Review: Tales from the Borderlands Episode 2

Tales from the Borderlands is a collaborative episodic game between Telltale Games and Gearbox Software set in the Borderlands universe. Because the game is being released in episodes, the review will updated with each release. A copy of Tales from the Borderlands was provided for review. Warning, out of necessity, this review will contain certain spoilers.

Episode 2: Atlas Mugged

Tales from the Borderlands: Atlas Mugged

Tales from the Borderlands: Atlas Mugged cover art

When we last left Fiona, Sasha, Rhys, Vaughn and the host of other characters introduced in Tales from the Borderlands: Zer0 Sum, they had just discovered a potential key to a hidden Atlas bunker accompanied by a hologram of Handsome Jack, the villain from Borderlands 2 and eventual-villain of Borderlands The Pre-Sequel, and in true Telltale Games fashion, it was quite the cliffhanger. The episode featured plenty of other Telltale trademarks as well, including point-and-click game play and a heavy dose of storytelling. But it also featured Gearbox’s sense of humor, lore and characters established in the Borderlands franchise. But it left a few questions to be answered:

  • How will Telltale use some of these new action-based mechanics?
  • How will they keep the humor and action of Borderlands front and center while remaining true to their story-centric approach?
  • How much freedom does Telltale have to make additions to the Borderlands canon?
  • How much of the existing canon will make its way into the remaining episodes?

When I sat down to play Episode 2: Atlas Mugged, these questions were at the forefront of my mind – I was curious to see if I’d get answers to them. In some instances I did, in others not as much. But by the end of the episode, what I realized was that what mattered most was, despite a predictable experience, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Let’s get the questions out of the way

Action

Action sequences remain a key mechanic in the game, from dodging Hyperion Moonshots as Rhys in a caravan, to avoiding Athena’s Prismatic Aegis (AKA her shield) as she chases Fiona through Hollow Point (Fiona and Sasha’s home town). At various times the player must try to grab objects flying through the air, including a freshly removed eyeball, Vaughn and Rhys as they’re ejected from the caravan, and a mysterious metallic ball which appears after unlocking a console in a hidden Atlas bunker.

Humor

Borderlands’ established humor remains a focal point as well, with instances such as commentary on Vaughn (diminutive in stature) being “oddly buff” after removing his shirt in the desert, to Vaughn’s explanation: “I put an exercise bike in my office.” Or the reveal that after Fiona removes a character’s eyes for a retinal scan, that perhaps he was still alive. Or when Vasquez (voiced by Patrick Warburton) tries to use a prototype gun that fails, and he explains “I know how to shoot a gun, I just wanted maximum damage!” No matter where you turn, there’s a laugh-out-loud moment, which have always been present in Borderlands, but in my experience (The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us), have been rare in Telltale Games.

Canon

Tales from the Borderlands Rhys and Handsome Jack

New meets old when Rhys gets a visit from Handsom Jack

The existing Borderlands canon continues to play a major role in Tales from the Borderlands as Atlas Mugged utilizes established characters and places familiar to veteran Vault Hunters, including Handsome Jack, Athena, Scooter, Janey Springs, the Crimson Lance, the Atlas corporation and Old Haven. In many instances, the reappearance of these characters and places feels like reuniting with an old friend, even if some of them are the enemy.

But Telltale has added to the existing canon in obvious ways, including the additions of characters like Fiona, Sasha, Rhys, Vaughn, Vasquez, etc. But they also added the Gortys Project, a project funded by Atlas to locate hidden vaults, which has become the central storyline for Tales from the Borderlands’ protagonists, a giant Atlas base hidden beneath Old Haven. So it seems that Telltale has some freedom to add to the canon, so long as they do it in a very Borderlands kind of way.

Predictable, but fun

With answers to the existing questions out of the way, where does that leave Atlas Mugged? With predictable gameplay that delivers a solid dose of fun.

