Developer Telltale Games excels in the realm of narrative achievement and character development. Borderlands has always been about fast-action, constant looting, and multiplayer goodness. How to reconcile the two? Well, Telltale proves their adaptive and innovative talent beyond any shadow of a doubt with Tales from the Borderlands: Episode One – Zer0 Sum . It’s not The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us ; rather, it’s a thumping, rousing good time with a wonderfully compelling and intriguing plot mixed in. The designers meld a fast-paced shooter with a thoughtful story arc and that isn’t easy to do.
Telltale adopted the cel-shaded style and did a damn good job. This is a beautiful, wonderfully-appointed game, complete with the vivid, bright colors so common in the franchise in question. There’s also a surprising variety of landscapes, as you’ll be continuously intrigued by your changing surroundings. The special effects are brilliant and effective and the overall ambiance is perfect. Gearbox has always done a superb job with the cel-shaded approach but honestly, Telltale may have done them one better. I’m not the biggest fan of some of the design choices but that’s a mostly subjective complaint.
Then there’s the great soundtrack, which instantly reminds one of his or her latest Borderlands experience. Jared Emerson-Johnson, who scored Telltale’s recent hits, tackled this project with a combined care and verve. He obviously did his homework and kept the spirit of Gearbox’s up-tempo games, but he also included some of his own personality and creativity. Add in the excellent effects, which are almost as diverse and satisfying as the environmental variety, and you’ve got a top-tier technical presentation. It’s doubly awesome because in this instance, we get excellent technicals and a well-written story.
Here’s what’s most critical about this product: Telltale understood that in order to remain faithful to the Borderlands IP, they couldn’t produce the ponderous, slower-paced adventure with which their fans are familiar. However, they still needed to infuse their artistic flair and penchant for narrative creativity. To successfully blend the two gameplay traits – which are fundamentally at odds with each other – is quite the achievement. The dialogue sequences are quick and upbeat, just like the gameplay, and such sequences always seem to have a sense of urgency and a dash of humor. Toss in the trademark atmosphere, and you’ve got a winner.
Not everything works flawlessly. For instance, some of the jokes fall flat and the quick-talking characters start to border on irritating as the adventure rolls forward. On top of which, I got the sneaking suspicion that the gameplay balance wasn’t quite perfect. These are minor irritants (depending on your personal preferences) and perhaps the only other complaint involves the length of the quest. It always seems as if Telltale’s fantastic stories are over too soon, but that’s probably just because I can get lost in a quality narrative. It’s far too rare in gaming today and really, we may have to lean on teams like this to propel us forward in the world of literary artistry.
Anyway, you will play as Rhys, a Hyperion employee. He isn’t too happy with his employer, though, and most people on Pandora seem to despise the company as well. How you progress depends on your loyalty to Hyperion and/or your sympathy with those who hate Hyperion. You’ll also control Fiona and as such, you’ll see the story from two different perspectives, which immediately adds another dimension. If you’re familiar with other Telltale productions, you know about the decision-making mechanic: You’ve got a certain amount of time to select from four dialogue or action options when interacting with other characters. There’s more depth to this system, though, which is another pleasant surprise.
Don’t think for a second that Telltale sacrificed any of that patented Borderlands action for the sake of a decent plot and characters. No, the former elements, that which always made the series so damn appealing, are here in spades. The only difference is that we don’t utilize the traditional FPS mechanic; instead, we’ve got the context-sensitive commands common to Telltale’s episodic adventures. This can involve hitting analog sticks to avoid bandits, or mashing buttons to break a guard’s neck. It’s so well put-together and so well-paced that you don’t actually miss the first-person shooter setup. It just feels right, you know? Heck, this game is complete with epic vehicles chases and massive explosions!
It’s the marriage of the pulse-pounding and cerebral that makes the experience so intoxicating. At no point do you feel as if the game is dragging, and at no point do you think Telltale’s knack for “telling tales” dominates the entire game. I still don’t know how they managed to do this so well, but the bottom line is this: If you’re a fan of Telltale’s work, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to dislike this title. I can’t be entirely certain of the die-hard Borderlands fans, though; if they want an actual first-person shooter, they’re going to be disappointed. At the same time, if they’ve always enjoyed the lore behind the action, they should love it.
Tales From the Borderlands: Episode One – Zer0 Sum is one heckuva debut. Somehow, the developers allow the action and story to leap off the screen, and they give a sufficient amount of time to each. The visuals are superb, the soundtrack is excellent, the cast is worth knowing, and the overall atmosphere and style is vintage Borderlands with Telltale’s obvious influence and flair. Sure, it’s not a rousing, nonstop FPS with addictive multiplayer elements. But it’s still rousing, it’s still nonstop, and it infuses a really interesting story into the mix. This is what Telltale does and it’s a boon for the industry.
The Good: Fantastic visual design and presentation. Top-notch music and effects. Captures the overall look and feel of Borderlands. Beautifully blends compelling story with adrenaline-boosting action. More narrative choices for the characters. Excellent control and pacing.
The Bad: Some characters can come across as annoying. Still feels short.
The Ugly: “Telltale and ‘ugly’ don’t really mix.”