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Saturday, 6 December 2014

Tales From The Borderlands Episode 1: Zer0 Sum.

Tales From The Borderlands
Episode 1: Zer0 Sum.

Between this and the The Walking Dead Masterpost, this is turning out to be a bit of a Telltale Games day. But that's fine. Who doesn't like Telltale Games, after all? Foolish people, dear reader. Foolish people.

Tales From The Borderlands: Zer0 Sum puts you in the shoes of two characters, each of whom is telling their side of the same set of events, in a manner that reminds me more than a little of British heist movies. We'll get to that. These are Rhys, cyborg company man of vast megacorporation Hyperion; and Fiona, a Pandoran con-woman. 

Player 1.

Still Player 1.

Intent on ruining the life of his new boss, Vasquez, and ascending to a higher position in the company, Rhys and his accountant friend Vaughn steal Hyperion resources to travel down to the surface of Pandora, intending to pull Vasquez's purchase of a rare and expensive Vault Key out from underneath him. Meanwhile, Fiona and her fellow con-people Sasha and Felix have their own criminal endeavours, which will bring them into an unlikely alliance with Rhys and Vaughn as they attempt to navigate a conflict between drag-racing bandit lord Bossanova and masked vault hunter Zer0.

Zer0 Sum really shows off just how much Telltale Games can be chameleons. While they've done numerous comedic games before, including an episodic Monkey Island game and an episodic Back to the Future game, it's fair to say that Tales From The Borderlands is one of their you-make-choices-and-in-most-other-respects-it's-functionally-kind-of-like-a-television-show vein of games, in which its main contemporaries are The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us (and as of very recently, Game of Thrones).

Tales From The Borderlands is hilarious, though. Don't get me wrong, both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us have humour, but they're not comedies: They draw their artistic value from compelling their players (through the pressures of survival in the former, and the forces of politics and economy in the latter) into making impossible choices with unforeseeable consequences. If Zer0 Sum is a good measure of what the rest of the Tales series will be like, this series is out-and-out action comedy, less about the gritty weight of survival and more about cheerful black comedy.

The metal is willing, but the spirit is weak.

It is definitely black comedy, though. I mentioned earlier that I was reminded of British heist films, and part of that is the structure and cinematography - several rapidly sped up, over-the-top imagine spots with Rhys narrating over them; a lot of flashbacks; a lot of 'let me tell you a story from multiple viewpoints' stuff that British heist films have always loved - and a lot of that is the humour. While American heist films have always used the idea of a team of elite thieves fighting against sinister corporate or criminal forces, British heist films are usually built on the idea of fundamentally competent but massively out of their depth people suffering to the point where it surpasses being sad and just becomes surreal and absurd. 

Around the time Rhys and Vaughn escaped from screaming, angry bandits by detonating their new best friend Loader Bot ("I shall name my first child ... Loader Bot," Rhys intones solemnly afterwards) only to find themselves trapped inside a museum of dead animals and people, it was becoming pretty clear that that kind of 'endless funny suffering' angle was the one this game was taking. It works, it really does. The Borderlands world has always been absurd and brutal, so it lends itself very well to that brand of comedy. 

(Telltale also pokes fun at itself several times too, usually with variations on its ominous and rapidly-becoming-iconic 'X Character will remember that' notifications. Variations include 'Loader Bot will store that in its memory banks,' 'Shade's face will remember that,' and 'You should remember that.' It's a nice touch.) 

It's noteworthy, also, that this isn't a game that requires having played any other Borderlands game. I have had only passing contact with any of them, but I still understood what was going on just fine, and this was with only a bare minimum of narration at the beginning (which is good, we all hate lengthy opening narrations trying to tell us every detail of what happened in previous installments of a series). 

Zer0, of Borderlands 2, puts in an appearance.

Telltale has clearly tried to give Tales From The Borderlands at least slightly more in-depth gameplay, too, with Rhys and Fiona having different 'abilities' of a sort. In this case, Rhys' ability is using his cybernetic eye to scan items and people, leading to moments like a scan of a Spiderant corpse revealing that 'many of them are quite racist and hate that restaurant you love', while Fiona has the superpower of cash, being able to find or steal cash and build it up to be used for bribes or purchases later. Essentially, they're Cyborg and Batman.

Apart from that and the occasional 'select items from a menu in a time limit' gameplay feature, which sounds dull but tends to be more interesting than it should be, the gameplay is very much like The Walking Dead. You have quicktime events, you have point-and-click adventure sections, and you have dialogue where you're often called upon to make choices that affect the course of the game in one way or another. Tales has a lot more choices in it than its predecessors, though: While a two hour episode of The Walking Dead will have five major choices, Tales has twelve, six for Rhys and six for Fiona. Obviously, at this point it's unclear how these will affect future episodes (especially since at least one of the choices does, in fact, take place only in Rhys' mind). 

All in all, a very well-paced first episode, and one that may have made a stronger impression on me than either The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us' first episodes. With a fairly stunning plot twist at the end, it'll be very interesting to see where this series goes.

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