Indie Game of the Week 19: Tales from the Borderlands (Again, Again)

No Caption Provided

And so we return, once again and for the last time, to our merry band of screw-ups mid-caper, as we draw our episode-by-episode review to Tales from the Borderlands to a close. Before we do all the usual spoiler-blocked business, though, a few closing thoughts that should be fine to read no matter what your status with this game is, whether you've completed it yourself, only checked out the complimentary first episode on PSN, or still pondering whether or not to start. I could say that this is my favorite series Telltale Games have ever done, but that might seem a bit misleading since I've only completed the two: the other being Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, which definitely had a few qualities of its own. However, I can say that in spite of its legion of technical issues and bugs, Tales from the Borderlands does right by its source material, by the characters it both invents and borrows from the wider Borderlands universe, and sticks the landing in a satisfactory way that not only sees the game to a worthy conclusion but makes the player's choices feel like they had an effect. I'll get more into just how it accomplishes that in the episode 5 round-up, but take it from me - if you're hesitating on going all in on an episodic game because you don't know whether or not it'll pay off in the end, I can say that Tales from the Borderlands is one of the few that pulls it off. At least, I was pretty happy with how everything concluded, for the most part.

In the previous two Indie Game of the Week appraisals for this game, in this pre-spoiler space where I don't discuss the story or the game's few puzzles, we already tackled how the game largely relies on QTE-"enhanced" scripted action scenes for about 40% of each episode's run-time, and most of the rest are spent in conversation trees. We already talked about the aforementioned bugs that, I've been reliably informed, are due to the singular "Telltale engine" that every game of theirs is built with. Very few of these bugs are game-breaking and/or necessitate a restart (I think that happened once to me, and I wrote about it in the last review), but they're definitely immersion shattering, as characters temporarily vanish and snap into new poses or awkwardly shift on their axis when changing direction. It's some weaksauce movement animation for the most part, though the faces are marginally better. When you build so much of your game around action scenes, issues like those get all that more noticeable too. To that effect, I think the game is at its best visually when we're treated to the opening credits, as the various "a Telltale Games series" and "based on Gearbox's Borderlands" type headers are cleverly integrated in a frozen scene that we're shown from various angles. They remain a stylish highlight, though I can't really speak to whether or not that was the in-house Telltale style or something they borrowed from the Borderlands games (which, I can just about recall, had some stylish opening credits of their own).

Never got tired of these.
Never got tired of these.

Ultimately, though, the visuals don't matter as much as the story, the voice acting, and the way Telltale incorporates player choice into how events play out. I'd say TftB does all three quite well, the first thanks in part to building from a couple of viewpoints distinct from anything the previous Borderlands games have covered - in those games, you were always a powerful Vault Hunter, and you were surrounded by either villains or vendors. Tales posits how a corporate stooge who has too much of a conscience to get anywhere up the ladder and become a Vault Hunter's potential antagonist, and a con-artist who has to rely on other talents beyond the martial to survive, might make their fortune in a harsh sci-fi universe that regularly mines gallows humor out of commonplace violence and unexpected deaths. That goes double for those without plot immunity; the many friends, hanger-ons and recurring rogues, many of whom wouldn't last five seconds on Pandora if not for extraordinary dumb luck. It's silly to think so much about mortality in a comedic adventure game, but not when the comedy is so regularly extracted from people exploding or being eaten by giant monsters. Heck, the series' most enduring character (to my chagrin) is an omnicidal psychopathic CEO who regularly talks about all the people he's murdered. Building characters that the players get attached to isn't easy in a world like that, but it serves Telltale well enough: they had a similar balancing act in the equally hostile world of The Walking Dead, establishing characters only to have them killed off by ravenous undead either in spite of or because of the player's choices. While Borderlands feels like a strangely upbeat setting to use after the morbid The Walking Dead and the grim noir of The Wolf Among Us, its casual acquaintance with sending folk to the hereafter allows Telltale's (and Gearbox's) writers to stretch their comedy muscles while still flirting with the idea of having half the cast die off because of unfortunate player choices.

I've had reservations with both the studios involved with this project before now; specifically, how Telltale makes their adventure games simplified and a little too dependent on "the big decisions" in lieu of anything more engaging to the ol' gray matter, and how Gearbox tends to rely on so much obnoxious meme humor, one-dimensional stereotypes and movie references to prop up some admittedly compelling shoot-n-loot gameplay. Somehow, though, working on Tales from the Borderlands has brought out the best in each other. Telltale can go full ham on the QTE sequences because they belong in such an action-oriented game series, and Gearbox can use the narrative direction and temperance of Telltale to create characters and situations that don't feel like the comedy equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. It's really strange to say that I liked a Telltale game with almost no "classic" graphic adventure game elements, and that I liked a Gearbox game for its humor, but that's the unusual position Tales from the Borderlands has put me in.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All right, let's get into the nitty-gritty here: we'll sort out what happens in Episode 5 to conclude the series and then move onto a character study. The latter's mostly there because it was one of the more inconsistent parts of the game, but at the same time also occasionally one of its strongest.

