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Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 - Zer0 Sum

Score: 100%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Adventure


Graphics & Sound:

While Iím a fan of most of Telltaleís work, I had no idea how to feel about Tales from the Borderlands when it was announced. Gearboxís shoot-and-loot franchise is known for a lot of things, but story-heavy gameplay isnít really one of them. Granted, Borderlands 2 and its expansions surprised everyone with a surprisingly good narrative with special care shown to its cast of characters. But still, this was the last partnership we imagined coming together for a project. But this is one of those extremely happy surprises: Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 Ė Zer0 Sum is a resounding success. It builds on the established fiction in surprising, meaningful ways and stops at nothing to have you in stitches.

Borderlands has a very distinct look and feel, and most recent Telltale releases have followed a visual template that is very much in line with that aesthetic. Tales from the Borderlands absolutely passes for a game in the franchise. The franchiseísÖ shall we say excessive personality is reflected extremely well, from the insane amount of stylized violence to the seductively trashy environments to the wonderfully-designed character models. Rhys initially appears to have a severe case of heterochromia and what appears to be the remnant of a ghastly head wound. But later on we see that neither of them are there by accident. The other characters look, well, Pandoran. Fiona and her comrades straddle the line between opulent luxury and slapdash minimalism.

Tales from the Borderlands features uniformly excellent sound design, with special praise directed towards the excellent voice cast. Troy Baker and Laura Bailey bring Rhys and Fiona to life in classic Borderlands style. Even The Nerdist Podcastís Chris Hardwick gets in on the action as Rhysí buddy Vaughn. The music is also decidedly Borderlands: from the violent opening hilariously and aptly set to Jungle's "Busy Earnin'" to the dirty western guitar licks known to series fans. It's excellent and completely true to form.


Gameplay:

Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 Ė Zer0 Sum takes place after the events of Borderlands 2 and begins in medias res, with a man named Rhys being captured by a mysterious, steel-clad stranger and hauled off to an encampment. The stranger wants to know exactly what brought Rhys to this point, and heís eager enough to comply.

Rhys is a corporate lackey for the villainous Hyperion corporation, which is still reeling from the loss of CEO and world class asshole Handsome Jack. Rhys is on his way to his bossís office under the impression that heís about to receive a hefty promotion. Unfortunately for him, his nemesis Vasquez has thrown the boss out of the airlock and assumed the position himself, and "promoted" him to Assistant Vice Janitor. But his chance for vengeance shows up when Vasquez gets a call from a fence who claims to have a Vault Key. So he teams up with his best buddy Vaughn and their mutual friend Yvette, steals ten million dollars of Hyperionís cash, and leaves the moon base of Helios for the Pandoran wastes.

Fiona is a con artist who grew up on Pandora with her kid sister Sasha and their mentor Felix. And they are actually involved in the transaction between Hyperion and August (the fence). And by "involved," I obviously mean theyíre running a confidence game against both parties. The specifics of the con are best seen firsthand, but all you need to know at this point is that they are good at what they do.

The narration switches between Rhys and Fiona, which leads to some pretty hilarious unreliable narrator moments. And whatís even more impressive is that the writers have taken a world in which there are no good guys and come up with some seriously likable characters that just happen to be morally bankrupt. Rhys, Fiona, Vaughn, and Sasha positively crackle with comedic chemistry; I absolutely canít wait to see what kind of trouble these idiots get themselves into over the next four episodes.


Difficulty:

Talking about difficulty in a Telltale game may be the most redundant thing Iíve ever had to do. These games canít really be failed; itís beside the point of the entire experience. To be sure, you can screw up quick time events, but I never did, even though my reflexes arenít always on point. So if you want a straightforward answer as to the difficulty of Tales from the Borderlands, the answer is "it's easy."

The challenge that's actually presented has nothing to do with skill. The difficulties these games are known for are the ones that are directed towards how you hope the story to play out. And since a good story is rarely predictable, it's really best if you just pick what you want to see and hope for the best.


Game Mechanics:

Like in most Telltale games, there isn't really much gameplay to speak of in Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 - Zer0 Sum. But when you're in control, you're mainly walking around environments, exploring your surroundings and investigating points of interest. This gameplay style receives a welcome shot of personality from its franchise; Rhys' left eye is a digital prosthesis that allows him to scan objects and provide him with a suitably hilarious description. Fiona, being a thief, has to worry about her cash reserves. This isn't explored deeply in Zer0 Sum, but one late game decision figures into it -- albeit not a very important one. And you'll get the chance to do a bit of looting, though only time will tell how much of an impact that has on the future of the story.

Most of your time will be spent watching the story unfold, but you'll be given opportunities to influence the actions of both Rhys and Fiona, and by extension, the overarching narrative. Dialogue options will appear when the story calls for them, and in both classic Borderlands fashion and in a departure from Telltale's almost completely serious backlog of the past few years, you may find yourself choosing certain options just because they're funnier. This is reflective of the amorality of the cast of characters and the world of Pandora as a whole. It's really refreshing to play a Telltale game that lets you throw caution to the wind; after playing The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Game of Thrones, it's nice to be free of the stress and tension and just indulge in a great belly laugh. And as frequently as Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 - Zer0 Sum provides.

It wouldn't be a Borderlands game if there wasn't some good old ultraviolence. And there's lots of it in Zer0 Sum. Of course, the action translates to the simple quick time events that Telltale is known for providing. Simple analog stick motions and instances of button mashing are all you'll have to worry about, so there's not much to say. It's a good thing it's so simple, though; you'll want to see the madness that unfolds on the screen.

Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 1 - Zer0 Sum is the best of both worlds. It has all the personality of Borderlands (although it lacks the mechanical depth of it), and all the great characters and dialogue you expect from a Telltale game. If you're a fan of one or the other, you'd be wise to at least look into it. If you're a fan of both, however, stop reading this and go download it immediately.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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