Article first published as PlayStation 4 Review: ‘Tales From the Borderlands: Episode One – Zer0 Sum’ from Gearbox on Blogcritics.
The new Tales From the Borderlands adventure game series marks an opportunity for the developers to share the wild world of Pandora with a whole new audience. Gearbox’s loot driven, RPG-like, first-person shooter franchise, Borderlands is an undisputed hit, but has been criticized for its thin narrative and meme-like humor. Like TellTale’s The Wolf Among Us and their treatment of The Walking Dead, Tales From the Borderlands will be a five part episodic series. Though the original Borderlands games offer little opportunity to dig into the vibrant world their set in, the new Tales series, set after the events of Borderlands 2, slows everything down, long enough to revel in the unforgiving cell-shaded world.
Tales from the Borderlands: Episode One – Zer0 Sum begins with Rhys, voiced by Troy Baker, an ambitious Hyperion employee, with dreams of being the next Handsome Jack. Rhys and a couple of his coworkers have orchestrated a life changing promotion for him that will carry the other two, on his coattails. The plan is quickly annihilated by Patrick Warburton’s Vasquez, a ruthless corporate climber, one step ahead of Rhys. That doesn’t stop Rhys from improvising, though. Unfortunately, Tales From the Borderlands quickly reveals that this plan doesn’t work out either and the first episode ends up as a retelling of events that have already transpired.
TellTales’s typical formula of adventure gaming is on display in Tales From the Borderlands, albeit with some changes. The most successful mechanic in the game is actually its method of delivering the narrative. Where previous games have followed a single protagonist throughout the series, Tales From the Borderlands actually puts players in the role of two different characters. Where the corporate suck up, Rhys isn’t the most sympathetic character, the second main character and professional con artist, Fiona is much more likeable. The success of the other changes in the recipe are a bit more debatable.
For an adventure game based on a frenetic first-person shooter, Zer0 Sum is fairly pedestrian. The majority of the game is spent in dialogue choices, with a few exploration and combat sequences, though the tension is never really dialed up. Strangely, a currency system and weapon upgrade mechanic have also been introduced, but as of now, it seems superfluous. Personally, I didn’t mind the pace while getting to know the characters, but many fans of the Borderlands games might find the experience a little too pedestrian. As the episode’s title implies, a vault hunter does make a cameo and his action-oriented scenes might make a few players feel unnecessarily handicapped.
While I found Telltales’s take on The Walking Dead a mixed bag, with the first season more engaging than the second, I thought The Wolf Among Us was really great. To be fair, all of these adventure games are kind of like Mass Effect or Dragon Age lite, but they’re a worthwhile diversion between the bigger iterations, and are arguably more accessible with a wider audience. It’s too soon to tell for sure, but after the first episode, Tales From the Borderlands seems like it is off to a good start, even if adventure games aren’t for everyone. Here’s to hoping the upcoming Game of Thrones adventure game series is equally as successful.