Tales from the Borderlands was one of those games that I initially missed entirely. It was announced, marketed and released, all while my interest factor remained bottomed out. I had no beef with the game – I had just clearly fallen in love with the quirky world of Pandora and couldn’t fathom why someone would want to play a game set in that universe that dramatically shifted the genre from ‘Shooty, looty, bang bang.’ Thankfully, a dutiful cadre of bullying friends convinced me to give it a crack, and the appeal was clear – the real strength of Borderlands is its characters and setting, not the talking guns and dopamine-fuelling loot piles.
New Tales from the Borderlands understands this credo at a core level – your heroes are not murderous magic psycho splatterers, instead they are reasonably pathetic chumps at the end of their rope. In a universe where trickle-down economics seems to mean that everyone is getting shit on by somebody, our trio of turd targets are clearly at the very bottom of this weird faeces chain – the only real joy they can derive in their immediate day-to-day is that at least they have not been murdered yet.
Team building exercises – nothing else quite stacks up to them
I’ll get it out of the way nice and early – NTftB is a story about relationships. A tapestry of interactions throughout your journey will clearly define and develop everything from a layer of trust, right down to sexual tension and a desire to perform mouth-to-mouth at any given opportunity. You will explore past tragedies that have eroded a very human need to be heard and understood – with the odd fart joke punctuating the heavier moments. It is a dialogue-heavy game, but that is kind of the point.
Like the Telltale games of old, you will partake in conversations and select from an array of options as to how you want to shape the conversation. In some TT games, it was shockingly annoying to select an option based on your understanding of it, only to see your character define it in an entirely different way. Say for example, you approach a query with a response of ‘Yes’ from the menu, only to have the active character say “Yes, I agree. But you are a fart face and I hate your mother.” Bam. ‘Greg the Librarian will remember what an arsehole you are.’ Hope you weren’t expecting Greg to help out in that critical climactic moment. Thank Christ the team behind NTftB are more mindful of this, firstly adding better options to make the selection less of a panic-driven moment – but also taking care to make sure your options are clearly defined prior to selection.
Chill out, dickwad
The conversation technology is also a great deal more modern than the game of old – obviously with the use of a more modern engine and building systems to support how interactions will work. Gone are the awkward moments where a character will eyeball you silently while you select a witty retort. I actually found myself pausing on selections for a beat or two more than necessary just to drink in whatever additional dialogue may have been added to cover the unpleasant pause. One well placed gag featured a character that absolutely mentioned that they were happy to ‘awkwardly stare at me’ until I was ready to retort. Meta humour is always appreciated.
And humour you shall have over the many hours that make up NTftB – some of it puerile and insipid, some of it worth a snort and a generous portion of genuine giggles. The fourth wall will be broken, deep moments will be lightened by a character injecting a quip, and some gags will happily sprout legs and run through the entire game. I am happy to say that I found the writing quite competent, as generally the first real criticism leveraged against a Borderlands game will be squarely on the writing. Important characters are fleshed out and remain true to self throughout their arc, with interactions evolving and growing in a believable way. Even the overall plot had a modicum of surprise on offer once you tapped into the clear destination it was heading towards.
This made me laugh more than I care to admit
It was incidental characters that shone within the game. While I adored our cast – the self-righteous Anu, her self-absorbed brother Octavio and the luckless but driven Fran – I was always overjoyed to see some of their orbiters enter a scene. One such character, L0U13 the assassination bot, quietly rode the line of being almost a prop. He’d turn up to solve a problem, and then serve to only offer a supporting quip to most conversations. While I loved his design and attitude, I was questioning his purpose, as the game clearly communicated that he was not a member of the core cast. Soon I realised that this was deliberate, he was a pawn on loan from the developers to act as a free agent for some scenes and story beats. He even took the time to acknowledge this, nodding a heavy robotic noggin at how he only seemed to exist when useful. I wanted to be mad that the devs had called me out in such a way, but all I can do is applaud their efforts.