Episode 5: The Vault of the Traveler

The game realizes it has a lot of story to pack into a single episode, so almost all the resulting scenes on Helios comprise the episode's "cold open". Handsome Jack takes over Helios, attempting to cut open Rhys's body and install a robotic skeleton in there that Jack can control directly from Rhys's cybernetics. He's foiled by the fact that his office chair has wheels, letting Rhys escape with the last of Gortys's upgrades. Meanwhile, Fiona and Sasha have seized upon an opportunity to escape from Yvette and her goons, dropping them into a jail cell as they make their escape to the caravan-ship with Rhys. They get separated, however, and Rhys takes a contrite Yvette with him to the station's power core to eliminate Jack, as the others attempt to get to the hangar bay without incurring his wrath. This leads to a shoot-out in the bay, as Vallory's goons turn on the sisters and August makes the difficult choice of siding with them instead of his boss. Sasha, Gortys and August end up leaving on the caravan-ship, leaving Fiona and Loader Bot to find the nearest escape pod. Meanwhile, Rhys has succeeded in taking out the power core, but can't quite shake Jack, who continues to hound him in the escape pod area. Eventually, Fiona, Rhys and Yvette all escape the collapsing station, but Loader Bot stays behind to keep Kroger busy, who can't help but to take a last few shots at the noble droid as Rhys looks back in horror. Roll opening credits.

Rhys and Jack never did patch things over. In fact, I insisted on that being the case.
Rhys and Jack never did patch things over. In fact, I insisted on that being the case.

Shortly after the landing, we see a scene where Rhys finally rids himself of Handsome Jack after the latter forces his way back into Rhys's head, with Rhys painfully tearing out all his cybernetic parts and collapsing. Fiona, meanwhile, finds a now colossal Gortys fighting an equally large Vault monster with Vallory trying to blow the poor robot up with her rocket launcher. However, she is merely honoring Gortys's request: Gortys is the reason the "Traveler" is even on Pandora at all, due to some Atlas tech that summons it and its Vault onto this plane of existence, and she needs to be destroyed if the Traveler is to be stopped from rampaging across Pandora. Vallory doesn't quite survive the titan's wrath, but Fiona and Sasha are there in the last moments to hit Gortys's beacon and eliminate both the gigantic beings. It's a bittersweet ending to their Vault conquest aspirations, but we later find out that someone's not tossed in the towel quite yet. We're then done "in media res"-ing - in the months since that happened, Rhys has replaced his cybernetics with Atlas tech, taking the certificate of ownership of Atlas from the broken remains of Jack's office, intending to start it back up again while Fiona and Sasha once again returned to Hollow Point to eke out a living as scam artists before both Rhys and Fiona finds themselves the captors of the mysterious masked stranger. The MMS has finally brought them both to the remains of Helios Station for a purpose, along with another masked stranger delivered by an inexplicably-still-alive Kroger. However, the stranger turns on Kroger and snaps his neck, and the bandit is revealed to be none other than Vaughn, who has corralled the surviving Hyperion white collar workers into some semblance of a society on Pandora's surface. Rhys and Fiona are happy to see the dorky accountant again, but the question remains: who is this masked stranger?

Well, turns out it was Loader Bot this whole time. The nearly non-operational robot managed to salvage Jack's robot skeleton, and since then has been eager to discover why, exactly, Fiona destroyed his only robot friend in the world. Satisfied with their stories, Loader Bot reveals his plan: they will bring the colossal Gortys back with her recovered parts, and then destroy the Traveler once and for all so that Gortys might live. To do this, he needs Fiona, Rhys, Sasha (with a sporty new do!), Vaughn and his "Children of Helios" and three others to create two Vault Hunter teams. The three others are player-determined, and the player is given a rundown of all their potential allies, including whether or not they're willing to help. This is the game's "choices determine what will happen" masterstroke, and I'll reveal who my final three choices were during the usual decision rundown. What follows is a big, exciting action scene as the two teams - one goading the Traveler into teleporting into a specific place, and the other to drive the caravan-ship into its core shortly before it materializes so that they might destroy its teleport "gland" to hold it in place, at which point Helios's still-operational "moonshot beam" can destroy it. Without getting into details, there's a lot of great Voltron jokes, one near-death scare, some beefs get squashed, and the two protagonists open the Vault's treasure together followed by a sudden fade to black, because really the contents don't matter. It's not like we're taking all that loot for a NG+ run, you know? The end. Decision time!

