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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tales from the Borderlands Review: It'll blow your mind and break your heart.

 I never get episodic games day one. The same way I never get season passes on day one. I'm not going to pay for something I can't have yet. But I have a weakness for The Borderlands. I also have a weakness for glowing reviews. Ultimately the chocolate got in the peanut butter and I couldn't stay away.

I'm glad I didn't. This is singularly the best episode TellTale's ever done. Full stop. I'm seriously wondering if they blew their budget on it. I thought it would end 3 stunning action sequences before it did. This is a true labor of love and only makes a great series of games even better.

I'm no fair weather fan either. I've been there since their Monkey Island reboot back in 2009. As much as I love their work on The Walking Dead (which was honestly better written than a third of the actual show) it's clear form the first 20 minutes of TFBL they've been dying to be funny again.

What we have here is a taught comedy thriller set in Gearbox's world of Pandora. This point and click adventure fits seamlessly into the background of the main series's signature first person shooter framework. This is a world where nobody needs half of a reason to shoot someone and take their stuff. A perfect setting for the classic "deal of a lifetime gone wrong" scenario. Our duel protagonists are a malcontent Hyperion junior executive who's just had a decade of brown nosing rendered pointless; and a native Pandoran con artist looking to pull the right job that can set her and her kid sister up for life.

"Hold still, this baby has one hell of a massage setting."
They both unreliably narrate the chain of events that lead them to be hogtied together while a masked man points a Conference Call at their faces. I know, I know. "Hyperion." "Pandora." "Conference Call." That's all jargon you don't need to know. You don't need to know anything about Borderlands going in to enjoy this game. In fact, I've always believed Telltale interactive narrative games are the perfect gateway for folks that can't stand video games. I'd love to see what my dad would make of this if he earnestly gave it a shot. It's story is effortlessly gripping because a lot of the heavy world-building lifting has been done in three feature length games already.

Like I said, you don't need to know what the best shotgun in Borderlands 2 is to appreciate Tales. But there is some amazing behind the scenes fan service if you've got sharp enough eyes. Like how Rhy's dialogue choices have a holographic Hyperion look. Whereas Fiona's stick to a folksy wooden style. A Jakobs, style. Jargon again, apologies!

Credit where credit is due, this is the best cast TellTale has worked with. No matter how good The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us were, and they were both damn good, the background characters always sounded a little flat. Wolf had it the worst, half that cast had me checking my watch. I feel TT knew about that, because there's no other explanation for every every single character in this one episode being so awesomely on point. The random bandits you talk to, besides the first one who's clearly Keith Szarabajka being predictably gruff and delightful? All hilarious.

And you just know he double parks.

And you bet that's Patrick Warburton from Family Guy as that smug Hyperion exec. You know that's Chris Hardwick as Rhys's right hand, Vaughn. Rhys himself is the never-not-stunning Troy Baker. And that August character was totally Nolan North. Sure TT nailed down the biggest names for their Game of Throne's adaptation next month. But these are great lesser-appreciated talents they've probably had on a shortlist for years. They did not waste the opportunity.

Oh, and the soundtrack has been kicked up like nobodies business. I won't beat around the bush... The Walking Dead's score was garbage. Absolute. Garbage. This is not. While some tracks are recycled from BL2, there's a great techno Morricone-esque theme for the menu screen and a few other gems sprinkled throughout the more action oriented sections. They really stepped up their game all over the place this time.

I've also been getting earfuls from some holier-than-thou critics calling this the best borderlands game, period. I get that they didn't like the shooting and looting from the main series and they'd be right if they were just whipping the first game's confused shrug of a story. But 2 and the Pre-Sequel were so much more than that. These games have always had sharp characterization. Perhaps they went for the laugh more often than story, but so what? It's about time a role playing game had a damn sense of humor instead of a phone book's worth of po-faced lore. My point is that TFBL shows Pandora in a light that a shooter never could. A different angle on what was a fun and fascinating world, already. TellTale didn't magically make it relatable and three dimensional all of a sudden.

Now that I got that rant out of the way... I guess I should ask what you're still doing here. Why aren't you throwing $25 bucks at your monitor or phone right now?! I'm not futzing around, this 2 1/2 hours of content is totally worth that much. There's 4 more coming down the pike at some point... maybe 6-8 months from now. I mean, they will have to work around Peter Dinklage's schedule now, so it's gonna be a long haul. But it's also gonna be a hell of a ride, folks.

So strap in.

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