Review Scan: Tales from the Borderlands (PC)

02.11.16

Game summary: Tales from the Borderlands is Telltale’s latest multi-episode narrative title, this time set in Gearbox Software’s Borderlands series. The dialog-driven story follows Rhys and Fiona, a corporate hacker and a con artist, as they try to navigate the planet of Pandora, meet colorful characters (while avoiding getting killed by them), and find their fortunes in the ever-elusive Vault.

 

POSITIVES

Excellent Storytelling, With Great Comedy and Good Characters

Critics called out Tales from the Borderlands’ story and humor as its biggest strength. The story is told from the perspectives of two main characters (Rhys and Fiona), and this duality allows the tale to take a lot of fun liberties, showing events from multiple perspectives and using unreliable narrators to comedic effect. Players called out Rhys and Fiona as especially likeable, and other characters like Sasha, Vasquez, and Loaderbot were also noted as having strong arcs and memorable personalities throughout the title. The compelling story kept players going through all five episodes, and critics agreed that the game offered crisp dialogue, cool settings, and some good narrative twists and turns throughout.

It’s interesting that while the game did feature strong voice acting (by famous voice actors like Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Nolan North, and Patrick Warburton), few critics called this out as a strength specifically. Instead, critics focused on the characters, suggesting that the characters as a whole were more memorable and interesting than merely the art design or voice work behind them.

Decisions Are Impactful, and Affect Character Motivations Well

Decisions are a big part of any Telltale game, as the narrative changes based on what players decide to do or say while playing the title. Critics especially appreciated the decisions in Tales from the Borderlands, and specifically called out that while the decisions didn’t always affect the narrative strongly, they did affect the characters and their motivations. Rhys, for example, could be played as a greedy company man, or as a reformed corporate executive, depending on the dialogue choices throughout the game. Players can also choose a few different romantic options throughout the story, and while these choices don’t always make the plot very different, they can change how the characters feel about each other as they go through the action. This is an interesting distinction, and shows that developers don’t always need to make choices hugely consequential to the narrative to make them meaningful for critics and players.

Solid Use of the Borderlands License, While Adding Its Own Personality

Critics also praised the game for its use of the Borderlands license, and for successfully melding the action and comedy of the Shooter title with the dialogue-driven formula of Telltale’s offerings. Tales from the Borderlands does a good job, according to critics, of feeling like part of the bigger series while still maintaining its own personality. There are hooks in the story (including characters like Handsome Jack and vault hunters like Zero and Athena) that connect back up to the main series, but brand new characters like Rhys and Fiona stand on their own as well. The game also has a few shooting and action sequences, and while these aren’t nearly as complex or reflex-focused as the main series, critics say they do a good job of feeling like Borderlands without just replicating the origin titles.

 

NEGATIVES

Follows the Telltale Formula Too Closely, and Innovations Aren’t Explored Well

While critics generally praised the title and its mechanics, their main complaint was that as exciting as the game was, it did follow the Telltale Games formula very closely. These games are dialogue-heavy, with the player only interacting with the environment in either slow, point-and-click sequences, or by performing button-pressing quick-time events. Tales from the Borderlands features a story that spans the planet of Pandora, but some critics complained that no matter where the characters went, most of the in-game action was limited to these button presses. Even a chaotic driving sequence was controlled simply by button presses. The final fight does use some Fighting game-style moves, but even that scenario is simply a call-and-response sequence.

Telltale does innovate a bit, according to critics, by implementing an inventory system and a scanning system (for Fiona and Rhys, respectively), but these features aren’t well-used, and by the end of the series, they’re essentially forgotten about. Critics suggest that Telltale could have innovated more in the gameplay of the series, rather than just sticking to the button-pressing that it has used in its previous titles.

Pacing and Comedy can Sometimes Fall Flat

The comedy in the title was mostly celebrated by critics, but they suggested that there were at least a few moments that fell flat. Especially when Borderlands’ relatively gross and sometimes macabre humor appeared in the game, some of the jokes were more disgusting than actually funny. Some sequences were not paced well, either, putting a tender or emotional sequence right up against a silly or more frivolous experience. Some critics also complained that the game didn’t always offer enough time to make certain decisions, or to choose a line of dialogue before assuming the player didn’t want to speak at all. While comedy was definitely a strength for this title, critics generally agreed that when the comedy or the pacing didn’t work, those moments stuck out as more problematic.

Consequences of Actions Aren’t Always Clear

This is likely a larger concern with both Telltale’s games and narrative-driven games in general, but critics said that with this game and others, it was an issue that the consequences of their choices in the title weren’t always clear. Telltale’s games do offer some strong feedback during conversations (like putting “Joe will remember that” up on the screen when a player chooses to say something to Joe), and this was even used to comedic effect in Tales from the Borderlands. However, while some of these consequences were made apparent by the end of the game, critics complained that other choices players made were never paid off clearly. Outside of replaying the game over again, players don’t always know what happens when they choose one path over another.

It could be argued that this is an issue with narrative titles in general: it can be hard to show players story points or results that they haven’t earned without making their choices seem inconsequential. Still, critics of Tales from the Borderlands said that it would be nice for the results of player choices to be clearer in a few cases.

 

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

Overall, EEDAR agrees that Tales from the Borderlands is an excellent game, and probably the best example yet of Telltale’s storytelling talent. To improve the title, EEDAR would challenge the developers to push the gameplay sequences even further outside standard button-press responses, perhaps offering players actual puzzles to solve. There’s clearly a goal of making the game accessible, but perhaps puzzles could offer optional difficulty, where players could solve the puzzle in one easy way to simply advance, or solve a puzzle in a harder way to see an extra bit of dialogue or more content. EEDAR would also suggest offering longer-term puzzles, like perhaps an item carried around by the player that must be used one way in one episode to solve a problem, and then must be used or improved in a later episode to solve a different problem. Expanding the range of puzzle gameplay like this will make the game interactions feel just as cohesive and intricate as the game’s dialog and storytelling.

EEDAR would also recommend coming up with a few clearer ways to show the consequences of a player’s actions. Until Dawn, for example, uses magical totems to “flash” possibilities for future and past choices on the screen, and Tales from the Borderlands’ multiple viewpoints could be used in this way. Fiona, for example, could comment on a choice the player made as Rhys, saying that “things could have gone bad for Vaughn if you’d said something else,” or even illustrating her approval of a choice: “I’m glad you chose that. Not everyone would have.” Better showing the consequences of a player’s actions may lower replay value in some places (as players won’t feel they need to replay the game to see different options), but it should also help to showcase just how complex the game’s choices can be.

EEDAR would also continue to push the developer to leverage characters strongly, creating memorable personalities with lots of different facets and motivations. Unique and complex characters are a strength across the company’s offerings, and especially in this title, great characters ensured a very strong reception. Continuing to emphasize characters and all of their different angles (like a corporate yes-man who can grow attached to a Pandoran rogue, or a witty con artist betrayed by her mentor) will ensure continued success in future titles as well.

 

Mike Schramm
Manager of Qualitative Insights, EEDAR


 

EEDAR often performs analysis like this on work-in-progress and pre-release titles for Game Evaluations and Mock Reviews. If you have questions or needs around a reliable and insightful evaluation of a title in development, contact Cooper Waddell at cwaddell@eedar.com.

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