Review – Tales from the Borderlands: Episode One – Zero Sum

Tales from the borderlands episode one zero sum review
While continuing to adapt high profile media franchises, such as The Walking Dead and the upcoming Game of Thrones, Telltale Games has also found time to bring their episodic adventure game formula to Gearbox’s Borderlands.

Challenging players to get rich or die trying on Pandora offers plenty of familiar sites for seasoned vault hunters, while also extending a friendly invitation to those not familiar with the landscape – where homicidal villains torn from the aesthetic desperation of Mad Max clash with the corporate suits of Hyperion, a company so devoid of conscious that they make the Alien franchises’ Weyland-Yutani corporation look like a fluffy kitten in comparison.

After the heavier subject matter of previous Telltale releases, Tales from the Borderlands offers a chance to embrace the lunacy born of that mix of interests, and Zero Sum suggests that Telltale is all in for having plenty of fun within this chaotic world.


Tales from the borderlands episode one zero sum review
Zero Sum puts players in the shoes of two characters, dividing the play between both as they recount the story that brought them together – all while imprisoned by a mysterious figure. Players will begin as Rhys, a Hyperion employee looking to climb the corporate ladder, and switch over to Fiona, a con-artist trying to survive with her sister on Pandora.

Said play searches for a balance between a well established choice and consequence system seen in previous Telltale releases and quick time prompts that fuel the flow of action sequences. Character interactions will lead to a series of decisions that leave an impression on unfolding events and fellow characters, while action sequences may erupt as a result of decisions, but more often than not, find the means to continually interrupt the familiar dialogue driven formula.

Tales from the borderlands episode one zero sum review
The choices players will make don’t feel quite as severe as with previous Telltale releases, hardly as consistently gut wrenching as those played out in The Walking Dead. While there are a few key moments where a decision will obviously carry some significance, everyone around you is so crazed and deadly it doesn’t seem to matter all that much, at least not in this initial episode.

While this could change dramatically in further episodes, the choices here often find the means to open the door to moments of ludicrous eccentricity – choosing the weapons loadout for a robot to unleash on bandits isn’t heavy on the conscious, but it sure is a recipe for fun.

There are a couple of wonderful moments where either character is given license to embellish the story being told with choices on how they describe what happened next. And there’s a delightful back and forth in the way the initial setup unfolds, where both stories cross paths and sometimes step on one another – where you can witness decisions already made from a second point of view that also brings its own flourishes to events.

Tales from the borderlands episode one zero sum review
The writing here is consistently strong, finding a wealth of humour in the lunacy going on all around Pandora as Telltale finds the means to make us laugh here as much as they made us shed tears with other recent releases.

The “he said” / “she said” narrative feeds this humor, but moreover, the pacing of this story is a quick and snaking affair that raises the stakes to a finale that leaves you taking a breath, not from the exhaustion of choice, but from a ride that challenges you to simply hang on. This writing is aided by a well established voice cast, wherein my favorite treat was discovering Patrick Warburton’s familiar voice serving as the slimy executive that sets the chain of events into motion.

I don’t want to kick the ghost of Lucasarts simply because this is a Telltale release, but I was reminded of both the badassery of Full Throttle and the sharp wit found in so many of those essential early adventure titles.

Where action comes into play, button prompts can keep you off balance, not knowing if a narrative decision or a prompt might be coming, leaving you nervously hovering over all the buttons while waiting to leap into the required action. The time allowed for reaction feels more generous here though – I never missed a prompt during my first or second trip.

Tales from the borderlands episode one zero sum review
There’s an item and cash inventory that doesn’t really come into play here as well, with the game quite purposeful guiding you forward, so there are no head scratching puzzle moments that leave you trying to decide whether you can jam item X into socket Y. On a second playthough, I purposefully didn’t look at something that I knew would reveal a required item, and the game promptly found the means to have another character direct my attention toward it.

Everything is about the flow of events, of keeping the player in the moment and sweating over what’s coming next, though when playing as Rhys, players will be able to take advantage of his echo eye to scan various objects for more information during quieter moments, which insofar as this episode simply provides more space for humor in the descriptions.

Nailing down exactly what this comical action ride provides finds me reaching for some familiar words – that Telltale hasn’t reinvented the wheel that’s brought them this far, rather that they’ve continued to accomplish what they’ve become so well known for. At the heart of this release is a higher level of action wrapping around the weight of choice.

Telltale has embraced the madness of this world where events go sideways only to come right side up again in the blink of an eye, adapting the spirit of Borderlands with the same level of skill demonstrated with previous releases to create a promising start for a story that offers a fresh and genuine gateway to the material.


Developer
Telltale Games

Publisher
Telltale Games

System
Steam (REVIEWED), PC/MAC Digital Download, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, iOS

Modes
Singleplayer

Release Date
November 26, 2014

Price
$4.99 per Episode / Season Pass $24.99 or less (varies by platform)

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review

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