After their well-received, albeit increasingly-grim turn as the dark and dramatic storytellers behind The Walking Dead (and to a lesser-extent The Wolf Among Us), Telltale have gone back to their comedic roots with Tales from the Borderlands. An episodic series attempting to marry the exaggerated and caricatured setting of Gearbox’s popular first-person-looter and Telltale’s own modern adventure gaming formula is a tall order – but, for the first episode at least, Tales from the Borderlands delivers.
For those not familiar with the series, Borderlands is a science fiction setting that primarily concerns itself with the conflicts taking place on the distant and hostile planet of Pandora – primarily between the corporations who own the planet, the people who live on the planet and those who seek out the planet’s mythical vault. Zer0 Sum sees ambitious Hyperion-employee Rhys and best-friend Vaughn venture down to Pandora in the hopes of acquiring a vault key and getting back at their newly-promoted boss Vasquez (voiced by the delightful Patrick Warburton). This endeavour quickly goes awry and the pair find themselves on the run and mixed up in the schemes of con-artist Fiona and her partner-in-crime Sasha.
As the first episode in the series, Zer0 Sum throws you right into the thick of things with Rhys and crafty con-artist Fiona retelling the events that brought them together to an unknown adversary. It’s a fun framing device that lends itself to their pair’s talent for embellishment. Certain scenes will play out one way from Rhys’ point of view, then from another once you see Fiona’s side of the story. It’s a genuinely clever twist on Telltale’s existing formula that does a great job of reflecting how each sees the world and leads to some hilarious moments.
While the episode does assume a certain level of general knowledge regarding the events of Borderlands 2, the main plot is pretty accessible to newcomers (though there are plenty of fanservice moments). It’s also surprisingly long – though it still manages to keep a strong pace that squeezes together both strong set-piece moments and more-savoury character-focused ones. This is in part due to the fantastic soundtrack behind the game but also a product of Zero Sum’s willingness to break new ground when it comes to Telltale’s formula – as well as exploring aspects of the Borderlands fiction that the shooter genre hasn’t really had the time or tools to allow for.
Given the over-the-top action that the series is known for, it’s nice to see Tales from the Borderlands take an interest in going beyond that and Zer0 Sum wastes no time when it comes to setting up its interesting and diverse cast. In particular, I really enjoyed watching the episode debut Vaughn and Sasha as sidekicks for the series’ main players then effectively flesh them out into personalities of their own over the course of the episode.
In fact, the script manages to be pretty consistently funny, even when it doesn’t need to be. The shift from the desperation and darkness that’s permeated much of Telltale’s work over the last two years couldn’t be more welcome and it’s helped along by stellar voice acting by such names as Laura Bailey, Troy Baker, Chris Hardwick and Erin Yvette. Perhaps most importantly, Zer0 Sum feels like a self-contained story that works on its own merits rather than just an intriguing opening that suggests promise later down the line.
As previously noted, the big challenge Telltale faces with Tales from the Borderlands involve adapting their own trademark style of adventure game with a fictional universe where tense-situations are more likely to be defused with guns than words. However, Telltale cleverly leverages this – making some of the episode’s funniest moments the ones that marry their signature storytelling style to the realities of Gearbox’s universe. Pandora is a world where everyday life can be suddenly and spectacularly interrupted by a chaotic shootout between Vault Hunters and Bandits – and there’s a sense of culture-shock experienced by Rhys and Vaughn that drives a lot of the humour here.
Like any good pilot, Zer0 Sum strikes a balance between setting up the world and characters of its story. It’s an outstanding effort that proves there are plenty of stories on Pandora left to tell – even if the series does need to let go of Handsome Jack – and that Telltale have the comedic chops to pull them off.