Review: Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 – Zer0 Sum

Comedy and drama seem to exist on opposite ends of the narrative spectrum. Often times, purposely injecting humor into a dramatic tale, or vise versa, feels inorganic and forced. The most talented writers find a way to teeter along the proverbial fence separating the two extremes, masterfully blending suspense and absurdity. In recent years, Telltale Games has shown us that it has the capability of penning spectacular dramatic stories, as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us consistently keep players on the edges of their seats. With Tales from the Borderlands‘ first episode “Zer0 Sum,” a series set in the Borderlands universe that actually requires no investment in the original shooters, the heralded narrative development studio has shown that their writing chops extend far further than mere drama. What’s more, when you’re not laughing at one of the numerous chuckle-inspiring moments, you’ll find yourself actually caring about the fate of your lovable group of galactic misfits.

Rather than beginning the discussion with the “where” of Tales from the Borderlands, it’s simpler to start with the “who.” Players take the role of both Rhys (Troy Baker), a snarky Hyperion employee desperately seeking to work his way up the corporate ladder, and Fiona (Laura Bailey), a sarcastic resident of Pandora aiming to literally scrape together a living. The two protagonists never cease to be entertaining, so much so that it’s almost impossible to decide which is more endearing. Rhys plays the classic charismatic fool role to perfection while Fiona’s remarkably quick wit and strong sense of self make her one of the best characters of the year, female or otherwise. “Zer0 Sum” begins with Rhys and Fiona both taking turns telling their side of a Vault Key deal gone wrong before their tale of misfortune ultimately turns into a singular affair. This is one of the longer Telltale episodes in recent memory, clocking in at roughly two-and-a-half hours, so the protagonist-swapping technique manages to make every moment feel fresh. There’s never an instance where one is tempted to check his or her watch or wish something else was happening.

If you’re concerned that Tales from the Borderlands requires a deep appreciation for the original series, you’ll be happy to know that it functions brilliantly as a stand-alone tale. Rather than making revolving the narrative around vault-hunters, strange entities, and overwhelming villains, “Zer0 Sum” begins a tale focused around citizens who happen to exist in this environment. It’s a wonderful reminder that a given imagined universe is only as deep as that which is present within it. You don’t have to be a fan of the loot-heavy, first-person shooter gameplay of Borderlands and Borderlands 2 (we’ll just forget about that little moon mishap for the sake of this review) to enjoy the banter between Rhys and Fiona. You simply have to enjoy a human story littered with well-written humor.

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Telltale should be applauded for being able to take the intensity of their past titles (after all, there are dozens of times in which Rhys and Fiona could lose their lives) and combine it with some of the funniest moment-to-moment storytelling of 2014. From Loaderbot’s absurd deadpan dialogue to the human embodiment of awkwardness that is Shade, it’s almost impossible to go five minutes without cracking a smile. Even the dialogue choices give players the opportunity to opt for the ridiculous, as evidenced by Fiona’s soon-to-be-infamous “I have the fanciest meat bicycle” line. Tales from the Borderlands brilliantly uses humor to hook players in from the beginning, though its true accomplishment is being able to maintain its comical nature without lessening its impact. Sure, you’ll likely find your face awash with joy, but without its well-crafted narrative this would all be for naught.

The greatest strength of a good story is its ability to keep its consumers coming back for more. The drive to find out what’s coming next is what makes us read an entire novel in a day, binge-watch a full season of television, or marathon through a massive game in a weekend. Tales from the Borderlands, perhaps more so than any other Telltale series, will leave players guessing. While playing through the first episode, it’s hard not to find yourself wondering what’s going to end up happening once Fiona and Rhys finish their individual Vault Key stories. You know there’s going to be more, there’s just no tangible indication of what the next bit of content is going to be. Once the story begins to evolve further, this question of what’s going to come next remains present all the way until the end of the episode. There’s no true way to know what’s going to become of Rhys, Fiona, and the rest of the characters introduced in “Zer0 Sum”‘s 180 minutes, but dammit if Telltale didn’t give us overwhelming evidence indicating its high quality.

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Of course, Tales from the Borderlands is still technically a video game, so its mechanics warrant mentioning. “Zer0 Sum” seems to feature far more quick-time events than past Telltale episodes, though these lack the intriguing options seen during some of the fight sequences in The Wolf Among Us (namely those seen in fight against Grendel in the Trip Trap). While these moments are noticeably smoother on PlayStation 4 than past titles have been on previous generation consoles, players likely won’t be flocking to Tales from the Borderlands for its gameplay. Each of the two characters has a specific gameplay mechanic that affects how he or she interacts with the environment. Rhys has the ability to scan important items in the environment with his biomechanical eye, while Fiona obtains money which she uses to purchase items that can affect her side of the story. Through one episode, Rhys’ scanning ability seems far more useful and entertaining than Fiona’s penny-pinching skills. Perhaps this was a personal issue, but in my playthrough I only managed to amass $10, even though a later choice suggested that I had the opportunity to find significantly more. At this point, the power to find crucial items in the environment, or simply read a few sentences of hysterical garbage, far outweighs the ability to buy new items.

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Closing Comments:

Tales from the Borderlands isn’t just a superb entry point into what appears to be a captivating story, it has the potential to be Telltale’s best work since the first season of The Walking Dead. There’s absolutely no need to be scared off by its title, as zero Borderlands admiration is necessary to enjoy this rousing romp of misfortune. By seamlessly weaving creative humor, some of which is entirely player-driven, into a narrative that constantly leaves players guessing, “Zer0 Sum” is as good of a pilot as we’ve seen in an episodic game. Regardless of where Rhys and Fiona’s ridiculous journey take them next, hysterical one-liners, tense moments, and intense struggles are sure to follow. The biggest question here isn’t whether or not Tales from the Borderlands is worth your time; it’s when will Telltale’s incredible run finally come to an end?