The sooner Telltale can evolve past the goofy Saturday morning cartoon humour, the better.
I have so many mixed feelings about Tales From The Borderlands. I am writing this after having played a marathon session of all five chapters, and I’m going to finish this while it’s fresh in my mind. :D
If I were going purely by the 1st chapter, I would tell you that this game is excellent - great writing, some really funny jokes, and a really interesting plot. Sadly, the game as a whole really starts to show cracks as the whole thing moves along, only barely regaining competence during the 5th chapter. I’ll try to avoid spoilers territory, but if I do discuss anything in that realm, I will be sure to warn you in advance.
Bar none, the absolute worst thing about TFTBL is the characters. They are terrible, unlikeable, and do not go through anything resembling a character arc. The game is divided between two lead characters - a spineless, cowardly salaryman named Rhys, and a female con artist (whose name, I shit you not, I cannot remember for the life of me, and I just beat this game!) whose only character traits are “goofy and awkward”.
Each of these leads has a sidekick - Rhys’s is another spineless, cowardly salaryman, and the female lead’s is her sister, a fellow con artist whose only character trait is [smug expression here].
All four of these characters are completely and utterly unlikeable from start to finish. They go through a series of events in the story that, in the hands of better writers, might create a character arc that causes these characters to emote, or to change in some way... But that never happens. These characters finish their stories with new toys and equipment, but these changes are purely cosmetic.
The series does not have a single villain as the focus throughout, instead opting to swap through a diverse cast of Big Bads, henchmen and anti-heroes. For the most part, these characters play the roles they need to within the story - they are entertaining, certainly, although once again, completely lacking in character development. The villains that are left standing by the end of the game are not any different from how they were at the start of the game. There’s one villain in particular, introduced in the first chapter who sticks out like a sore thumb - but only because the voice actor chosen for the role is completely inappropriate for the role. The character is a cut-throat executive who got his job by tossing his old boss out the airlock; a greasy, immoral slimeball... Whose voice is Joe from Family Guy. It’s the same voice actor, to be sure, but the performance is just Joe from Family Guy. Does this voice actor only know how to do the one character? I have no idea. But the performance was a distraction, to be sure.
The best character in this game, bar none, is Loader Bot. In fact, Loader Bot may be the only character in this game that was actually written by a human (strangely). He’s introduced as a tool - a robot for loading cargo. But after an off-hand remark about how the robots have been getting smarter lately, Loader Bot starts maxing some existential philosophy, making for a great character and some great humour. He actually gets an arc, too, which is excellent. Sadly, the existential crisis at the core of this character is never explored in much detail beyond that first chapter, which made for a major missed opportunity to get in some intelligent jokes.
On the flipside of Loader Bot, there is another robot sidekick character. It’s fucking annoying. Its only character trait is “cute”, but not in a way that’s appealing in any sense. It’s almost like this character was created by typing the word “cute” into a script-writing machine, and having that machine spit out some cynical bullshit, resulting in a character you basically never want to see on screen. This character is basically Jar Jar Binks.
It’s... Fine? It hits all the beats it needs to - it’s essentially a tour of Pandora, exploring some of the lore and society within the Borderlands universe. It’s perfectly serviceable, a very standard story framework, and if the writing were better, it would make for an excellent tale. Not really much else to say about it.
Telltale writers, let me pass on some advice... If a line a dialogue you write can be described as “smug” or “goofy” just... Don’t put it in the game. Please. This is becoming a running theme in your games - the original characters come off as assholes, because everything they say is smug one-liners. Frequently, promising beats of drama or comedy are utterly demolished by humour so infantile and low-brow. While Telltale’s sense of humour is sometimes dead-on, a large portion of the writing staffs seems unaware that they’re no longer making Sam & Max games - everyone in a TellTale game is written to be smug and goofy, like a retarded Saturday morning cartoon character, and it’s absolutely smothering the seed of brilliance that otherwise exists within these games.
