Tales from the Borderlands is one of my favourite adventure games ever. I have such great memories of sitting down and playing each episode as it was released, relishing every moment. So there was a fond familiarity when I sat down to play New Tales from the Borderlands that I hadn’t felt since Telltale Games shut down. And yet something wasn’t the same. It was like returning home many years later to realise your memories don’t line up with the new reality. Everything about this game reminds me of its predecessor … except it is nowhere near as good.
The Borderlands franchise was first established back in 2012 in the original looter shooter. What is unique about this particular series of games is the depth of the story and characters it has developed: a universe where planets are controlled by ruthless weapon corporations, where outlaws and psychos (insane bandits) abound, and where Vault Hunters search for advanced alien technology and massive riches. Telltale took this rich tapestry and spun it off into the narrative adventure game Tales from the Borderlands in 2014, establishing new characters and telling a unique and interesting story set between Borderlands 2 and Borderlands 3.
You don’t need to know all that to jump right in, though. Marcus, the returning narrator from the original Tales from the Borderlands, sets the stage for the sequel from Gearbox Software: “Think you’ve seen it all, eh? Think you know all there is to know about … Vault Hunters … bandits … corporations … and nobody loser-types? Well, you don’t know skag diddly.” But as those with even a passing knowledge of Borderlands will quickly realize, that’s not really true, because the plot here is the same as every other game in the franchise, whether the original Tales or one of the main action RPGs: Find a vault key, get into the vault, grab the treasure, and defeat the evil corporation.
There are three nobody loser-types for the player to control here. The first is Anu, who has a PhD and works for Atlas Corporation, one of the dominant weapons manufacturers in the Borderlands universe. One of her rather odd quirks, considering she works in research and development for a weapons manufacturer, is that she is a pacifist and humanitarian, demonstrated early on by her releasing the caged animals kept for experiments.
After failing to impress Rhys Strongfork with her inventions – Rhys makes his return from the original Tales from the Borderlands as the CEO of Atlas Corporation rather than the playable character – Anu is fired almost at the same time the orbital research station where she’s stationed is invaded by another weapons company, Tediore Corporation. So Anu escapes and travels down to the planet Prometheus, which is also under attack, to warn her adopted brother Octavio. Anu has access to Tech Goggles, which when activated bring up a diagnostic screen of whatever object you’re looking at, such as “The Device” at the start of the game that Anu is developing for Atlas. This comes in useful throughout the story as you investigate new technologies you come across that might help you progress.
Octavio is the second playable character we encounter, and he constantly tells anyone who will listen that he is a man of the people, that he is destined to do great things, that he’s streetwise, and that he’s a stone-cold killer. All of which are far from reality. In actuality, Octavio is a wannabe thief who has big dreams of being the next Rhys or Handsome Jack and heading up a massive corporation. Octavio lives in Meridian City on Promethea and very much epitomises the old saying “wrong place at the wrong time.” When the city is attacked by Tediore soldiers, he is caught in the middle and must work with his sister and his boss, Fran, to find a relic hidden within the nearby vault before the corporations do and exploit it to make themselves even more rich and powerful. Useful in Octavio’s adventure is his hacked ECHOdex, which is primarily a communication device that he’s jailbroken to include black market apps that will help him hack into other computers.
The final member in our playable trio of would-be heroes is Fran Miscowicz. Fran is the hoverchair-bound owner of a frozen yogurt shop that was unfortunately badly damaged when a giant cut a hole in her roof and half destroyed the place. (These backstory events occurred in Borderlands 3, when Maliwan Corporation attempted a hostile takeover of Promethea. There’s a lot of nods to other games in the Borderlands universe, but it’s not necessary to have played them to follow the events of New Tales.) Fran’s defining qualities are her anger control issues and the gadgets in her hoverchair that can be used to defeat Tediore soldiers as well as make frozen yogurts. Early on she’s faced with an insurance assessor who is checking the claim Fran made for the damage to her shop. Through the choices you make, you can restrain Fran from an outburst of anger that could hinder the claim being successful, or you can let her go fully berserk, which has other consequences. This internal conflict of trying to control her anger in the face of a stressful corporate invasion is the key to Fran’s personality.
