The Simple Shut in
Gosh darn it, Tales From the Borderlands deserved a second season, dinit? But nooooo Telltale had to go and do terrible things to REAL people...posers!
Telltale Games rumbled too hard and fumbled too frequently to follow through with a lot of promises like, you know, basic corporate humanity practices. In that context, it’s a struggle to care about the plight of digital characters.
But games are a special, agile space that can flux and pulse to just about any beat. They’re one of the largest accepted versions of magic still practiced, after all. Earth is optional in those lands. Tales From the Borderlands walks the line of parody Earth with Rhys and Fiona coming from inside the richly diabolical world of Borderlands. As it turns out, this is the vacation that we never knew we wanted and that Telltale Games was never quite able to top again.
Our dual protagonists serve as storytellers and experiencers rolled into one. Both are fueled by the same type of blind bravado that takes over many Borderlands characters, but this is the longest we’re really given with a pair of them. That allows their other character traits to shine over a developed arc. Fiona is an established con artist by time we take control with her sister Sasha along for the smooth-talking ride. Yet, she deepens and makes some full turns as a character that, no matter which direction you swing her, creates a satisfying conclusion.
Rhys is a low-level Hyperion dope clawing upwards in the wake of Handsome Jack’s death and shows a very different temperament by the end of it all. For all fans that maybe had some character fatigue from the Borderlands troupe, Tales From the Borderlands is proof that there’s a bit of oil just beneath the surface if you’re willing to just pump (amiright?).
Rhys’ partner from accounting is Vaughn, who ends up serving as a really good springboard for both of their characters. While Troy Baker’s Rhys is played to be more of a grumbler than a doer, he has some ability and moxie early on. Vaughn, meanwhile, is guileless and meek. He cowers from all impact and conflict, often running with arms defenselessly in the air. Multiple conversations come up to where Vaughn compares himself to Rhys, and there’s usually an option for Rhys to recoil or placate him. Either way, Vaughn is undoubtedly treated as the lowest point for any character in the game, and all of the main characters are either swimming against that tide or extending that space cushion.
Just as intriguing is the sisterly-slant from Laura Bailey's Fiona and Sasha, played by Erin Yvette. They're con artists in the most devoted sense, living an almost gypsy lifestyle and looking for the biggest score of their lives everywhere. Opportunity (not the city) leads these two specifically to follow through without a lot of really worn tropes or emotional side quests. Their growth happens alongside one another with support. That's pretty awesome in a world full of face pizza.
That creates a dynamic hoists up all of the other characters just wanting to be “more badass”, and you know what? No other pair world could pull it off as well as Telltale and Gearbox did here.
That’s because Tales From the Borderlands has a creative heart pumping behind it all. Having both characters unreliably narrating their experiences leads to full-on hilarity from time to time, including one of Telltale’s best moments ever in episode 2. It’s a shame that it’s abandoned almost completely after that without any fill-in. What’s left is still very well done but is undoubtedly missing a layer of flavor, despite the fifth episode throwing in a valiant attempt.
Tales From the Borderlands, despite being advertised as a more careful mixture of the franchise and the Telltale style, is no different in gameplay than any other game from the late company. Swipes, taps, and contextual actions rule the roost without the gunplay that feels so entwined with this world of psychos and beasts. In fairness, there is a wider breadth of options to bring you to one of a few different conclusion filters, but there’s no more depth to your choices by the end than a standard walk down the street.
A new headache to suffer in the back of your skull is the limiter on the aged, complacent Telltale engine. Splits between scenes have never been more apparent or slicing to momentum. Some loading times, especially in the latter two episodes, just between camera changes can stretch to nearly 20 seconds. During one of the larger-scale fights, that loading would bleed into stuttering over a needed QTE, ruining that opportunity to attack or dodge lethality. Facial animations remind me of the PlayStation 1 era where everyone way over-emoted in an attempt to really get their emotions across, of course with more graphical fidelity. All of this is to say that subtlety is an unfounded quality for Tales From the Borderlands.
A second season of Rhys and Fiona certainly would’ve been welcome but it’s tough to deny how entertaining this foray into smarmy Borderlands violence ultimately turned out. Blemishes are all over the engine and construct that do weigh down an otherwise high-flying romp, not to mention the story abandoning its best characteristic halfway through the journey. Tales From the Borderlands retains a write-in spot for Telltale’s greatest work and stands as a summation of their far-too-short time in this tricky industry.
Whether we see a return of this duo in Borderlands 3 has yet to be seen. Even if this does end up being the first and last run through their shoes, the time spent with the main quartet is worthy of the ugly face pizza that lurches forward from time to time.
Tales From the Borderlands Score: