Review: Tales from the Borderlands

Editor’s Note: This review is for the series as a whole. For more in depth looks at each episode, read our reviews of Episode One, Episode Two, Episode Three, Episode Four and Episode Five.

If you’ve been following our reviews for the individual episodes of Tales from the Borderlands, you know that it’s in rare company when it comes to episodic games. Rarely do we see an episodic title whose low point is a four out of five, but that’s exactly what we have here; even when Telltale Game’s collaboration with Gearbox hits its biggest low point (if you can call it that), it still manages to be great. Not only is this one of the most charming games we’ve seen all year, but it stands up as the best title this year to show a non-gamer (Journey‘s PS4 port notwithstanding). Telltale has shown us for years now that it has the ability to craft a dramatic, well-written story that elicits feelings of remorse and loss, but Tales from the Borderlands shows us that the heralded adventure game studio can weave some downright brilliant comedy into the mix to create a powerful one-two punch of emotional relevance. Had Tales from the Borderlands come out last year, it could very well have been a runaway candidate for Game of the Year, and even though titles like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain will likely steal awards away from it, it should be undoubtedly praised for its brilliance.

The number one question that anyone looking into Tales from the Borderlands will ask is an obvious one: do I need to know anything about Borderlands in order to enjoy this? The short answer is no, though players should be warned that the ending of Borderlands 2, one of the better games from last generation, is completely spoiled thanks to the inclusion of a certain major villain who comes along for nearly the entire ride. Still, even though the conclusion of the best loot-driven first-person shooter is completely given away, this is a story that can completely stand on its own thanks to its excellent writing.

Tales from the Borderlands Episode 3: Catch a Ride
The fact that you play as two equally hilarious, separately motivated characters that play well off of each other in Rhys and Fiona makes for a narrative that always feels fresh. If there’s too much Rhys, a little Fiona is thrown in; if Fiona and her sister Sasha are hogging air time, Rhys and his lovable Hyperion nonsense step right up to the plate. Just as the relationship between Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead almost functioned as a third character, the relationship between Rhys and Fiona manages to add an extra dynamic to the proceedings. What’s more, Tales from the Borderlands manages to weave all of the nonsense lore of the Borderlands universe into the story without every feeling like it could be too overwhelming for newcomers.

There’s a hokey, overly sentimental saying about overcoming some sort of great obstacle: it’s not about where you’re going, but how you get there. While Tales from the Borderlands features a wonderful ending to the season in its fifth episode, The Vault of the Traveler, the best parts of this futuristic western caper story are those tiny character moments along the way. Whether it’s 2015’s best character, Gortys, chatting with the monotonous Loader Bot over various Pandoran happenings or Rhys, Fiona and Sasha all having a group argument, there is always a great deal of wonderful minutia to enjoy on top of the insane macro story. Combining zany humor that stands up to the best examples of comedy the industry has seen outside of South Park: The Stick of Truth and some downright emotional moments that dramatically change the way you think of the main cast of characters. There are a lot of complicated people who tread the line between clown and introspective (yours truly is certainly one of these people), and Tales from the Borderlands has a tone that manages to encapsulate the dissonance that this group feels on a daily basis. The fact that the same game that features a statue known as the Butt Stallion also has the potential to bring tears to your eyes on a couple of different occasions, and if that doesn’t sell you on its emotional range, I’m not sure what will.

Tales from the Borderlands Episode 4: Escape Plan Bravo
Hilarity also functions in a much more intriguing way in Tales from the Borderlands‘ narrative than a simple chuckle-creator, though. If you’re a fan of unexpected twists and turns, then you’d be hard-pressed to find a Telltale series that leaves you on the edge of your seat more than this one. Because every moment treads the line of utter ridiculousness, often times blowing past it, it’s nearly impossible to figure out what’s coming next. After Rhys and Fiona stumble upon a couple of interesting artifacts in the first episode, you’d need to be some sort of video game savant in order to predict the course of the final four episodes. From character flashbacks to random character introductions that wind up making complete sense, Tales from the Borderlands reaches television levels of twists and turns. What’s more, even though a great deal of players will likely figure out the identity of the season’s biggest mystery character, learning the path that he or she took works as a revelation in it of itself. Simply put, Tales from the Borderlands stands right up there with The Witcher 3 in the contest for the best video game story of the year.

Sure, Telltale definitely needs to clean up its engine sooner rather than later, and their gameplay could use some updating, but the ride that Tales from the Borderlands takes you on is sublime. Of course, this story would be nothing without the hysterical character moments that make this one of the most joyous gaming experiences in recent memory. This is a game that manages to fit a Tinder joke into the same story that plays host to a character so adorable that Pixar’s writers would vomit at the sight of her. If you’re the type of guy or girl who manages to say the wrong thing at the worst possible moment, you’ll appreciate all of Rhys and Fiona’s downright cringe-worthy verbal faux pas. You might think that a Vault Hunter flashing emoticons in front of his helmet would be the peak of hilarity here, but there are enough cheesy jokes here to leave you in a better mood after every episode. There’s definitely a reason why those who played Tales from the Borderlands episodically rocked the dumbest grin ever whenever Telltale announced a release date.

Closing Comments:

It’s tough for an outsider to look at the praise Tales from the Borderlands is receiving without thinking it’s a bit hyperbolic and overblown. Rest assured, Telltale’s best game shows us exactly what it means for a game to be fun, as its wonderful writing seems to play on just about every emotion you have. If you thought that this studio would never top the first season of The Walking Dead, you’re sorely mistaken, as the title the world thought would be mediocre highlighted the shear wealth of talent over at Telltale. Rhys and Fiona are a pair for the ages, and the utter nonsense that will invade your screen is as dumb as it gets, but in the best way possible. Tales from the Borderlands is a reminder of the lunacy that draws that child inside of us over to our controllers, keyboards, mice and touch screens, so anyone without a sense of humor or a flair for the dramatic need not apply. If the gaming world doesn’t talk about Tales from the Borderlands as one of 2015’s best offerings, then something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.