Tales from the Borderlands, Episode 1: Zer0 Sum Review (PC)
Very few people visit Pandora and live to tell about the experience. Even fewer manage to get their hands on one of Pandora's many valuable treasures without a bit of misfortune along the way. When Vault Keys are involved, all the rules of common courtesy (such as they are on Pandora) go right out the window into the cold vacuum of space. For good or ill, a lot of things can happen between the start and end of any adventure. It's all a matter of the decisions made along the way. Unfortunately for Rhys and Fiona, the protagonists of Telltale's Tales from the Borderlands, just about every choice seems to add more hot water to the pot. Of course, that's what makes Tales from the Borderlands so much fun.
Taking place after the conclusion of Borderlands 2, Tales from the Borderlands introduces us first to Rhys, a man of minor importance at Hyperion. He's expecting a promotion, that is until his rival Vasquez steals the opportunity before Rhys even realizes what's happened. But Rhys isn't some pushover. He overhears Vasquez making a deal for a legendary vault key, and decides to take it upon himself to liberate the treasure from the seller before Vasquez. The only problem is Rhys now has to travel to Pandora to complete the buy.
At that same time on Pandora, Fiona and her grifting sister are conniving their way into the very same deal. Fiona and her sister aren't interested in the vault key; they're interested in the hefty bags of cash the vault key will fetch. Like most of Pandora's residents, they're fed up with the havoc Hyperion has wrought on the planet and its denizens. Any excuse to part a member of the wretched company from his money is a good one. But like any plan with (not so) good intentions, things just don't work out they way they're supposed to... for anyone.
Tales from the Borderlands does a great job introducing our two protagonists, and flashes between both Rhys and Fiona to tell its story. It's a common trope for capers such as this, but one we haven't seen in a Telltale game to date. Splitting the narrative, and thus never really knowing who is telling the truth at any given moment, is a brilliant idea. Particularly because there's very little else to do in this first episode but converse with other characters. Sure, there's a modicum of action at the climax, but as an introductory episode to this wild world, the scales tip a bit more in the way of exposition. That's a good thing.
There's a lot to learn about our characters and the world, and the dialogue is as sharp as ever. Both Rhys and Fiona are well-rendered, even if we don't have a full grasp of just who each of these people really are outside of the stories they're telling. Telltale uses some familiar storytelling tricks to relay what's (maybe) happening, and does a phenomenal job keeping players on their toes. Nothing is quite what it seems, and the further Rhys and Fiona dig themselves into swindling one another out of the deal, the more layers of danger and deception are added to the narrative. It's a bit of 'The Brothers Bloom' and 'Ocean's Eleven', but with a lot more blood and one-liners.
There are a few new twists to the Telltale formula this time around. Rhys' cybernetic eye can be used to scan environments for secrets, and can be activated almost any time you're playing as him. There isn't much to uncover in this first episode, but there are a few good jokes in the scan readouts, and we have a feeling this ability will become more important in later episodes. Fiona can find money and purchase items in-game when the opportunity arises. Those moments are few and far between here, but again, there's plenty more adventure to come, so it's likely to play a bigger role in subsequent chapters. Most everything else plays out exactly like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. You'll have dialogue choices to make, and a few spots to engage in brief quick-time events. It suits the style well, though Borderlands fans may be surprised at the lack of gunplay. That said, Tales from the Borderlands is better for it.
There's no telling just how many twists and turns will occur, but even casual Borderlands fans will find plenty to like here. This is one of the best first episodes we've seen from Telltale, and quite possibly one of the best episodes of all Telltale's work. The team's had a lot of time to perfect the formula, and as debuts go, Tales from the Borderlands is spectacular. So don't delay, and get on the road to Pandora today. Just be sure to watch your back. Everyone else on that crummy planet is... through a gun scope.
This review was completed with a downloaded copy of Tales from the Borderlands, Episode 1: Zer0 Sum provided by the publisher for PC.