The action in the game has a unique Borderlands bent to it, but it’s about on par with the action sequences from previous Telltale Games – The Walking Dead required some shooting; The Wolf Among Us some hand-to-hand combat; Tales from the Borderlands has us catching eyeballs and evading obstacles in a broken down caravan.The point-and-click mechanics carry over from franchise to franchise as well: move the cursor around the screen and click a button to take a close look at various objects littered throughout the environment.

It’s all just different flavors of the same drink.

And yet, 17 episodes into three different Telltale Games franchises, I’m still having a blast. Atlas Mugged may be my favorite episode of any Telltale franchise yet, as in the 90 or so minutes of gameplay I spent a good portion of them laughing out loud. There’s no doubt that Telltale not only successfully adopted Gearbox’s sense of humor for the series, but wove it intricately into their story to make it their own. The perfect example of their success comes in dialog between Rhys and Vaughn that’s initially a little heavy on the “bros” before turning into … well … this:

The charm of that scene, and many others, comes from the fact that the entire game is framed around two separate retellings of past events. One from Rhys’ perspective, the other from Fiona’s. What’s revealed through these stories, and propelled by player choices and actions, is the evolved relationship between our protagonists – despite their bickering, it’s clear that the two actually do care for one another, largely because the player cares for both of them. Sure both characters are likeable, but story circumstances cause the player to identify with each separately (Fiona’s loss of her father figure; Rhys’ betrayal by Hyperion) solidifying the desire to care for them while playing as the other (67% of players choosing to seek out Fiona and Sasha at Hollow Point instead of going directly to Old Haven; or 66% of players trusting Fiona over Jack, for example).

It’s clear that the storytelling techniques mastered by Telltale combined with the beautifully insane universe of Borderlands propels Tales from the Borderlands to new heights, making the game an integral and integrated part of the Borderlands franchise which adds significantly to the canon. It’s these elements that allow the game to overcome predictable gameplay elements to deliver an entertaining experience.

A few rough edges

While the story is funny and is engaging, the artwork is beautiful, and the music delightfully composed, the game does have a few rough edges.

For one, on Xbox360 at least, the engine the game is built on (Telltale Tool) is starting to show some wear, with noticeably extended load times between scenes, and some stuttering here and there causing some scenes to skip like a scratched record when they start. While the engine was developed for easy portability across platforms, it may be time for another update or to use a new engine capable of handling expansive games more capably. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that Game of Thrones on the Xbox360 experienced far worse issues including frame rate drops and freezes which make the game nearly unplayable. While I can’t personally confirm these issues never having played Game of Thrones, I can confirm that the lesser versions of these issues are starting to creep into Tales from the Borderlands, perhaps serving as an early warning sign of bigger issues to comes.

The real oddity for me was in some of the production value slips which I experienced in Atlas Mugged. There were multiple instances in my play session where the audio balance was off and the background music of some of the more intense scenes was so loud as to actually drown out the character dialog as it was delivered. As you can imagine, in a game predicated on story and player decision, the dialog is a critical component and missing key segments of it could be problematic. This was the first time I experienced this issue in a Telltale game and I was a little taken aback by it, especially considering how well put together the game is as a whole.

Luckily these instances were the exception and not the rule, but even so, experiencing multiple skips, extended load times and a handful of production slips in a 90-minute play session raised a few eyebrows. Hopefully Telltale works out the kinks for future episodes and these aren’t early warning signs of major problems to comes.

Among the best

Even with these issues and predictable gameplay elements, Atlas Mugged delivered a truly enjoyable experience, one that ranks among the best of Telltale’s catalog. Ultimately, what Telltale has shown is that by focusing on their core strength of storytelling they can overcome a host of challenges to deliver an amazing game. Applying that strength to an established and successful franchise like Borderlands allows for an expansion of that universe in a meaningful way. If Telltale can deliver similar quality in the remaining three episodes, Tales from the Borderlands will surely be considered a critical entry in the Borderlands canon and must-play for fans of the franchise.