Tales from the Borderlands Episode 1: Zer0 Sum Review
Telltale Games has built up quite the reputation for, well, storytelling, and the introduction to the first episode of its Tales From The Borderlands speaks to that. History will remember the characters like Handsome Jack, says Marcus, the gun salesman who also introduced the other Borderlands games, but it won’t remember less extreme adventurers like the protagonists of this game. Away from the action of the other Borderlands games, this is the chance to discover one of those smaller stories.
The first scene of the story, as told to the masked man who has the dual protagonists captive, demonstrates Telltale’s determination to fit more believable characters into the pantomime world of Pandora, starting on its moon base Helios. Hyperion may be your archetypal evil corporation, but when its dictatorial president dies, he leaves shoes to be filled and plenty of office politics. Space station setting aside, Rhys’ story is a familiar one, of an office worker trying to make a name for himself while struggling with an unsympathetic boss.
Of course, some events still beggar belief, like Rhys’ ability to dodge bullets like an action movie star, but overall this tale is far more relatable than those in the main Borderlands series. After receiving a “promotion” to assistant vice janitor, Rhys attempts to take revenge on his boss Vasquez by taking his place in a deal to buy a vault key. Naturally, things go wrong, and Rhys and his friend Vaughn team up with the con artists, Fiona and Sasha, to try to reverse their bad fortunes.
As the other protagonist, Fiona also tells her side, which is particularly interesting when the player gets to witness one scene from both perspectives but is mostly used for humour. These unreliable narrators occasionally swap insults and argue over details, and each has the opportunity to lie to their mysterious interrogator. This format also fixes the dissonance of a “Game over”, as the masked man will just say, “And then you died? You sure you want to stick with that story?”
At this stage, Rhys is unlikable, self-centred even if you don’t make him bully his best friend, with Fiona more of a lovable rogue type. But the quality of the voice acting lifts even the blander dialogue, and it’s clearly the relationships between the characters that’ll keep players interested, occasionally in more serious moments – like when Rhys and Sasha discuss her hatred for Hyperion – but mostly in the banter.
Humour is the focus here, and aside from some more typically Borderlands moments – like when a sniper shoots a man and then is apparently killed in turn when a car dropped from Helios lands on him – it’s delivered in regular subtler quips that’ll keep you laughing throughout. “Three years sucking up to the guy, out the window,” muses Rhys at the sight of his previous boss floating in the vacuum outside of Vasquez’s office. And those who’ve played other Borderlands games will be rewarded with in-jokes: “They never stop shooting on this planet, do they?”
Most of the jokes are restricted to either the dialogue or written descriptions that appear when you have Rhys scan objects and people with his Echo Eye, which is probably because this game is even more mechanically straightforward than The Walking Dead, with even less exploration and puzzle solving. At one point you get to choose how to customise a loader bot and then make it shoot bandits, but most of your interactions outside of conversation choices are quick-time events that punctuate the long cutscenes.
Unfortunately, those cutscenes have a few technical problems even in the Xbox One version, with scenes freezing and characters repeating lines or speaking without moving their mouths. Beyond that, there’s a lot more watching than playing, and the quick-time events are spaced out enough that those who aren’t fully invested in what’s going on in the scene are at risk of missing one and having to repeat the sequence.
Of course, that’s only if the quick-time event has a failure state. For some, whether or not you succeed is essentially irrelevant to what happens next: fail to make Rhys kick the bin and Vaughn will trip over it instead, triggering the alarm that informs his colleagues that he’s now a janitor. In true Telltale tradition, that illusion of choice carries through to the rest of the game. Even those character deaths that are possible don’t seem to have much of an effect on subsequent events.
That said, this is just the first episode, and the consequences of those bigger choices won’t reveal themselves until further down the line. With that, the additional mystery of why Rhys’ tech appears to be malfunctioning, and the slow development of the relationships between the characters, it’s worth sticking around for at least another episode to see if the series can keep up momentum.