Review: Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 5

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 5: The Vault of the Traveler

Tales from the Borderlands: The Vault of the Traveler

Tales from the Borderlands: The Vault of the Traveler cover art

We finally reached the conclusion of Tales from the Borderlands, meaning we should finally have clarity to the questions I’ve tracked since Episode 1: Zer0 Sum. A quick refresher on exactly what those questions are:

  • 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?

And a quick refresher on my take from each previous episode:

  • Episode 1: Zer0 Sum started off “so far so good.”
  • 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.”
  • Episode 4: Escape Plan Bravo “return[ed] to excellence surpassing even my enjoyment of Episode 2: Atlas Mugged …”

Action

Tales from the Borderlands Ryu Moves List

Tales from the Borderlands borrowed button combos similar to those from iconic fighting games for the fight against The Traveler.

Episode 5 brought with it a return to the action-heavy approach found in Episode 3, and which was decidedly absent in Episode 4, which makes a lot of sense. For those familiar with the Borderlands franchise, the end sequence of every storyline (main story or DLC) concludes with a boss fight, and Tales from the Borderlands follows that same recipe. This time, the vault hunters, Rhys and Fiona (along with a cast of companions) fight a monster known as The Traveler, which in typical Borderlands fashion guards the vault treasure. The Traveler is the largest of the vault bosses we’ve experienced to date (which is repeatedly mentioned by characters such as Athena and Zer0) which is saying something being that Borderlands veterans have faced a litany of giant bosses, including The Destroyer and The Warrior.

What’s unique about this boss battle is it incorporates the use of the quicktime events which make up the action sequences on Telltale games, but they used the on-screen prompts as visual commands for pulling off Street Fighter-style combo moves. Rather than simply mashing the “A” button repeatedly to prompt an action, the on-screen commands featured combinations like: ↑ → ↓ X,  or → → B.

Fighting game veterans will identify these types of commands as core combinations for initiating special moves like Ryu’s “Shoryuken” in Street Fighter, or Sub Zero’s “Ice Ball” in Mortal Kombat. This was a nice way to create a unique and memorable boss battle while still utilizing the core mechanics of the game.

But the action wasn’t limited to fighting The Traveler – other action sequences arise throughout the episode, including when the player, as Rhys, works to disable Helios’ (Hyperion’s base in outer space) power core in an effort to prevent Handsome Jack from regaining control of Hyperion as a robot with his consciousness.

Humor

In keeping with Borderlands tradition, the humor is equally abundant to the action, permeating the majority of scenes in this episode. Among the more humorous moments is when it’s revealed that Rhys and Fiona’s captor (the masked villain who has been holding them at gunpoint the entire season) is actually Loader Bot, the bot who protected Rhys and pals until he sacrificed himself in Helios. They pull the mask off their captor and there’s Loader Bot’s glowing red eye, attached to a new endoskeleton. It turns out, he just wanted to bring all his friends together again.

Another humorous moment comes when fighting The Traveler. In an homage to Voltron, Rhys, who is now inside Gortys, the cute little robot who was the key to opening the vault who has taken on its “final form” (a giant fighting robot), stands in front of an arcade joystick ready to take control and do battle with the giant vault monster. The only problem? Rhys has only ever fought with finger guns. Luckily for him, Gortys’ fingers actually are guns! Further hilarity ensures when the rest of the gang joins Rhys inside Gortys, with each vault hunter standing at their color-coded joystick, taking turns controlling the giant robot, performing special maneuvers.

Finally, the moment that caused me to laugh the hardest was when the vault hunters were traveling back to a base constructed out of the remains of Helios (more on that in a moment), and it’s revealed that former Hyperion employees view Rhys as “the great liberator,” and to honor him they constructed a monument. That monument turns out to be a headless statue of Handsome Jack with the word “Rhys” spraypainted on it.

Canon

Tales from the Borderlands Rhys and Yvette power core

All hell breaks loose when Rhys shuts down Helios’ power core, causing the iconic base to fall from orbit.

