Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 – Zer0 Sum
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Genre: Interactive Drama
Release Date: 11/25/2014
The people at 2K and Telltale Games are pretty much best buds or something. We’ve seen Claptrap in a Poker Night game, and now Telltale is giving Borderlands their own special treatment. Instead of a open world cooperative shooter, Tales from the Borderlands is an interactive drama. It puts emphasis on story, player choice, and as little actual game mechanics as seemingly possible. That formula has done wonders for the company so far. The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us have raked in the cash and critical acclaim. The Borderlands universe is ripe for the picking for this treatment. The setting is unique, the characters are wacky, and there’s really no limit to what you can do. As odd as it many sound, this might actually be a match made in heaven.
Rather than tie you down to one character, TFTB gives you two main characters to play. Rhys is a Hyperion stooge trying to finally earn that big promotion, and Fiona is a Pandoran con artist. As the story sets out, Rhys’ arch rival snakes a promotion out from under him and demotes him to janitor. Rhys and his friends take matters into their own hands when they travel down to Pandora in order to steal a score from said rival and get back into the winner’s circle. When we meet Fiona, she and her group of thieves are setting up for the score of a lifetime. These two groups inevitably meet and all hell breaks loose.
Zer0 Sum is all about introducing these characters and putting them into the crazy world of Borderlands. Psychos can attack at any minute, death races are a popular past time, and you just never know when a vault hunter is going to show up and start killing everything. The game wastes little time in getting the action going. One minute you’re kicking trash cans out of frustration, and then the next you’re battling bandits using a stun baton.
What makes this whole thing work is the strong writing. While not “likable” per se, the characters are well fleshed out and interesting. They’re not simply archetypes played up for comedic effect. The supporting cast is equally as strong, and I can’t wait to see how this story plays out. The overall plot of the story is only getting started here, so it’s hard to judge it as a whole. This is certainly a great beginning. It’s also hysterical, but you probably guessed that from the Borderlands name.
Visually, the game works great. The cell-shaded art style of Borderlands lends itself well to the Telltale look. You could even be forgiven for thinking you were just watching a cutscene from one of the FPS games. That being said, the animations are a bit stiff and there’s an issue with words not syncing up with lips. The game also has the typical TT technical issues. It will pause frequently to load up variations of speech, words will be cut off, and sometimes the sound will go on without the video. These problems are constant, but the fantastic art style makes up for it.
The audio department is where the game really shines though. Featuring the voices of Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Chris Hardwick, and Patrick Warburton, the cast is truly top notch. Add in the crazed rants of the psychos, the ethereal effects of Zero’s abilities, and the rocking soundtrack, and it’s a recipe for success. The only problem I had was sometimes the voices got drowned out by the music. Still, I can honestly say this is one of the best sounding games I’ve played all year.
Speaking of “game”, let’s talk about how this thing works.
When it comes to mechanics, the game is lacking. For the most part, you’re a spectator. When you do get to chime in, you have two primary methods. During conversations, you’ll be presented with four different options. You can pick any of them or remain silent, but you only have a brief window to choose. The conversations will differ slightly based on your choices, but the overall plot is largely unaffected. During action sequences, you’ll have to rotate the analog stick or press buttons as they pop onto the screen. Failing these doesn’t always lead to death, but death can happen. It will just send you back a few seconds though. It’s kind of like a two hour quick time event.
There are some big choices to be made. These pop up during big moments in the story, and pause the game to let you carefully choose how you wish to proceed. When this happens, there are only a couple of choices. For example, Fiona carries a small pistol with just one bullet. A couple of these big choices ask you whether or not you want to use that bullet. Again, these choices don’t seem to affect the story at large, but do allow you to roleplay a bit.
Occasionally, you’ll be allowed to move around and explore a bit. Don’t get too excited though. When this happens, you have maybe a hallway you can walk down or something. When playing as Rhys, you can press L1 to use his cybernetic eye. This allows you to scan various items for flavor text. When using Fiona, she can keep track of her bank account. There are points in the story when you can spend money to equip different accessories. It’s not much, but it is nice.
As usual with any Telltale game, part of the fun in making your big choices is comparing these choices with others. The game keeps track of what you did, and at the end of the episode you can see how many people went the same way you did. It’s certainly interesting, but at this point it would be great to get even more complex. I wouldn’t mind seeing how many people took the exact same path as me.
So far, this season is looking good. The thing with Telltale games is that they have pretty much eschewed as much gameplay as possible in favor of storytelling. The trick is that the story has to be worth telling. So far, TFTB has a great story that makes you want to keep going. Let’s just hope the momentum can be kept, and that TT can pump out the episodes in a timely manner for once.
Short Attention Span Summary
Zero Sum is a great start to a new season of Telltale’s unique way of telling stories. The Borderlands franchise fits this style like a glove thanks to a fully realized world and zany characters. The technical issues that have plagued other TT games are still present, and your choices still don’t seem to have as much an impact as they should. However, the story is pretty great and well worth the trip. This will certainly be an interesting five chapters if nothing else.