Tales from the Borderlands has gone from amusing spin-off to essential viewing.
I really like Tales from the Borderlands so I’ve decided to tell you that again. Some light spoilers ahead; I won’t discuss anything you won’t already have picked up from Episode 4 trailers and screenshots released to date.
Nobody can afford to live alone in Sydney and everybody I know there works in games media or the games industry, which is why I used to share house with a 2K staffer. You may feel that colours my reception of Borderlands products so I like to remind you of it periodically.
Borderlands is great in general, and I think it’s under-appreciated in many ways. It has some really interesting lore and characters, but that all gets forgotten in the mad rush of co-op, the expectations of shooter audiences, and the dancing robot nonsense.
Some of this is the player’s fault for not playing the game “properly” (LOL), but a lot of it is on Gearbox for not doing a very job of presenting its material in an attractive way appropriate to the genre. Have you seen that great developer diary where Gearbox says it did a rubbish job? That’s why it handballed to Telltale.
And thank goodness it did. I’m rapidly elevating Tales from the Borderlands up my ranking of every Telltale series to date, because it’s excellent. It’s hard to believe it’s built on the same clunky engine as the developer’s other titles, and the blend of the Borderlands and Telltale art styles has worked out beautifully.
The latest instalment, Episode 4: Escape Plan Bravo, launched this week and I devoured it in one sitting. It is the best one yet.
I say it’s the best one yet because it had several very memorable moments. If pressed I could vaguely regurgitate the plot of the previous three episodes but I know that I will be thinking about Episode 4 for weeks.
This episode does something very, very bold in apparently killing off a prominent character – not just from Tales from the Borderlands, but from the core Borderlands series to date. That alone makes it suddenly essential to the franchise, given that Gearbox is pretty adamant that dead characters do not come back to life, but the scene itself is also very touching.
Another moment I doubt I will ever forget (unfortunately) occurs when Rhys has to get hold of a detached face. I won’t go into detail here, but the scene where he retrieves the face is beautifully and subtly gruesome, conveyed with pace, sound effects and character reactions rather than red sauce spurting all over the screen. You can almost feel its texture. I have an overactive imagination and immediately wondered about how it would feel to chew on a detached face (not without precedent).
The third bit I especially liked takes place in Helios, Hyperion’s local headquarters, when Rhys is douching it up with his douchebag colleagues. Telltale does a wonderful job of sending up corporate culture through the series, but it all comes to a head when a finger gun battle escalates into a full-blown shoot out with the entire accounting department.
It was one of the most beautifully choreographed firefights I have ever seen in a video game, and it occurred to me that if it had been “real” – if Rhys had actually been shooting his Hyperion colleagues – I would have been making exactly the same gestures, because Telltale adventures are not action games and action games bear about as much resemblance to real combat as they do to rural dog shows.
This seemed very meta to me, but it also made me wonder why Tales from the Borderlands, a game in which you are given the illusion of meaningful choice but basically follow a linear path and have almost no control over navigation or pacing, feels so engaging.
One of these days I’m going to sit down and figure out how exactly Tales of the Borderlands achieves this with almost no “gameplay”. I found Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture much less compelling, even though it arguably grants the player more genuine agency. It can’t just be the minimal decision making, because otherwise linear a game like Volume wouldn’t be the perfect little gem that it is.
My theory? The whole thing is just really nicely paced, trotting along briskly with plenty of jokes and drama, a balance of high tension and quiet moments, and a sense of purpose. The characters are grounded and human, with easily grokked motivations. And of course, the Borderlands universe is bonkers fun.
Plus, the music is excellent – perfectly capturing the feel of Gearbox’s trailers and the Borderlands universe in general. Dang, Telltale. More of this, please.