Will the real Pandora please stand up?
I’m confused, what I remember of Pandora was shooting monsters on a comic-art styled desert world. Sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, but always hustling for more money, better weapons, and better skills. Handsome Jack? I remember him, barely. Hyperion? OK some of the crates and weapons beared that name. Claptrap? Hilarious! When was Pandora one of the most rockin’ venues in the universe? I guess that can happen when TellTale Games gets a hold of your intellectual property and then makes you… Choose: [Blows Your Mind] / [Rocks Your Socks]
Let me level with you, there are a lot of point and click adventures to chose from. They all tend to eschew hand eye coordination for more impact in storytelling. Leave your reflexes at the door, they will not be required. Light puzzle, problem solving and action elements, must mesh well with a narrative-heavy casual game. Hitting high marks on all of these aspects is far easier outlined than produced. When you are already a fan of the book or television series, drawing into the story becomes that much easier. This is something TellTale Games has picked up on, producing click games based on known IPs has become their niche over the last decade.
So where does Borderlands fit into all this? I was a fan of Borderlands as a shooter, but I would be liying to you if I said I knew anything about the actual story beyond a couple of the NPCs and that one monster who’s head I blew up with that gun thing while invisible. As a shooter, solo or with friends, it was very well done but all about grinding and co-op play with friends. When you convert this shooter into a point and click adventure, you’re taking away its main defining elements; Borderlands is at its core a grindy, FPS ARPG . Do the NPCs in Borderlands have a deep complex backstory? Can you craft a whole story around one of the games most memorable enemies and some offbeat quips? I would have thought the entire endeavor the perfect recipe for disaster. What came to mind before playing this was a game with several awkwardly placed first person shooter moments, or an over use of QTEs for fighting bosses and looting vaults.
Borderlands comic-book like aesthetics would make mimicking that art style a walk in the park for TellTale Games. However, much more detail was added to Pandora and its denizens compared to the shooters. These details elevate the universe, and while over the top at times, Tales’s version of Pandora is much more human than I would have thought possible. Grinding for items is replaced with a genuine interest for developing character arcs and pivotal dilemmas. Static respawning enemy locations, have been replaced with ruthless psychopathic influences that exposes how vulnerable most of us would be if suddenly dropped in the middle of Prosperity Junction.
Shirtless masked psychos maul anything that moves, leaving the remains as blood spurting fountains. Someone doesn’t pay their bar tab? Standard policy on this world is to take them out back and shoot them in the face. Long time best friends will sell each other out to a murderous crime boss for a shiny new shotgun. This barbarism isn’t limited to Pandora, as the corporate scene up on the Hyperion space station is equally treacherous. Corporate executives may find themselves frozen and floating in space because they were seeking promotion. A secretary may slip down a chute filled with spinning saws and deadly spikes for taking the wrong message.
Yet for all the blood thirsty elements, this is also a universe where two grown men bro-fist each other for five straight minutes, and it was just the perfect zen moment. The kind of universe where a giant industrial loading robot (named Loader Bot) becomes one of the more inadvertently charismatic and heroic characters around. The only place where a squeaky voiced megalomaniac with a subwoofer implanted in his chest can call home. It’s a place where space accountants play imaginary finger shooting games, and take it seriously. It’s the kind of universe where stealing ten million space bucks isn’t as important as who’s buying lunch. It’s the kind of place I found myself bursting out laughing, shaking my butt to the music, and getting a little misty-eyed with on more than one occasion.
Tales from the Borderlands starts off mostly in a past tense. A bounty hunter captures and holds the story’s two protagonists in captive. Dragging them through the hostile wastes asking questions about prior events. You decide how the pieces of this story fall into place from two differing perspectives as you play Rhys or Fiona. This small nuance does more than mask your typical “Game Over” screens replacing them instead with “Wait that’s not how it really happened” voice overs. “There’s two sides to every story” proverb is in full effect with Tales, oft with tongue-in-cheek differences between the contrasting versions.
One side of the coin is Rhys and Vaughn, two friends working for the enormous and powerful Hyperion corporation. Rhys has had a few futuristic upgrades courtesy of his company. A bionic arm and artificial eye that allow Rhys to scan computers and hack terminals with relative ease. Rhys has been working his way up the corporate ladder and was about to receive a substantial promotion. Instead you come face to face with your pompous corporate nemesis, Vasquez. This treacherous employee ejected Rhys’s former boss out of an airlock, immediately prior to taking his position. His first major corporate directive is to demote Rhys to head VP of janitorial services.
Devastated Rhys explains the situation to his best friend Vaughn, a scrawny accountant who has been investing time and energy into slyly manipulating corporate elements to push Rhys into as an obvious choice for top executive. At the climax of this conversation, Vaughn accidentally trips over a trash can, and the station’s overhead speakers blare out for VP of Janitorial Rhys to clean up the mess. Having hacked Vasquez’s terminal during his demotion speeches. Rhys learns of a 10,000,000 dollar deal for an important vault key. Rhys intends to intercept that deal as a way to get to the top of the corporate ladder.
