Tales From the Borderlands: Episode Two - Atlas Mugged is excellent, but I have to start this review with a bit of a moan.
Three months, Telltale. Three months.
I've always loved episodic series, whether Stingray, 24 or The Wolf Among Us. After each episode ends I have time to think about the cliffhanger, to debate it with my friends, to fantasize about what could happen and then finally sit down to enjoy the next one jangling with excitement. Binging cheats us out of this simple pleasure, and my 'Telltale routine' involves pouring a glass of half-decent red wine, switching my phone to silent and enjoying each new episode to the full.
Unfortunately, a quarter of a year goes from satisfying suspense to plain boredom and annoyance, and even Telltale know it. The fact that Atlas Mugged starts with an apology and overlong catch-up proves it, and frankly Telltale needs to publish and stick to firm release dates now. Hell, television series start next week at the exact same time. That's what makes the waiting bearable.
So it's a good thing that Zer0 Sum ended on such a satisfying bang, then. And that, as mentioned, Atlas Mugged does the business.
Bear in mind that we're in the honeymoon period right now, when the adventure is just beginning and a whole universe of possibilities stretches out before us. All of our decisions, even dialogue choices, seem important: every "Vaughn will remember that" or Dollar we pick up. It's impossible to know whether Episodes 3-5 will actually make our choices matter, or at least create the satisfying illusion that they do, so we won't really be able to know how the second fifth fits into the whole experience until the final credits roll.
What makes Atlas Mugged different from almost every other 'difficult second episode' I've reviewed, however, is that the story doesn't screech to a halt and slowly shuffle sideways. It goes forward, and goes fast.
The plot picks up exactly where Zer0 Sum left off, and I'm going to be intentionally vague to avoid spoilers. Company man Rhys and con artist Fiona quickly come to terms with the fallout of the previous episode, and meet an utterly sensational familiar character, before being thrown into some QTEs, gross-out moment and another whirlwind action scene. QTEs abound, but they're well implemented and resemble the on-screen action, helping to root you in the scene whether you're wincing or desperately trying to evade a Rakk attack.
Atlas Mugged then moves ahead apace, splitting up the crew and having some fun with the unreliable narration that keeps you guessing as to whether what's happening is actually true or an embellished version designed to make one of the characters look particularly good or bad. To Telltale's credit, the unreliable narration gambit isn't heavy handed and obtrusive, rather a surprise just occasionally slaps you round the chops when you least expect it. Meanwhile the actual storyline expands into some very interesting directions, pushing into uncharted territory for the franchise and covering more ground than some entire episodic series do in their runtime.
Also, sidelining Claptrap in favour of Loader Bot was a sensational decision. He's amazing.
There are some big choices to make (often accompanied by some gleefully self-aware fourth wall breaking banter) and some genuinely difficult dialogue choices to pick out, with your choice of mid-game location and other more interesting avenues to explore, but it's a great to play a Telltale title that doesn't take itself too seriously. Tales From The Borderlands is fun, a romp rather than a wringer, and genuinely hilarious. The gags come thick and fast, some optional, some visual, some clever and some deliciously crass, yet unlike Anthony Burch's source material the writing is genuinely intelligent as opposed to a garbled mess of admittedly awesome memes. Jokes most often stem from the characters themselves, and the fact that we care about them makes some of the unexpected laughs all that much funnier.
Feel-good romp as it is, Atlas Mugged does occasionally slow down from time to time. Sometimes it lets us stretch our legs, wandering round some environments to scan objects for extra humours backstory, participate in a few non-puzzles and do a little exploration, but often the narrative lets us spend a bit more time with the characters, to see how they interact in quieter moments and let us affect what sort of person they are through dialogue and actions. Once again Telltale prove masters of the written word and facial expressions, putting the engine through its paces on that front, making us start to empathise with the cast despite the fact that they're fairly reprehensible people. Some great familiar faces also make an appearance, and I'm not just talking about the obvious, though some of the things one character says makes me wonder about exactly when Tales From The Borderlands is supposed to be set.
I do have a couple of complaints, most of which will continue to fall on deaf ears. Telltale's engine is really starting to creak and could use better V-sync, and more importantly they still can't get navigation right. So many games, so many years, yet moving a character around still feels like driving a cement truck blindfold. I also still don't like the spoileriffic metrics screen at the end, as it makes the narrative feel less organic.
And three months, though. Three bloody months. Say what you want about Resident Evil: Revelations 2, but Capcom have the timing down, giving us a week to get good and hyped for the next episode. Telltale really dropped the ball here, doubly aggravating since they have so much on the go, and frankly they should have learned their lesson after The Wolf Among Us Episode 2.
Still, right now, it feels like Tales From The Borderlands is onto a winner. An odd collaboration is turning into what could be my favourite Telltale series yet.
- Satisfying storyline forges ahead, not sideways
- Fun, upbeat, often hilarious
- Seemingly significant choices, relateable characters and excellent writing
- A handful of great Borderlands appearances and cameos
- Engine is showing its age; some cosmetic glitches and screen tearing
- Character movement is still painfully clumsy and slow
- Infuriating three-month wait
The Short Version: Tales From the Borderlands: Episode Two - Atlas Mugged is an excellent second chapter in what promises to be an absolute belter. Fun, upbeat and pacey, it pushes the story forward in satisfying directions while slowing down just enough to deliver some brash humour and character development.
I just hope that we won't have to wait quite so long for Episode 3... and that the decisions we're told are important actually matter in the long run.
We do not score episodic titles unless they can be purchased separately as standalone games, or at the reviewer's discretion. A score will be assigned to the entire season once complete.
Platforms: PC (reviewed) | PS3 | PS4 | Xbox 360 | Xbox One | iOS | Android
Developer: Telltale Games