Tales from the Borderlands: Episode One is three of the most rewarding hours I've spent with a videogame in quite some time. A game has to be excellent to make me punch the air, let alone compel me to dance around the room to Busy Earnin' during the end credits.
I'm not sure what I expected, because my heart sank when I first heard that Telltale were simultaneously taking on Borderlands and A Game Of Thrones. They may be riding high on critical acclaim now, but it wasn't so long ago that they rushed out too many licensed releases too fast while quality slipped and slumped. Were Telltale starting to slide back into bad habits?
No. Not only is Zer0 Sum a cracking yarn that brilliantly sets up a Borderlands-themed adventure, but it's actually strong enough to stand on its own as a frankly superb interactive movie. The best way to start a new series is with a game that can hold up in and of itself, and Zer0 Sum nails it.
Plus, on a much more basic level, it's... fun.
Personally speaking, it's nice to see something lighter from Telltale following the nerve-shredding tension of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. Set in the zany and irreverent cel-shaded Pandoran wastes, Zer0 Sum introduces us to a cast of great characters trying to get Busy Earnin' any way they can. Up on Hyperion's Helios moon base, arrogant executive Rhys and best friend/accountant Vaughn face find themselves bereft of a promotion and embark on a corporate revenge scheme (by a surprise appearance from Family Guy's Patrick Warburton, no less). Meanwhile, two con artist sisters prepare for the heist of their lives on Pandora below.
Zer0 sum is a feel-good romp, not a harrowing wringer. It's a blast to see how the two storylines inevitably intersect in a series of increasingly bizarre and incredibly funny scrapes, from a corporate showdown to a Loader Bot QTE brawl, bandit death race and a run-in with Zer0, sweetened by crazy embellishments from the decidedly unreliable narrators. Dialogue choices are pithy, sharp, occasionally silly and delivered perfectly, with just enough non-sequitur Borderlands flavour to delight fans without resorting to torrents of incoherent memes. Breathless slapstick action and exquisitely-observed facial expressions deliver the humour on the visual front. A cameo from one of my favourite yet underused Borderlands B-listers acts as the cherry on the cake, one of the most chuckle-worthy appearances I've seen in ages.
The pacing, meanwhile, is zippy without every feeling schizophrenic. Zer0 Sum covers a lot of ground yet lingers long enough to flesh out the setting, allowing for a little exploration and the optional ability to scan scenery objects with Rhys' cybernetic Echo-Eye for more information. These extra details help to re-ground you in the Borderlands setting, and makes for a pleasingly meaty 150-180 minutes that you'll want to experience in one solid hit.
You may be pleased to note that the ending is also satisfying in and of itself, with an extra cliffhanger that leaves you sated yet looking forward to the next instalment whenever it's ready, not hungry and desperate for another fix. Instead of trying to reel you in by brutally working you over, Zer0 Sum is a rip-roaring adventure that feels immensely satisfying in its own right like a quality action flick.
However, this is Telltale game, and leaving it there would do Zer0 Sum a disservice. As always the quality of the writing is masterful, and manages to pull off a difficult job of creating new characters in someone else's setting. Not to mention making us care about a Hyperion executive's power plays and a Pandoran criminal. Crucially the support cast are fantastic, sympathetic or just plain bonkers, while player characters Rhys and Fiona have just enough flexibility in their defined personalities to allow you to start reading yourself into the narrative.
You'll occasionally have the opportunity to inject real pathos into the game depending on your options, perhaps with a hint of a tragic backstory or humanity beyond the swagger, and these more serious moments hits so much harder thanks to the irreverent pace of the rest of the game and the fact that you're making the protagonists your own.
My only real gripe is that Zer0 Sum betrays Telltale's...telltale... lack of visual polish on PC. The cel-shaded graphics may be handsome enough and the facial animations are superb, but character movement proves awkward, odd and jarringly slow, while clipping issues abound. Fans of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us will be used to it, but I'm still surprised that a little more effort wasn't put into the fine-tuning.
But is it even a videogame? There's a case to be made that Zer0 Sum is barely interactive in the traditional sense, more a branching choose-your-own adventure book than a conventional game. Your interactions come down to picking from options that you're told are important, even though they're ultimately not, while action once again boils down to QTEs. As someone who enjoys visual novels, though, I'd argue that Zer0 Sum almost gets the balance spot-on. You'll feel like you're making an impact and making decisions, even if you're just picking from lines in a script, and we can't wait to see how future episodes reference our choices and give us a sense of agency.
More importantly, though, I've still got a big stupid grin stuck on my face and Busy Earnin' stuck in my head. Bring on Episode 2.
- Rip-roaring storyline,superb writing, great characters and pithy dialogue choices
- Upbeat atmosphere and raucous action
- Fleshes out the Borderlands universe without losing its own identity
- Satisfying pacing and length at 150-180 minutes
- Visually unpolished; awkward animations and some clipping errors
- You'll need a working knowledge of Borderlands to make the most of it
- Busy Earnin' WILL get stuck in your head
The Short Version: Tales From The Borderlands kicks off with a feel-good tour de force. Not only is Zer0 Sum a satisfying and frequently hilarious use of three hours, but it would have been strong enough to stand on its own as a masterful piece of interactive Borderlands fiction.
As Zer0 might say... :D
9 – EXCELLENT: Only the exceptional need apply here. There might be one or two slight blemishes, but overall games that score a 9 are genre-leaders: must-have titles with perhaps the odd imperfection. You won’t be wasting a single penny in buying a game that scores this high. A few games of this calibre will make it worth spending hundreds on a console or powerful enough PC. Killer apps, indeed.