No Caption Provided

Fiona: Finch, the Bebop-like half of Vallory's two chief goons, momentarily distracted Fiona from reaching Vallory during the first ill-fated attempt to destroy the Traveler. He has zero strength left after a protracted fight with the immense beast, so he instead attempts to goad Fiona into shooting him one last time by intimating that the missing Sasha went down fighting. I guess it's not a major decision, and you could argue that Fiona spending one of those derringer rounds in his chest would be merciful, but I didn't play my Fiona to be a vengeful goddess. If I didn't let her adoptive father's betrayal turn her into a killer, some half-assed taunts from a dying nobody won't either. The good cop/bad cop decision is your customary "we added this choice in as a joke, because it doesn't matter" inclusion, as Rhys immediately forgets he's supposed to be the good cop during their interrogation of the masked stranger and it all falls apart. As for the shipping, well, Fiona calls 'em like she sees 'em. Or rather, I do. I think we'd both prefer it if Sasha ends up with Rhys instead of August, even if I personally mellowed on the vicious heavy by the end of this episode.

Rhys: Man, that's a large percentage of people who saved Yvette, huh? This actually boils down to making good on two decisions: letting Yvette out of the jail so she doesn't explode with the station (though maybe she gets out either way?) and then not letting her fall into space when hanging off the station's power core. Whether or not you buy Yvette's explanation that she was only helping Vasquez to ensure that Rhys would be kept alive - she did punch the fake Vasquez when he revealed that Rhys was dead, though she sure didn't seem that shaken up about it - it would've been one hell of a dick move to kick her hand away and let her simultaneously freeze and asphyxiate in deep space. The AI Jack imprisonment was a mistake on my part, one of a few I immediately regretted because I saw the timer tick down and panicked. The alternate was, of course, to destroy the last piece of cybernetics housing Jack to annihilate him permanently. Obviously, that would be the choice I'd have made if I was thinking clearly. The last choice refers to Rhys's own position on the Rhys/Sasha relationship, and I guess the evasive answer is also the most cowardly because very few people went for it.

All right, we actually have another one of these screens to process, so let's check it out:

No Caption Provided

Some of these options weren't available to me, in all fairness, and some were a little... obfuscated, leading to one inclusion here that - had I my druthers - would not be there at all.

  • Felix: Felix, the elderly con artist, is available if you chose to warn him about the briefcase. Turns out your old accomplice Felix was going for a solo long-con that nonetheless benefited the sisters, for as much as his apparent betrayal would have you believe otherwise. He actually disarmed the suitcase bomb, left the money in the caravan's armoire (it was in there the whole time?), filled the case with fake money and then let it blow up. This would mean that everyone - including the sisters, so they could have plausible deniability if captured - assumed the money was gone. Felix in fact took one million and left the other nine to Fiona and Sasha, telling them that their futures had more important things in store than a life of grifts and marks. It's a touching scene, but it's also relayed remotely as Felix wisely believes he'd be shot on sight, and so he does not appear in-person for the final showdown. However, with the huge windfall he gave Fiona, she has more than enough to hire the "mystery Vault Hunter" to take his place.
  • Zer0: Zer0, the ninja Vault Hunter, becomes available if, as Fiona, you started to refer to yourself as a Vault Hunter around other people. This would attribute the party's accomplishments to Fiona and bolstered her reputation as an upcoming Vault Hunter, drawing the attention of Zer0. However, we were a bit too modest it seems, and Zer0 became unavailable to us.
  • Springs: Springs, the feisty mechanic, becomes available if you choose to launch Scooter's satellite into space as a memorial. We didn't, and so Springs wants nothing to do with us. Hey, I still maintain that it would've been blasted out of the sky by Helios if we had. It's not like that thing didn't have a giant satellite laser beam.
  • August: August, the tough mercenary, helps us if we don't blame him for the botched con when we meet Vallory for the first time. Turns out the two are related, so I'm starting to gather that Vasquez would've taken the shot to the chest regardless of who we blamed - it's not like Vallory would've murdered her own child. Or maybe so? She was kind of intense.
  • Athena: Athena, the indomitable Vault Hunter, was an easy pick for anyone looking for someone who knows what she's doing in a fight. She'll help you if you smoothed things over between her and her girlfriend after she gets knocked out and dragged away. That's a really large proportion of people who chose to bring her along, huh.
  • Cassius: Cassius, the slightly senile Atlas scientist, is an option if you didn't let Athena try to kill him. He's the one who helps Vaughn escape Vallory's goons and recover from his injuries. No idea what role he'd play in the final fight though, because I had better choices to select between. I suspect he might've played a role similar to Felix, where he doesn't actually appear but gives you support of another kind.
  • Claptrap: Claptrap, the annoying robot, was the mystery Vault Hunter you could hire if you had enough money saved. That's what all the scrimping with Fiona was for. However, getting the money from Felix is another way to afford his asking price. Claptrap is still Claptrap, albeit the heavily armed one from the Pre-Sequel (who I believe is also the only one left), and I'd probably have selected absolutely anyone else - including Handsome Jack's shitty diamond pony - if the game had told me who it was ahead of time. How is anyone supposed to resist the mystery box, though?