There are some excellent side characters in New Tales as well, in particular LOU13, the robot assassin accompanying Octavio, who kills people but only when he knows their full name. LOU13 is the source of most of the humour that works in this game. One of the early quests is having Octavio help LOU13 kill someone by luring them out, resulting in what appears to be a typical four-choice dialog screen. Selecting three of these choices results in the target being killed, while the other has much more dire consequences for Octavio, which is quickly erased by the game immediately restoring to a point just before this encounter took place, removing any actual sense of risk in making a poor decision. Other characters you meet include Brock, a gun for hire; Stapleface, an ex-physco; and Diamond Danielle, a thief whom Octavio considers a friend and mentor. Unfortunately, as interesting as the secondary characters are, they’re usually set up quickly and then never seen again. Danielle, for example, appears in the first chapter then isn’t seen again until the end.
If only the lead characters were anywhere near as interesting or a pleasure to play, because they are never really developed throughout the ten-hour journey of New Tales from the Borderlands. And what potential they had is conveniently thrown out the door for the sake of a mediocre joke. Anu is a brilliant scientist, able to create amazing weapons with a deep understanding of physics, yet she can’t work out how to use a door handle at one point. Octavio, in one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in an adventure game, forgets what the place he has worked at for years looks like even though he has literally spent half of the game hiding out there. It’s clearly a plot device to drag out the gameplay an extra ten minutes, but it makes it impossible to take him seriously.
And Fran. Fran’s personality goes from being a motherly, or at least big sisterly, figure to Octavio to making awkward sexual advances towards him within a sentence or two of dialog. Maybe the jokes and innuendo Fran expresses throughout the game are meant to be funny because they’re so inappropriate and ill-timed, but very few of them made me even so much as chuckle, especially by the time they devolved into being just weird, crude and inappropriate. I’m no prude, but this game’s attempts at comedy eventually jump the shark completely.
Dark humour is such a large part of what makes all Borderlands games great, but very little of the humour, dark or otherwise, lands with New Tales, which is sad because most of the fun in the original Tales came from the amusing interactions between the characters. The witty repartee is almost completely missing in the sequel because its characters just aren’t interesting enough. And yet we’re supposed to care because the relationship between our three protagonists is what determines the ending of the game, with LOU13 giving you a breakdown of your dialog decisions and how each of the three feels towards the others at the end of each chapter.
Apart from the characters and story, New Tales from the Borderlands has practically nothing else to talk about. This is barely a game, but rather an interactive story where you may make a dialog choice every few minutes, have a random Quick Time Event, or … well … actually that’s about it. Gearbox has duplicated what Telltale did in the first game, the standard formula of presenting a choice of up to four options for how the current character will respond; selecting one advances the story to the next cutscene. “Cutscene,” however, probably isn’t the best word to use because they’re not really cutting away from the gameplay; rather they are the majority of the game. New Tales is practically one long cutscene, interspersed with these dialog choices – sometimes five minutes apart – and the very occasional Quick Time Event.
These QTEs are occasionally used well, such as firing your talking gun at enemy soldiers. Yes, the gun talks and is one of the better characters because while it will shoot at the opposing soldiers (saying BANG! each time), it also argues with you and lets your opponents know when you’re near since it was created by the invading Tediore corporation and doesn’t want to help you. Other QTEs seem to exist for no reason other than there hadn’t been an interaction for a while, such as banging the bars of a prison cell. Very occasionally you’re able to explore an area with the task of finding something like an explosive to rescue a lost pet, though each scene is usually small.
One of the funnier things in New Tales is Vaultlanders, a collectable action-fighting minigame in the style of Street Fighter. Throughout your journey, especially in the free-roaming areas, you’re able to find game figures that you can then use to play with against other characters. Badass Superfan, a Tediore soldier you encounter several times, will challenge you to a game; beat him and he’ll let you live. Although each figurine has unique stats and skills, it’s honestly just button mashing, but it’s quite fun and a nice diversion. After the first battle, an option to just play Vaultlanders will become available on the main game menu, which allows you to play this minigame again any time.
