Okay, we get it, the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead was really good. It changed the way the industry views episodic gaming, its heart-wrenching story brought thousands to the brink of tears and it reinvigorated the adventure game genre. It’s a supremely interesting title that will be forever viewed as important and wonderful (if you can call a truly depressing game wonderful), but its reign as the best Telltale offering might just be coming to a close. The first episode of Tales from the Borderlands was equal parts hilarious, gripping, dramatic and arguably the strongest debut in Telltale history. Its second episode, Atlas Mugged, brings us more of the same, and while it doesn’t necessarily hit quite as hard as Episode 1, it’s a brilliant continuation to what is rapidly shaping up to be the best adventure game in quite some time.
Episode One set the scene for not only the ridiculous double-narrated story at the core of Tales from the Borderlands, but it also established its heralded tone. Not only is there a layer of drama to Rhys and Fiona’s quirky quest for a Vault Key, but Telltale was finally able to show the audience that tension isn’t their only talent. While small jokes were inserted into other Telltale series, Tales from the Borderlands used humor as its biggest calling card. Every other line was delivered sarcastically, the hilarious character introduction screens the Borderlands series is known for were cranked up to another level. Atlas Mugged included a great deal of comedy from moment one; we’re instantly reminded of the type of game we’re playing when Rhys and Fiona have a humorous back-and-forth based on the always disgusting ideal of shoulder drool. Telltale feels way more self-aware than ever before, with the initial line of dialogue poking fun at the four month waiting period between episodes. It’s random quips like these that make Tales from the Borderlands a clear example of Telltale’s writing chops, proving that Episode One wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Every moment feels like an avenue for stress relief, which not only lifts the mood, but allows Telltale’s creativity to shine.
Atlas Mugged‘s story revolves around the discovery of the Gortys Project, a mysterious collection of ancient Atlas technology that theoretically holds the secret behind the Vault Key at the core of the conflict. In order to discover what the strange machinery that arose at the end of the first episode, Fiona has to subsequently pry out a man’s eyeball with a spork, drive away from a Rakk Hive, and deal with Rhys growing lunacy. Well, let’s actually correct that last aspect. To everyone else, Rhys is becoming a bona fide lunatic, but in reality he’s the only person able to see the now-deceased Handsome Jack in hologram form.
Our lovable crew journeys to Old Haven where everything goes haywire; Vasquez, a number of psychos and bounty hunters, and the woefully ignorant August all make humorous appearances as well. Fiona continues to be the gold standard for a strong female protagonist that isn’t overly sexualized, which, combined with the inclusion of a charming (but somewhat evil) lesbian couple should please those looking for video games, as a medium, to evolve. The ending of the first episode left every possibility wide open, and Atlas Mugged manages to expand upon that foundation while still allowing the writers to travel in any direction they please. There was always that chance that the second episode’s narrative wouldn’t live up to the mastery that was that of the first’s, but Atlas Mugged shows that this is a story here to stay. If you’re looking for any semblance of predictability, Tales from the Borderlands is certainly not for you.
One of the best aspects of Tales from the Borderlands‘ debut was its ability to build upon the foundation of the original shooters without requiring in-depth knowledge of that universe. The fact that Atlas Mugged includes more detailed aspects of Borderlands and Borderlands 2 isn’t necessarily a flaw, but it feels a bit disingenuous after its debut. Scooter and all of his incestuous, pornography-loving stupidity appears in full form, and while his dialogue doesn’t necessitate any Borderlands knowledge, every aspect of this interaction is improved with some background facts. Perhaps most egregiously, the ending of Borderlands 2 is fully spoiled at one point, and though revealing the ending of a 2011 game isn’t the be-all-end-all of spoiler crimes, it’s a shame to think those who want to try the original games will find themselves disappointed. There probably wasn’t any way to explain Handsome Jack’s appearance without ruining Borderlands 2, but those who wanted to pick up next week’s Borderlands: The Handsome Collection will already know the ending to the first title included. Again, this isn’t necessarily some sort of fatal flaw, but Tales from the Borderlands is starting to get away from being a spectacular standalone series to a spectacular series based partially on fan-service.
There’s a bit more active gameplay in Atlas Mugged, which causes it to feel like more like the first season of The Walking Dead than The Wolf Among Us. You’ll explore an Old Haven street looking for power boxes; there are a number of quicktime events that, when failed, alter the story slightly. Hell, you’ll even have to shoot out a window using rudimentary third-person shooting mechanics (don’t worry, this isn’t nearly as horrible as it sounds). The small fortune that players have been saving up while playing as Fiona finally gets its time to shine, with purchases, haggling, and looting all coming into play at some point. This mechanic felt largely useless in the first episode, so the fact that Telltale was able to quickly explain cash-collecting was quite smart. Now, some of the slower-paced exploration falls a bit flat compared to the high-octane, humorous nonsense that makes Tales from the Borderlands so exciting, which is definitely a bit disappointing. To be perfectly fair, these lulls don’t take too much away from the overall quality of Atlas Shrugged, but it’s still a bit odd to see moments that feel a bit more like chores than gripping narrative scenes.
The second episode of Tales from the Borderlands strikes the right balance between setting up for the future and building upon the strengths of Zer0 Sum. It’s not the borderline masterpiece that was the debut, but it isn’t as far off as one might think. Telltale’s latest episode shows that Tales from the Borderlands is an adventure that can serve as an entry point to this unique genre, as its mix of action, humor and tension are gripping enough to keep anybody entertained. Whether or not Atlas Mugged hits as hard as Zer0 Sum is irrelevant; the fact that this series is shaping up to be something brilliant is the more important point here.