It was firmly established in Episode 4, with the death of Borderlands stalwart character Scooter, that if Telltale has the freedom to adjust the Borderlands canon, that they’re going to do so in a significant way. They reaffirmed this in Episode 5 when Rhys destroys Helios’ power core; as a result, Helios falls from orbit, crashing onto Pandora. This is no small act – Helios has been hovering in the sky above Pandora since the first Borderlands, and even served as a battleground in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Borderlands veterans are intimately familiar with Helios, and if the next Borderlands game remains on Pandora (or its moon, Elpis where the other half of the Pre-Sequel took place), it’s going to feel weird to not have Helios up there in the sky serving as a menacing presence.

It was an interesting decision when Telltale seemingly revived Handsome Jack from the dead (a hologram) in Episode 1, but he’s such a good villain, and so central to the events of the Borderlands series, that it made sense that they’d like to incorporate him into their entry. But whereas reviving him opened up numerous possibilities for future games, resolutely killing him (Rhys destroys his hologram containing his consciousness) firmly closes the book on the story of Handsome Jack.

But when Telltale closed the book on Jack, they opened the book on Rhys and Fiona. Rhys is now running Atlas, another Borderlands mainstay, after taking Jack’s controlling shares from his office, while Fiona has officially been trained by Athena as a vault hunter. It’ll be interesting to see in future Borderlands games where their stories lead.

All is not well

Unfortunately, while there were many great moments in Episode 5, another many were overshadowed with significant issues. Similar to Episode 3, which coupled heavy doses of action with significant load times, stuttering scenes and other issues, Episode 5 came loaded with both action and issues as well. The biggest problem were centered on sound; background music was often too loud, obscuring key lines of dialog, and worse, dialog often was completely absent for one character during conversations. For example, in a conversation between Rhys and Vaughn, Rhys’ lips would move as if he was talking, but no sound would come out, giving us only Vaughn’s dialog. In a story-based games, this is unacceptable; dialog is a critical component to delivering the story to the player, and when that dialog is absent, it impacts our understanding of critical moments.

Another problem was flickering background art assets – as I made my way through the game, both action sequences and moments of calm conversation among players were littered with pieces of the environment popping in and out of existence. One moment, a step in Helios or a rock on Pandora would be there, the next it was gone, only to return again in rapid succession. While it didn’t impact the gameplay to the magnitude the sounds issues did, it was still a pretty rampant distraction, and one that hadn’t been present to this point in Tales from the Borderlands.

Tales from the Borderlands vault hunters

Telltale’s engine seems to struggle under the weight of heavy action.

Finally, excessively long load times reared their head again, both between scenes, and sometimes in the middle of action sequences. You can imagine how jarring it is to be in the middle of the final boss battle with a short time to complete a quick time event sequence, when right in the middle of it, the entire game stalls for an extended moment, completely disrupting the timing of the sequence. Beyond that, just like in Episode 3, some of the load times between scenes were so long, that I thought the game had frozen – just as I was about to restart the game, it would jump back to life.

The curious thing is that many of these issues seemed to have been sorted out in Episode 4, when I didn’t experience any of them. Following Episode 4, I wondered if the lack of issues were a result of the reduction in action-heavy sequences. With the evidence presented in Episode 5, which was action-heavy, it appears that may be the case. Following the issues in Episode 3, I suggested that perhaps Telltale’s aging engine is incapable of handling heavy action on the older consoles and Telltale would need to either address that or cease making games for older hardware, or risk alienating players. Now that we seemingly have confirmation of that theory, it’s time for Telltale to take one of those two actions.

Greatness overshadowed

It’s really too bad that Telltale couldn’t iron out the issues permanently ahead of Episode 5, as they hold the game back from reaching its capable heights of greatness … and you can be sure there’s a great game lurking beneath the shadows. Telltale masterfully adapted the signature components of Borderlands including the action, humor, looting and boss battles which define the franchise. It’s no easy task to take an existing and well-defined property like Borderlands and adapt it to Telltale’s seemingly-contradictory story-centric approach, and yet, Tales from the Borderlands should be considered a must-play for Borderlands fans, as it significantly advances the story and impacts the canon in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, it’s hard to classify a game with some of these flaws as a “must play” as it sets ups players for an unnecessarily frustrating experience.