If the drama gets too intense, if the player starts to feel emotions, the writers will throw in a poop joke. Why? Who fucking knows! The tone is all over the place in these games, and if Telltale wants to be super-cereal about making interactive dramas and comedies, they need to do a better job of understanding what makes an effective drama or comedy. Funny games CAN have darker moments; in fact, I’d argue that some should - it makes the humour and the happy moments shine that much brighter in comparison.
And this game has convinced me of something else: Telltale has no fucking clue how to write interesting characters, and especially not female characters. I hate getting into gender politics shit, but seriously, in TFTBL, the women in these games are one of three things: A useless whiner who needs men to do all the heavy lifting for them, a lesbian (because any woman that has masculine traits or skill of any kind is a lesbian, right Telltale?), or a villain named Vallory. The two female leads in this game are bumbling idiots who never do anything right intentionally. The male leads are bumbling idiots too (like I said, Telltale is writing cartoons, not compelling narrative), but at least they get their moments of glory and rational clarity within the story. And I don’t say this because I DEMAND accurate depictions of women, I normally think they idea of forced inclusivity in fiction is a silly thing, but in this game, the difference between the male characters and female characters was so stark, it has to be mentioned.
And that’s just the thing - Borderlands is jam-fucking-packed with interesting female characters, both in lead and supporting roles. Pandora, in the Borderlands games proper, has always been presented as a play where you either kick some serious ass or get seriously eaten. If a character survives in that world, it’s because they took a few bullets and lived to tell about it. They survived on their merits. And in this game, nobody seems to have that merit - you have bumbling idiots, characters from pre-existing Borderlands lore (who are awesome!), villains - many of which are awesome, and Loader Bot, who is the only competent being on the “good guys” team.
I know Telltale’s a budget dev, but for god sakes, these guys need to fix the problem they have in every Telltale game, where people and objects clip through scenery in a way that’s heavily distracting. I don’t expect perfection, but the amount of times a character’s arm would clip through a table, or some other crap, during a cutscene... It’s way too much. To their credit, other Telltale bugs that I normally see were not present here - the audio didn’t randomly stop working, the textures loaded instantly, the game didn’t crash... So they’re making progress. Still, no reason to stop improving.
Most of the score was fine. Didn’t bother me at all. But the licensed music they used for each chapter intro? Oh my god, it was fucking horrible. In heavy contrast to the folksy rock Borderlands normally uses to great effect, we’re saddled with some urban, contemporary, easy-listening bullshit that in no way matches the tone of the story or the universe that story occurs in. It sounds like someone at Telltale went to their hipster intern and asked for something “cool, hip and modern”. And it just sucks. Dear god. Horrid, horrible, garbage music selections there.
So What The Fuck Did You Like About This Game, PHC?
A lot, actually. It’s just that this game wears two masks - a Borderlands mask and a Telltale mask. When the game’s being Borderlands, it’s fucking awesome! When it embraces that world’s lore, it does it really well. When it uses that world’s characters, they always impress. All the generic baddies - especially the Bandits and Psychos - really shine here. And honestly, I say that as someone who isn’t too crazy about the Borderlands games - I’ve played parts of the first two, but neither to completion. But the problem is, everything that makes Borderlands unique and interesting is summarily ignored after the first chapter - where the first chapter is very well-written, and full of some top-notch, laugh-out-loud humour, but after that, it’s just... Meh.
Ultimately, I just found I was spending way too much time with characters I fucking hated. While the first chapter was bloody brilliant, and chapters 2-5 had a few erratic moments of greatness, I just found myself asking the game, “When will these fucking idiots stop talking so the good parts can happen?” And those good parts just weren’t frequent enough to recommend giving this game a recommendation. Play the first chapter though, fuck yes - it’s free, and it’s awesome. But after that, it’s like the Star Wars movies; they steadily get worse and worse, but the most recent one was okay, I guess?
I dunno. 7/10, honestly. The first chapter is a 10/10, but the rest is pretty bleh.