That isn’t to say that our main cast is upstaged by their surrounding cast, far from it. Like I mentioned – the game is about relationships, and the ones that we tend to throughout the games runtime are magnificently flawed and worth studying. You will explode ideals and motivations, first through a selfish lens and finally by way of compromise. You can strive for the vaunted WIN/WIN/WIN scenario to please your inner management type, and graciously pick from a variety of paths to get there. It is deeply rooted in the faces and entities that populate the Borderlands universe, writing a new interconnected chapter of the greater narrative that stretches all the way back to its initial 2009 release date. Will it draw in new fans? I can’t confidently say it will – but it will delight any who harbour even a passing interest in Pandora and its nearby planetoids.
All YOU baby
One criticism that I can’t ignore when it comes to narrative systems within the game, is the odd choice by Gearbox to obfuscate some of the more involved decisions within the game. The TellTale style would have an egregiously noticeable pop up when an interaction was forking your story – alerting you to the feelings and outcome of your conversation and decisions. While NTftB has a handful of these, there are a number of ‘critical’ decisions that really need to be felt out to discover what they do to the game’s branching arc. While I can praise that the game is generous in letting you select chapters and moments, I still feel it’s going to be a pain in the arse referring to a wiki as to when a choice does more than shape a punchline.
Beyond this, there are a small handful of written interactions that fall very, very flat. In a game with a monstrous amount of writing and dialogue, I don’t put a lot of weight into this as a proper negative within the game, but it’s impossible to ignore that rarely you will raise an eyebrow on how the narrative rhythm hiccups on its usual beat. A gag will seep into a moment and undermine something far greater that was occurring, or a character will drop a quip that just quite fit their characterisation at that point of the story. I am no writer, but even I could feel that maybe these came from a weaker page that could have appreciated a little more workshopping. Away from this, positive praise needs to be leveraged to the LGBTQ+ friendliness within the game. While I am far from qualified to critique such writing, I can admit that the organic and casual nature of it helped diversify a world that used to be entirely defined by violence and mask-wearing axe murderers. It’s somewhat shocking to see that the space-shitholes of Borderlands past, present and future are more accommodating and accepting than our own IRL shithole.
I am sensing some symbolism here
Visually, the iconic style on Borderlands is on full display, clearly showcasing the very first use of full motion capture within the series. Characters are expressive in ways I have never seen before, and I was in clear awe of discovering numerous tiny details that were present in expressions and movements. A moment where Fran took to yelling revealed how the iconic telltale comic-book edge lines that make Borderlands visual style so instantly recognisable would materialise within her face, edging facial wrinkles and furrows with clear black lines. I was in genuine awe at how exceptional it looked. Rarely this would be entirely interrupted by the comically silly Unreal Engine texture pop-in effect that seems to plague the engine, often in a very ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ fraction of a moment – but it was super silly to see such a doofy issue present in 2022.
And these visuals do a lot to present and carry our story forward. Motion capture elevates the scenes for story beats in a massive way, and it’s not done in a restricted way either – body language can go above and beyond for people’s communication, with camera angles and framing doing a lot to make a dialogue-heavy scene remain visually engaging and appreciable. Some of the more involved moments of action could have happily existed in the more shooter-centric titles as cutscenes, flaunting the impressive set of tools they had developed to bring NTftB to our gracious eyeballs.
Endings-wise, I took the time to reload my saves and was delighted to discover three of the five promised endings – and can safely say that at least the ones I discovered are dramatically different from each other. Like a house of cards, the entire experience could come tumbling down in seconds if you discovered that your choices didn’t matter, so massive kudos to the Gearbox team for carefully working around some deep character decisions that will massively steer your narrative wheel to new destinations.
Aw man, I really fooped this caption up
If you have ever felt like a downtrodden worm within the crushing confines of society, this may well be the perfect title to escape that humdrum and experience manufactured visions of grandeur. However, if you are not already married to the Borderlands universe and its insane cast of nobodies and somebodies, I doubt this will sway you to join us. While I am no fan of frozen yoghurt, I am now squarely on Team Fran and challenge anyone who dares suggest they aren’t to give me a good reason why not.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- Gearbox Studio Québec
- 2K Games
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox One / Xbox Series X|S / Switch / PC
- October 21, 2022