Review: Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 3

Tales from the Borderlands CaR cover art

Catch a Ride cover art

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 3: Catch a Ride

Episode 1: Zer0 Sum left us with a few questions:

  • 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?

Based on these questions, we gave our impressions for Episode 2: Atlas Mugged. But those same questions make up the framework of how I thought about Episode 3: Catch a Ride while playing, so they’re worth revisiting to see how the game changed between episodes.

Action

The game opens with an action sequence in which the player must play as Fiona and peek around boxes and corners and tell Rhys when to move to new cover to avoid automated turrets. The problem with opening the game with an action sequence is that the player is being dropped into the episode fresh, with limited memory of the controls and the game’s on-screen prompts only provide limited guidance. This combination led to a handful of failures while I reacquainted myself with the admittedly simplistic controls. But more frustrating than the repeated failure was the need to rewatch the sequence scene leading up to the action sequence over and over – while the game essentially serves as an interactive story, this felt akin to the days of unskippable cutscenes. It became a bit of a tedious chore after a while. While we’ve argued in the past that perhaps more developers should adopt an episodic approach to game design, herein lies a major flaw with that approach – lack of play memory.

Humor

The humor survived the leap to Episode 3 unscathed, providing more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. Handsome Jack continues to be arguably the most amusing character in the Borderlands universe (Mr. Torgue gives him a run for his money) even though he’s a hologram only Rhys can see.

But the crowning moment of humor comes from Vaughn after he’s given a cure for his artificially-induced paralysis (which kept him from blinking).

Tales from the Borderlands Vaugh Eye Lick

Hilarious.

Humor permeates the Borderlands franchise and often serves as a way for players to connect with the characters, both playable and not. Tales from the Borderlands utilizes the same technique – humor makes all of the characters in the game relatable in some way, whether they’re protagonists, antagonists, real or hologram, playable or not.

Canon

There’s no doubt that Tales from the Borderlands should be considered canon – Episode 3 picks up the torch and runs with both existing characters and themes. More established vault hunters show up including Brick and Mordecai, and more goofy robots do too when it’s revealed that Gortys isn’t just a project, but a key character in the vein of CL4P-TP (aka Claptrap). In fact, Gortys is what happens if you take Claptrap, roll it into a ball, add a dash of innocence and give it a too-cute-to-be-good voice.

Tales from the Borderlands Gortys

Gortys is like Claptrap … with innocence.

Of course goofy robots aren’t the only theme carried forward from the primary Borderlands games; we also find out that our main characters are being groomed as vault hunters themselves, which of course they are. Athena, a well-known vault hunter and assassin, has been contracted to assist Fiona and Sasha in their quest to unlock their “untapped potential” in this field – once this reveal happens, Athena wastes no time in taking the training wheels off and pushing Fiona further down the vault-hunter-in-training path.

Rough and Getting Rougher

Unfortunately, themes, characters and mechanics aren’t the only thing carried forward from previous episodes; many of the problems that plagued Episode 2 also remain, and they seem to be getting worse. Load times between scenes seem to be getting longer and longer – something I wasn’t sure was even possible after how long they were in Episode 2. There were many points where I considered rebooting the Xbox 360 because I thought the console had frozen.

But worse, new problems with the engine seem to be cropping up. In multiple instances, I would select a dialog option from the on-screen prompt before the scene played out; however, rather than the scene playing out as it should, and waiting until it was time for my character to deliver their line, the scene jumped right to my line, skipping what I can only assume was some important or funny moments. After all, Telltale games are story-based affairs which emphasize the happenings in any and every scene; the game skipping randomly forward in time is counterproductive and detrimental to this approach.

Whereas the issues I encountered in Episode 2 were the exception and not the norm, they became increasingly common in Episode 3, to the point where it was closer to a 50/50 split between quality and problem. This would be disappointing in any game, but for a Telltale game it’s especially so as prior to Tales from the Borderlands they had delivered near seamless experiences. Perhaps this is the product of their engine sagging under the weight of higher quality images and textures, and more action-oriented gameplay. Of course there’s always the chance that the PC and next-gen console versions handle the game better, but that should be reason enough to avoid publishing on platforms incapable of delivering a quality experience. While I’m still using and enjoying seventh generation consoles, there comes a time when developers and publishers must recognize the limitations of aging hardware and opt for quality instead.

Where will Episode 4 take us?

Beneath the growing problems resides a fun and hilarious game, one that I’m anxious to see through to the end; but Telltale has to examine the flaws which have crept into the game and take action to repair them ahead of Episode 4. If they don’t, there’s a legitimate chance that the flaws will overtake an otherwise valuable addition to the Borderlands franchise, and that would be a real shame.

In my review of Episode 2, I called the game “among the best” because to that point, Tales from the Borderlands added significantly to a franchise that I adore, and in a way that was truly unique to the Borderlands universe. Telltale and Gearbox had managed to apply an approach (de-emphasizing action and looting, and emphasizing storytelling) in a way that was counter-intuitive to the franchise, while ensuring that it remained a natural and important entry. After Episode 3, I still see moments of that greatness, but it’s getting increasingly overshadowed – if Telltale doesn’t self-correct soon, there’s a chance that the promise of greatness goes unfulfilled and we’re left with an entry in the franchise that players will feel isn’t worth the trouble.