The Borderlands franchise is one that has a distinct look and feel, a sense of place, and even a universe that is recognisable and violently chaotic. And yet, the core series isn’t really known for storytelling - at least in the character-driven, traditional sense. That stuff took an all-the-way-in-the-back seat position to the action, spectacle, and looting in wide-open sci-fi environments.
Telltale’s Tales From The Borderlands from 2014 though, an episodic narrative in the style of what the studio delivered for The Walking Dead, is the exception. Or, the validation. A character-driven story that makes full use of Borderlands and its over-the-top, bleak, cartoonishly violent universe.
It was in Tales From The Borderlands that the series’ wise-cracking robots, cynical worldviews, and satirical themes around greed, ambition, and even some down-to-earth empathy, were given room to breathe. Without the constant action-RPG repetition of shooting and looting, it showcased that the world of Borderlands was as ripe for setting a tale as it was for trying out different guns, and the potential combining those two things presents.
Similarly, the structure here is five episodes, and like the Telltale games of old, there are post Episode breakdowns letting you know how your decisions compared with those made by other players.
This of course brings us to New Tales From The Borderlands, developed by Gearbox itself, which serves as a spiritual successor to the critically acclaimed original Telltale series - whilst looking to bring the “interactive narrative in the Borderlands universe” concept into 2022. Similarly, the structure here is five episodes, and like the Telltale games of old, there are post Episode breakdowns letting you know how your decisions compared with those made by other players.
That said, it’s a singular story being told with the various Episodes serving as chapter breaks with cliffhangers. Taking control of three characters, Anu, Octavio, and Fran, the story just about nails the combination of Borderlands’ more cynical and bleaker themes with a very welcome dose of humanity. Having former Atlas employee Anu’s invention be, for all intents and purposes, a ‘Healy Gun’, not only serves as a potential get-rich-quick scheme for her brother Octavio to latch onto - but it brings into question the very nature of the Borderlands universe and the various weapons manufacturers that run the show.
New Tales From The Borderlands is still very much Borderlands and even Anu is presented with situations where she can violently deal with Psychos and others. Like with the core games, cartoonish violence is played for laughs. As empathetic as Anu, and even the rage-filled Fran are, there’s no mistaking the setting for anything else. The good news is that the story, writing, and characterisations are a lot better than what was seen in the somewhat juvenile Borderlands 3. So much so that New Tales From The Borderlands elevates a lot of the good stuff about the franchise as opposed to feeling like an off-shoot. And on that note, hit some of the same highs as the original Tales from the Borderlands.
In terms of writing each of the three protagonists, plus their robotic companion L0u13 (“Louie”) who brings some HK-47-style assassin-bot matter-of-factness to proceedings, are wonderfully realised. Though this does come at a cost to interactivity and the general sense of choice making a lasting impact. New Tales features multiple endings, though a lot of the QTE elements are inserted at times when they feel more like interrupting the story versus anything with real stakes. There are times when it feels like you’re watching a story play out versus being a key part of it, and that’s a shame.
New Tales From The Borderlands is still very much Borderlands and even Anu is presented with situations where she can violently deal with Psychos and others. Like with the core games, cartoonish violence is played for laughs. As empathetic as Anu, and even the rage-filled Fran are, there’s no mistaking the setting for anything else.
Likewise, dialogue options are mostly variations on a theme, making it hard to really gauge how a second playthrough with different choices might feel. The impact you have on shaping a character takes a backseat to merely presenting a slight variation. At least, that was the general impression gleaned from a single playthrough.
And as great as a lot of the writing and humour is, the “game stuff” feels a little tacked on too. This has always been a problem with the narrative-game genre because it’s hard to balance a story’s pacing with that of interactivity that feels meaningful. Limited free-roam sections are broken up with a satirical Vaultlander mini-fig mini-game, but the initial joy and humour are lost once you realise that the mini-game is essentially pressing a single button over and over and dodging attacks via an equally simple QTE sequence.
The overarching story of three outcasts looking to make their way in an increasingly violent and oppressed world is where the game shines - and rightfully so. There are wonderful detours into corporate life, Shark Tank-like exploitative TV shows, and how getting exactly what you want won't make you happy. Plus, a hilarious talking Tediore gun called Brock.
Visually the characters, animation, and cinematics benefit greatly from the use of performance capture, and it doesn’t take long for the physical ticks and mannerisms of the three main players to do that thing where they no longer feel like characters in the story - but, real characters. This is the best the franchise has looked from a purely cinematic level. In the end, New Tales From The Borderlands succeeds because it lives up to its namesake and presents the best Borderlands storytelling since the original Tales.