Anyway, that's going to do it for these rundowns. I probably didn't need to expound on the entire episode's story, but at least it lends some context to all the decisions in case anyone had forgotten where they come in. What follows next is a character-specific rundown for the entire series:

Rhys: Rhys was a conflicted character that I can't be entirely sure I played right. You're introduced to him as this inveterate corporate ladder-climber, angling for a big office before Vasquez takes that dream away and kickstarts Rhys's involvement with the plot. You could make the case that his disillusionment of getting so far, betraying who-knows how many employees and underlings to get to that position, even modifying his own body for the edge his eye, brain port and cybernetic arm gives him, is sufficient motivation for him to realize that his aspirations in Hyperion were for naught and he'd be better off grabbing whatever money he can and getting out, perhaps flipping the bird to Vasquez as he flies away with a huge stack of Vault treasure. There's a bit of a tabula rasa element too: he's the protagonist, or one of them, and the player ought to be the one to imprint upon him a conscience, or instead choose to play him as a complete asshole. It feels like he'd become a heroic figure as the game went on regardless, though I'd be curious to see what this game would be like if the player made the most evil choices with one or both characters. Would Loader Bot have even let them live past the first episode?

Fiona: A lot of the above applies to Fiona too. Despite her love of guns, Sasha always seemed like the more innocent of the two, and Fiona had the lion's share of selfish decisions to make. She'd be the one spiting Felix as he got away, or killing off Finch, or stealing from that dying man all the way back in the first episode. I like that she had a couple of mentor figures in Felix and Athena, and was a young woman still finding her way in this world with just a tiny gun and a lot of moxie (and a gun fanatic sister, to whom she was devoted and vice versa). Again, the blank slate approach was present here, not only in determining the level of compassion Fiona exhibits to her friends and foes, but her career options also. I thought the money-scrounging and subsequent money-spending was a fun part of her character too, because no-one plays a Borderlands game - especially as a Vault Hunter - without an eye for opportunistic acquisitions.

Vaughn: I was disappointed with what they did with Vaughn for the most part, because it felt like they ran out of ideas and sidelined him halfway through the game until the final, final act. If he's not getting paralysed for almost a whole episode, he's completely vanishing for the next one and a half. The joke with Vaughn was that he's supposed to be even less conditioned for a life on Pandora than Rhys, being a foot shorter and fifty pounds lighter, with a nervous temperament and no cybernetic arm to rely on. Instead, he acclimatizes far more readily, and even finds that he prefers the hard graft settler's life to his old one of quarterly projection spreadsheets. When you can't find jokes or a comedic scenario for the meek but weirdly ripped accountant who is getting a taste for danger and excitement, that's a shame. Could just be that Chris Hardwick (the VA) is a busy guy.

Sasha: There's a distinct trap of turning a role like Sasha's into the "prize", which the game fell afoul of a couple of times. Without getting all FemFreq on you all there are times when Sasha's role seems to deteriorate to "let's rescue Sasha!" or "let's fight for Sasha's affection!", despite the fact that she's a fiercely independent hustler who can presumably make her own decisions and hold her own in a firefight, usually to the extent that she's saving Rhys or Fiona, depending on whichever's in the driver's seat. That came to a head with the finale of the game, where she seemingly sacrifices herself to destroy the Traveler's ability to teleport and lies dying on the ground until Felix's magical resurrection watch (?!) brings her back. (Speaking of which: What? Rhys's idea of using his tears to save her made as much sense.) She then gets spoken about while she's off-camera as Rhys and Fiona figure out where the Rhys/Sasha romance is heading. Kind of inauspicious, but when she wasn't being treated like an object she was often my favorite character in any given scene - even if her default expression was a slightly smug look.

