Review by Hoodie Joy
“what do you expect out of an episodic story based game?”
I found myself asking this often. Tales from the Borderlands is my first of this genre, and I took the opportunity to review it because it seemed like a good way to try out episodic games. I loved both Borderlands 1 and 2, but this game is not either of those.
Tales from the Borderlands was a pleasant surprise. I went into the game expecting a comedic game with somewhat likeable characters, that were more funny, than interesting or lovable. This might sound like a very negative outlook on the game, but I never really found much to love about borderlands characters. They were funny and amusing, but never made me care.
Being a story focused game, I am hesitant to spoil anything off the bat with specific facts, but some things are important: There is a Canon lesbian couple, who are both badasses. They are not queerbaited. They are not made fun of. They are treated the same as all the other crew, and were extraordinarily human. The game makes you like some people I really did not expect to like. This is of course, relevant to my specific playthrough, but there are many characters who have done some terrible things, and your choices can lead to very likeable and friendly outcomes. At the end of the story I believe there were around 5 characters I originally expected nothing but comedic amusement from, who not only delivered on that, but also showed a genuinely interesting and complicated character.
The game does have its faults. It suffers from what I’ve seen in every game with time based dialogue options suffers from: the dialogue choices fail horridly at tone sometimes. You can choose an option thinking it’s going to make you try to comfort someone, and instead you would end up with an emotionless statement from the character. It also makes a very interesting decision I felt like I was abusing by the end of the game. You can pause at nearly any moment. Including when the game is tossing a time based dialogue option at you. This effectively makes choices much less stressful, as long as you remember to save at the last moment when the person you’re speaking to finished talking, and is waiting for your response. I’m not saying this is a problem, but I was unsure if it was even intentional.
This game mechanically feels surprisingly half-hearted. It’s not sloppy, but it doesn’t feel serious. I don’t know if this is expected out of the studio that made the Walking Dead games, because I haven’t played them, but the menus are surprisingly simple.
There were a few glitches I encountered that didn’t break the game, but really hurt the overall experience. I had to hard reload in a specific mission and then ALT+F4 out, because the game’s camera just disconnected from my character and it was unplayable. When the game is paused, particle effects do not pause, and this feels unfinished. There are also two pause menus. The first one of them only pauses game progress, places a very light damper on the lighting of everything, and places the word “PAUSE” in the center of the screen. This one is really useful, but also is the one that feels halfhearted. The other contains the traditional pause options, such as: exit the game, restart the chapter, etcetera. It is the more professional feeling of the two menus.
Despite the flaws I really, really found myself liking this game. At the start, I almost wanted to hate the characters. But they’re just as lovable as any borderlands character, in fact, more so. There are only a few characters I didn’t have some investment in, and those are mostly the bad guys, several of which are actually not all that bad. Instead of being clear cut bad guys they have intentions that are just as human as the rest. They have something to care about, and they might go about it wrong, but they’re human.
Story content beings here, beware of spoilers. Feel free to skip if you don’t want to know.
So remember Handsome Jack? That swell dude, total protagonist material, right? He’s in your head.In this game you alternate between two protagonists, Rhys, the corporate jerk, turned unlikely protagonist, and Fiona, the con woman, turned maybe not so con woman protagonist. They don’t sound very lovable. Handsome Jack is in Rhys’ head, and that metal disk looking gadget is the Gortys. Rhys has a bunch of cybernetic implants, and that’s where Handsome Hologram Jack resides.
Gortys is the key to getting to a Vault, Back to Jack, nobody but Rhys can see him. Your decisions affect how the other characters feel about this. However I feel this odd about this game, it’s not a choose your own adventure game. The choices don’t seem to do much. I played a total of two full playthroughs before this review. Despite fiddling with different endgame choices, little changes. The only thing that your decisions seem to have much bearing on is the general outlook and likability of the characters. What seems to change is why they do the things in the rather than what happens in the story. Over all this makes the game feel kind of lackluster. Player Agency is a tricky sort of thing to begin with, and many games lack any real player agency, with the story only supporting gameplay in the lightest of background. Story used as an to give you some gameplay. But Tales from the Borderlands is ABOUT the story, right? It’s an episodic story centered game, that seems to imply the story is meaningful. To me it feels like it’s more like a TV Show.
The few issues I had did not take away from the game, in fact despite the problems I enjoyed it immensely. However I feel Most players who take a deeper look into the gameplay, what it represents, and what it could have been will leave feeling there wasn’t much to be offered. The only real divergence in paths seems to be who dies. This sounds like a big deal, but characters that die don’t do anything important after their possible deaths. In fact, one of them disappears even If she lives through an encounter it is implied that she was dead, and they never explain it. She’s not a main character, but she was important to me. We must consider player agency, the player’s involvement in the story.
For example athena doesn’t die. The game brushes her close-to-death experience to the side and focus instead on the relationships the protagonists have more investment in. Other times its clear we are supposed to care about a life/death, such as with Fiona’s younger sister’s lover. These choices they seem to want you to care about. But I sure as hell didn’t.
Long story short? It’s a great story the first time you play it. I suggest against multiple playthroughs.
Hoodie Joy is a special guest writer who develops unity plugins for a living, please show your support for them at their patreon here!