Nothing is What it Seems in Tales from the Borderlands - Preview

By Jake Weston, June 13, 2014
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The subjectivity of memory and the unreliability of narrators are themes we have seen many times in storytelling. Films and TV Shows such as Rashomon, The X-Files, and The Simpsons have employed the use of different perspectives on the same events to great effect, and it’s a wonder why more games have not taken advantage of the technique. 

Leave it up to Telltale Games then, whose work on their adventure game adaptations of The Walking Dead and Fables' The Wolf Among Us have cemented them as the kings game storytelling, to step up to the plate. Even more challenging, however, is that this time around, they are working with Gearbox Software to add a new chapter to the Borderlands universe. 

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Tales of the Borderlands is not a traditional shooter like its Gearbox brethren, rather it's a more classic episode adventure game in the traditional Telltale vein. I sat down with Telltale Games to check out the first 30 minutes of episode 1 of Tales from the Borderlands, and I left confident that this effort would be another successful iteration of the Telltale formula. 

Taking place two years after the end of Borderlands 2, our demo began in a barren wasteland on the desert outskirts of the planet Pandora. Rhys, a smooth-talking employee of the Hyperion Corporation,  has apparently found a Vault (in Borderlands lore, Vaults are secret locations hidden across the galaxy that contain alien technology), but upon discovering the location, a mysterious masked stranger stops Rhys, demanding he tell him how he came to be there. 

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From here, the story flashes back a year, to Rhys hatching a plan with his fellow Hyperion workers to steal funds and use them to purchase a Vault key. It was here we got our first glimpse of gameplay, which mechanically is very similar to previous Telltale efforts. The “timed” dialogue wheel returns, in which players are given a limited time to respond to other characters, giving Rhys a range of responses, including silence, which remains a valid option. Make certain choices, and the game will inform you that characters will make a note of that in the future, a la The Walking Dead

Stylistically, Tales hits all the notes from the Borderlands series, but there are also some similar gameplay elements as well. Fans of the series will be well familiar with the loot chests interspersed all over the lands of Pandora, and they appear in Tales as well. For our demo, we only saw Rhys obtain money from these chests, of which accumulating will give players more options for choices in the future. It will be interesting to see how Tales’ currency system combines itself with Telltale’s classic formula. 

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The most interesting combination of Gearbox’s and Telltale’s gameplay styles occurred during a confrontation between bandits that happened about halfway through the demo. While there is no direct combat, per se - combat is still carried out through quicktime events - Rhys was able to order a custom Loader bot from Hyperion, even using the aforementioned currency to purchase its primary and secondary weapons, before calling it down to unleash hell on the bandits. Our demo presenter elected to choose rocket launchers, and this choice was reflected in the combat scenario that followed. It was unclear to what extent these types of choices will affect the overall story, or how lack of currency would have affected the scenario, but I’m definitely intrigued. 

Bizarrely, the end of our demo featured Rhys ripping another character’s still-beating heart out of his chest, Bruce Lee style, which tonally seemed very jarring compared to everything that came before. However, this was our first glimpse of Rhys’ unreliable narration in action - this section of the episode did take place in the past after all. It was from here that we jumped back into the present, with the other main player-character, Fiona, appearing to give her perspective on the story. Of course, in Fiona's version of the story, Borderlands 2's vault hunter Zer0 showed up to attack our heroes before our demo cut to black, so I'm sure that probably complicates things a bit more.

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Tales from the Borderlands appears to still carry many of the same trappings as previous Telltale Games, such as rudimentary puzzle design and quick-time event based combat, but fans of the studio know that it’s the storytelling that makes or breaks the genre. Borderlands is one of the most unique series of this last generation, and with Tales from the Borderlands, it appears that Telltale’s storytelling chops are a perfect fit. I’m excited to see how the rest plays out when the first episode launches later this year for PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and PS Vita. 

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