Telltale Games has emerged as the best source for dynamic, story rich and entertaining adventure games in the industry today. From their earlier titles like Tales from Monkey Island or Sam and Max to current hits like The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead they consistently deliver amazing story-driven adventures. They continue to branch out into unexplored territories in the adventure games genre with the recently released Tales From the Borderlands: Episode One – Zer0 Sum, a witty, gorgeous, faithful, but simple entry in their list of franchises.
This new glimpse into the Borderlands world is set after the events of Borderlands 2. You start the game as Rhys (voiced by Troy Baker), an up-and-coming Hyperion executive who always has a plan. He believes that due to his recent maneuvering he will be getting a large promotion, but as games always have conflict he is stabbed in the back and demoted instead. He and his friends come up with a plan to steal his bosses’ deal and claim a vault key on Pandora and soon enough he is on the ground and faced with all the lunacy Pandora has to offer.
One of the neat hooks of this series is that you control two separate characters who are intertwined through plot events and multiple twists. The other character is Fiona (voiced by Laura Bailey), a Pandora native and an accomplished con artist. She intersects with Rhys during an operation gone wrong and the two of them (and many assorted characters) get thrown together to try and survive Pandora while trying to make a profit. One of the more interesting angles this game takes is that the story is told via flashbacks and both characters frequently lie, which changes the narrative to suit what they are saying. It reminds me of the changing narrative from Call of Juarez: Gunslinger in a very good way.
As the story progress we are introduced to Vault Hunters from the original game series, popular NPCs, and new bandits and villains and get an interesting glimpse into the logistics of the Hyperion ecosystem. The dialog is fresh and varied with a terrific cast including Baker, Bailey, Nolan North and Patrick Warburton.
These great voice actors are a very key point of why this first episode is so enjoyable. In the original games, aside from a few key moments, most of the exposition happens while you are shooting, traversing or causing chaos so it is often overlooked. Tales from the Borderlands is a story-focused adventure game, so the exchanges between characters have to be spot-on, and in this case they are very nearly brilliant. The interactions are fun and often surprising, the conversation choices are interesting and the story is genuinely fun and enjoyable.
All of this focus on a tight narrative is great because the actual gameplay is shockingly simple compared to some of TellTale’s previous titles. There are a number of interesting mechanics introduced such as money for Fiona so she can buy items or bribe people and Rhys’s echo eye that can scan the environment, but none of these tools is used to introduce difficult challenges. Throughout the episode you need to fight off bandits, race a death course, sabotage a container and a host of other tasks, but none of them were anywhere close to being difficult to figure out. I found the episode very fun, but it leaned more towards an interactive experience than what you could call a true game.
For this first episode I am OK with the simplistic approach to the challenges as the goal was seemingly to introduce the world and mechanics. The story, setting, performances and flashback he said/she said narrative really work and drew me into the world in a deeper way than even the original games did and I was pleasantly surprised by that. All in all Tales From the Borderlands: Episode One – Zer0 Sum is a great start to the series and hopefully in future episodes the gameplay will become more engaging as the premise alone cannot carry the series more than an episode or two without a shift to a more challenging and engaging experience.