Review: Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 4

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.

Tales from the Borderlands Escape Plan Bravo

Tales from the Borderlands: Escape Plan Bravo cover art

Episode 4: Escape Plan Bravo

To understand the entire package of Tales from the Borderlands, I’ve been tracking my impressions of each episode based on a series of questions first established in Episode 1: Zer0 Sum:

  • 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?

Each subsequent episode adjusted my impressions. I declared Episode 2: Atlas Mugged “a truly enjoyable experience, one that ranks among the best of Telltale’s catalog.” After Episode 3: Catch a Ride, I became concerned with growing flaws, stating “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.” Luckily, Episode 4: Escape Plan Bravo showed significantly fewer flaws, allowing me to focus on the most important part of any Telltale game – the story – while providing a definitive answer to a few of our initial questions.

Action

Episode 4: Escape Plan Bravo is easily the least action-intensive episode thus far, with only a few moments here and there, and it appears to have the unintended benefit of reducing the strain on Telltale’s aging gaming engine. After Episode 3: Catch a Ride I wrote:

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.”

While it’s impossible for me confirm that reducing the action sequences resulted directly in improved performance, what I can confirm is that I didn’t experience nearly as many moments of choppiness, time skips and prolonged load times. In fact, I hardly experienced any of these problems, lending some credence to my suspicion that the engine was struggling under the weight of heavy action (for a Telltale game). Or perhaps Telltale handled some tweaks behind the scenes to enable better performance on seventh generation hardware. Either way, the improved performance was a much-welcomed change and benefited the story-centric approach by reducing interruptions and distractions and allowing the story to shine.

Humor

With the flaws out of the way, I was able to return to focusing on the strength of Tales from the Borderlands: the humor. And it was prevalent. One of the funnier moments (in a series full of them) was the finger gun fight between Rhys (posing as Hugo Vasquez) and a squadron of Hyperion accountants:

Incidentally, this appears to be an homage to a very similar scene in Edgar Wright’s (and crew) Spaced;:

It’s always nice to see a game developer take inspiration from and pay tribute to other mediums. As a big fan of Spaced, I instantly recognized Telltale’s tip-of-the-cap which made the scene that much more enjoyable.

Of course there are plenty of other funny moments such as Fiona’s ad libbed tour of Handsome Jack’s office, and Rhys peeling Vazquez’s face off of a psycho (who is wearing it as a mask), among others.

Canon

To this point, Telltale has treated their additions to the Borderlands canon with relative kid gloves, introducing a few characters (including our protagonists Rhys, Fiona, Vaughn and Sasha) while relying mostly on established characters and scenarios to develop situations and storylines. In fact, I’ve had so little to say in regards to question of Telltale’s freedom to add to the Borderlands canon that Theory of Gaming co-founder Josh Snyder has asked me more than once why it’s important if the game should be considered canon or not. Well, it is now definitively important, as Telltale killed off Borderlands stalwart character and fan favorite, Scooter.

This arguably more impactful than Roland’s death in Borderlands 2, as Scooter wasn’t a frontline soldier in the war for Pandora, he was a civilian mechanic who played a key role in saving the civilians of Pandora, who had survived multiple Hyperion attacks, the opening of multiple vaults and most importantly, was always there to encourage players to “Catch a Ride!” If he’s truly gone, and Tales from the Borderlands is indeed part of the Borderlands canon, I’m going to miss Scooter as I’m sure many others will.

Tales from the Borderlands Butt Stallion

The mythical “Butt Stallion” in all her diamond glory.

On the other side, more and more of the existing Borderlands canon has worked its way into Tales from the Borderlands, including a glimpse of the famed “Butt Stallion” (Handsome Jack’s pony made of diamonds), Janey Springs helps build the rocket used to reach Helios, and of course there’s the time spent in Old Haven.

A return to expectations

It’s amazing how much more enjoyable a game becomes when it’s not buried by flaws and glitches. It’s frustrating in average games which put the focus on game play, but when the focus of a game is primarily story-based, that frustration is amplified as the player misses key moments of dialog, exposition, etc. Luckily, the flaws holding back previous episodes from reaching expected levels of excellence are decidedly absent in Episode 4: Escape Plan Bravo, and the timing couldn’t have been better as the episode included some critical moments, not just for the Tales from the Borderlands series, but the entire Borderlands franchise. The result was a return to excellence surpassing even my enjoyment of Episode 2: Atlas Mugged, which is saying something as it ranks among Telltale’s best.

Setting the stage for an epic finale

There’s one episode left in the season, and based on the events we already experienced and where we left off (Rhys and Jack have just retaken control of the Hyperion corporation) the stage has been set for an epic finale.There are loose ends to tie up (how will Rhys rule Hyperion? How did Rhys and Fiona end up prisoners in the wasteland?); there are mysteries to solve (Who is their mystery captor? What happened to Athena following her capture by Vallory? Where is Vaughn and what will his role be?); but most importantly, will the game return to heavy doses of action, and if so, will the engine hold up or will the disruptive flaws return? Answering this last question holds the key to determining whether Tales from the Borderlands ranks among Telltale’s best, or whether it ends up a frustrating waste of time by never reaching its true potential.

Episode 4: Escape Plan Bravo, the penultimate episode in the season, has revived the series, but will Episode 5 push it over the edge or will it slide back down hill?