Loader Bot: All right, so Sasha's actually my second favorite character. Loader Bot was the clear stand-out here, as a role that kept growing in unexpected ways. I think you're supposed to get thrown off the scent that he's somehow important with that first episode's decision to let Loader Bot sacrifice himself to save Rhys, if Rhys lets him. After that is a procession of noble sacrifices, each destroying more of Loader Bot until he was eventually a one-armed torso incapable of movement left behind on an exploding space station. That they didn't even give him a name other than "Loader Bot" and he had the same default yellow paint work as the many grunt-level loader bots you destroy in Borderlands 2 by the bowlful were other smokescreens. Of course, not only is Loader Bot one of the most important characters, he's the catalyst for the in media res framing device and the instigator of the finale, which finally gets everyone the big exciting conclusion they missed the first time around. Through it all, Loader Bot has this sardonic, self-sacrificing personality where he realizes he's eminently expendable, but doesn't mind so much if his master (Rhys) is a worthy enough individual to serve. Ultimately, though, you can tell that Gortys means more to him than Asimov's three rules, and a lot of those end game events seems spurred by this unspoken bond between the two. He's easily the hero of the game, regardless of how much stock you put into his overall importance.

Gortys: I feared the worst when the inanimate Gortys sphere became a friendly but hopelessly naive robot companion, who was as sweet and genuine as Loader Bot was reticent and humble or Claptrap was loud and irritating. The writers made that naivety work though, creating an adorable character who - though you knew it was coming - made it all the more painful that she had to be destroyed. I kind of like the plus-sized look they gave her for her final two forms. It's not the usual slim gynoid look - I'd imagine most tend to look like EDI from Mass Effect, were you to stick them all in a room and compare - but it worked for her character and as an expansion of her initial spheroid form. Besides, Steven Universe is proving that it's probably a good idea to use every potential body type - endo- and ectomorphs alike - to expand the range of one's character design.

The Rest: Felix was an interesting character that, unfortunately, had to be sidelined before we got much of him. I say "had to", because he clearly had something of an Obi Wan role in the game - in order for Fiona and Sasha to become fully independent, they couldn't rely on him forever, even if that meant him apparently betraying the two. That the sentimental old man not only scammed them for their benefit but left behind gifts that would help both of them, meant he clearly had every angle covered from the start. Not enough cool older guys in fiction, though I suspect a character like that would've chafed with the humorously incompetent aspect of the game's ensemble comedy approach. I liked that you could change August's mind about being the bad guy, even if his loyalty was always going to be to his mother, and I wonder if a Sasha/August thing might've happened if Rhys demonstrated zero romantic interest. Dude was an unrepentant asshole too, but that doesn't mean he couldn't occasionally do the right thing if he felt like it. Vasquez was way too much of a one-dimensional corporate villain (I believe I called him an "Ellis from Die Hard type" originally) until he died, at which point you started feeling kind of bad for him. His bid to take Rhys's management position before Rhys could operated on a similar level of seat-of-his-pants improvisation, and he badly needed that Vault Key to ensure he wouldn't end up the same way as the poor sucker he ejected into space during his "promotion". Couple that with the many indignities his corpse goes through, and the fact he was mercilessly bullied by Jack as a younger executive, and I was almost regretting letting him take two barrels to the gut. Athena, Zer0, Springs, Scooter and Claptrap were really just there as extended cameos, half of whom would've worked better had I played the game they came from, but between Athena's cute lesbian relationship with Springs (cute in the way that it was heartfelt and genuine, like they were a totally normal couple instead of being one girl and one ultra-deadly assassin) and her Space Sophitia-style weapon combo, I think I know who I'm playing as if I ever get around to the Pre-Sequel. With Yvette, I never did figure out how much of her was a cold-blooded opportunistic traitor and how much was "my friends are never going to survive alone down there, I need to look out for them, even if that means working with their enemy". I saved her as a matter of course, and things seemed to work out, but I wouldn't begrudge anyone who lost all their trust in her. Vallory and Cassius were a little more one-note, as the hard-as-nails crime lord and crazy scientist respectively, but their character designs were cool at least.

That's going to have to do it. I've written more about this series than is probably healthy, and I'd like to get back to polishing off Ultima Underworld for May Maturity before the week's time limit is up. Thanks to everyone who has been following these rundowns, and thanks to the handful of folk like @sparky_buzzsaw who recommended the game in the first place. I wouldn't call myself a new Telltale convert, but I'm glad I gave it a shot.

< Back to 18: Song of the Deep> Forward to 20: Day of the Tentacle Remastered
Start the Conversation