premise is established and the driving plot is in place.
Voice performances are excellent across the board, with the expected one-two punch of Troy Baker and Laura Bailey doing great turns as the anti-heroes, while the inimitable Patrick Warburton hams it up as corrupt executive Vasquez. The support cast are all fun, with particular accolades going to the various unsung actors who provide the voices for the bandits throughout. Pandora’s masked maniacs are a big source of humor, especially the more deadpans ones, and I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more of them in future.
Tales from the Borderlands Episode One: Zer0 Sum is a great start to the series. It brings Borderlands to life in promising new ways, it’s genuinely funny, and it has a terrific cast. The choices one makes are naturally not as gut-wrenching as those found in Telltale’s darker games, but that doesn’t really matter. This proves that the studio doesn’t need to rely on heartstrings to provide a quality experience, and if it keeps up this level of distinguished characterization and sturdy humor in future installments, I’d say we’ve got another episodic winner on our hands.
Also, it’s got the coolest intro and theme song since Borderlands first opened with Cage the Elephant. Believe that!