Flipping the spectrum, there’s the charismatic con artist Fiona. Together with her sister, Sasha, the two have been carving out an existence on the Pandoran wastelands- through mostly dishonest means. Orphaned as kids, they were reduced to petty pickpocketing and scrounging. Until they tried to steal from Felix, a master con, who instead of exacting revenge, took them in. The three formed a makeshift family, with the same unified goal of procuring the “big one,” that major heist, that will allow them to leave Pandora once and for all.
Obviously these two sides will meet, and even at this early junction in the game, I was hooked.. Who makes it to the end, who helps you in the end, who is left alive, and who dies are a wide array of possibilities. When it was all over I came to realize there were a handful of characters I didn’t even meet. Others were too dead to help with the climactic final. These alternate options did not seem like possibilities in my initial playthrough.
Other narrative games pull your focus into one single character as you manipulate their choices hoping for the best possible outcome. When playing as two characters, things changed for me. You end up playing decisions off the other character, weighing how the other character or the group as whole would fare with my decisions. These choices do matter, at times in Tales, these choice have an immediate impact for the other character you play.
If you needed a vehicle in the Borderlands shooter, head on over to a vehicle station and press a button. In Tales from the Borderlands, you actually meet Scooter, the owner of the “Catch-a-Ride” vehicle franchise. Scooter’s personality has a touch of southern humility and charm. You’ll undoubtedly pick on Scooter’s slight naivety, but most will miss how pure and pivotal this minor character can be until it has passed on by. Athena, Felix, Sasha, Vazquez, and all of the side characters end up holding a great deal of ability to carry the story- and that’s something that I just love about this game. Nothing and no one feels tacked on or forced. No character feels flimsy or useless. None of their performances were trite or disingenuous. Which in turn made some of the choices in the game, very difficult. Attachments were formed, and how often can you say that about fictional video game characters?
It’s really all about the choices. The obvious fork in the morale road is telegraphed in most of these choose your own path type of games. Not so with Tales, these either-or scenarios are obfuscated between jokes and other dialog decisions much better than before. Further adding to the ambiguity, it is not always clear who can actually form a part of your group. Not all characters are black and white. No one stands high on the morality scale by any means. Realizations on characters made me realize that I had misjudged them, but it was too late as my choices lead to their elimination from my Tales from the Borderlands experience.
Choices are a major part of games in this genre, but having feelings about matters doesn’t always go hand in hand. Remorse? Who feels remorseful over a video game character that you allowed to die? Love? I loved the friendships I had formed between the characters, but that is a rarity in a video game. Laughing like an eight year old boy who hasn’t slept in 17 hours at some of these ludicrous moments is a rare occurrence for a near forty year old man playing a video game. I loathed some of the villains in this game, yet could not escape some of the inherent truths they were putting forth. Speaking of a moral dilemma, when you find yourself agreeing with a psychopath more than once, what does that mean?
This game uses subtle touches, significant interjections of humor, and moral quandaries with hazy unforeseeable outcomes with the sum effect of making you forget you are watching a comic book. It makes you forget that you are simply slapping a couple of buttons during QTE sequences, and that’s it when it comes to game reflexes. You forget that you are you, just for a moment. You are a Pandoran, and it’s time to do what’s right, wrong, or what is dastardly…but this wouldn’t be possible without top notch writing, excellent presentation, and flat out fun moments that rival well made television programs.
I know I am not alone, Tales From the Borderlands has picked up quite a following. Guys, gals, teens, old, casual, and hardcore, Tales has struck a profound cord with gamers, one that wasn’t there with the Borderlands shooters. It’s possible that we all have a friend like Vaughn, who is flawed and cowardly, but our friend and confidant all the same. Could there be a little Fiona hustle within us all? Who wouldn’t want to take their automobile to a Catch a Riiiiiiide shop withto hang out with Scooter? And which one of us wouldn’t love their own Gortys and Loader Bot waiting at for us at home? Regardless, some or all of these elements will be something most will relate too. Thats what makes Tales from the Borderlands special.
Yes, Tales is a mere “Choose Your Own Adventure” novelized game, but dynamic and interwoven to a higher degree. It demands to be replayed. Tales shows off the experience from this group of writers and artists; who’ve have been at this genre for years. It was one of the best gaming experiences I had this year. One that I am glad I waited to play until all of its episodes were released. Despite my initial reservations, this game proves that a great story is a great story, regardless if you were into the series previously or not. Looking at Telltale’s upcoming lineup of more Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Batman, I am saddened by a lack of upcoming Tales of the Borderlands 2 news. There is no reason not to hope. Tales of the Borderlands has made a loyal fan out of this reviewer. So head onto your distribution platform of choice and Catch a Riiiiiideee!