Thankfully, one aspect beyond criticism is that New Tales from the Borderlands looks and sounds amazing. Following the pattern set by the original Tales, each chapter begins with a modern alternative/indie-backed montage that plays out like an in-game music video, such as at the start of chapter two when the protagonists are working out their plan of attack and bonding, juxtaposed against scenes of the totalitarian oppression taking place on the city streets, with “Ice Cream” by Bonniesongs playing. In between songs the soundtrack is generally pleasing, consisting mostly of light synthesisers that add immersion-building ambience. The voice acting is also exceptional. All three playable characters are perfectly cast, each actor bringing emotion and feeling to their roles, even with some questionable dialog they’ve been asked to recite. Fran in particular effectively displays a wide range of emotions such as kindness, joy, anger, lust, and homicidal rage. Returning characters such as Rhys are voiced by their original actors, which is a nice addition.
The cel-shaded backgrounds and animation make the game visually pleasing and fit beautifully with all the other Borderlands games. Each of the characters is smoothly animated using motion capture for both movement and – in a first for Gearbox – facial expressions. This attention to detail enables a much richer narrative experience; if it feels like you’re watching actors on a stage, that’s because you are! There are some impressive pivotal story moments where the animation really stands out as well, such as the initial invasion of Prometheus, where corporate soldiers are teleporting into the city while our heroes and other civilians are trying to navigate away from the invaders. There’s a lot of action happening at once and not only does it look good, it’s all smooth and seamless. Another highlight is the introduction of regular Borderlands title cards when a new character is introduced, giving some information about the character that might be helpful in understanding them. Susan Coldwell, the CEO of Tediore, is named the “Decimator of Glass Ceilings and Souls,” Anu is introduced as “Better-er of Worlds,” while Octavio is “Future Mogul.”
Controls on a gamepad are simple and easy to use, taking no time to master. Walking is accomplished by using the left stick, pivoting the camera while in open-walking areas with the right stick. Dialog choices are a selection of one of the four action buttons while QTEs are a random selection from any of the direction buttons, action buttons, or directions on the left stick. None of the QTEs are punishing even on the standard difficulty setting, but you can change their speed and difficulty through the main game menu if you wish.
There are multiple endings available and I accessed two of them, one that I assume is the “good” ending and another where I discovered a key character died off-screen. The outcome you get is determined by the choices you have made during the game, and how the relationship between the main characters has grown because of those choices. Choose that sarcastic asshole response every time and you’re not likely to get the good ending. But these choices don’t appear to make much if any difference within the game outside of the ending, which really feels like a missed opportunity.
I was so excited to get New Tales from the Borderlands and rekindle my appreciation for the series. Unfortunately, the sequel is a major disappointment. There are some nice elements that still bring the original game to mind, like the graphics and music, but in every other area it’s a letdown. The humour just doesn’t work most of the time, the characters aren’t very interesting, and the ones that have the most to offer are barely used. Its predecessor didn’t have much in the way of gameplay either, but here it’s virtually non-existent. It’s more like watching a movie with the occasional something to do. There was one time when I returned from a ten-minute break to find I’d forgotten to pause. I’d probably missed a couple of dialog choices, but it didn’t seem to matter – the game simply carried on without me. Honestly, the most fun I had, I’m sorry to say, is when I loaded up the original Tales from the Borderlands that came as a bonus extra on the PlayStation 5 version I played and reminded myself what could have been.
New Tales from the Borderlands has great production values that really pull you into this unique universe, yet the humour falls flat and the characters aren’t at all compelling this time around, unable to cover up what’s lacking in actual gameplay, feeling more like an animated movie than a game.
- Beautiful cel-shaded backgrounds and animation
- Great music highlights some lesser-known indie/alternative bands
- Voice acting is excellent, which is especially important in a game that’s mostly dialog
- More of a (very limited) interactive story than a game
- Main characters are uninteresting, and supporting cast is poorly fleshed-out or underutilised
- Attempts at humour generally fail
Shawn played his own copy of New Tales from the Borderlands on PlayStation 5.