Developer / Publisher: Telltale Games
Tales from Borderlands is rich with wonder and mystery, but the most nagging question you'll be asking throughout this point-and-click version of Pandora is, what's the point?
There's the obvious answer, of course: this is a Telltale game; and after knocking it out of the park with The Walking Dead (and to a lesser extent The Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones), the studio has earned a reputation for spinning pop culture franchises into point-and-click gold. Then there's the fact Gearbox Software's Borderlands universe – like Telltale's past muses – is teeming with new and interesting stories to tell.
This explains why Telltale picked Borderlands and why any gamer with good taste should feel compelled to check it out. Still, after 4 hours of half heartedly tapping one or two buttons through the series' debut episode, Zer0 Sum, you might yet have trouble determining what kind of game Tales From Borderlands wants to be (or if it even wants to be a game at all).
Whatever it is, Tales from Borderlands has style. Gearbox's off-kilter universe is captured with almost pitch perfect accuracy, and Zer0 Sum sets up an odd-ball, over-the-top, sci-fi adventure that fits in snugly with Borderlands lore. In it, you'll split your time between playing two characters, Rhys and Fiona, who cross paths after a Vault Key purchase goes south. Despite their seemingly disparate backgrounds – Rhys being a Hyperion employee out for petty revenge and Fiona being a Pandoran scam artist out for a quick buck – both are the kind of lovable rogues who have a knack for falling ass-backwards into ridiculous situations. Which they do. A lot.
To say anything more would be giving away some of the game's many satisfying twists and surprises. Needless to say, events in Zer0 Sum have a way of snowballing from bad to “holy crap we're dead” real fast and you'll run into more than a few Borderlands celebrities along the way (spoiler: one of them is in the episode's title).
It's a good thing the story is so strong, too, because despite the game's efforts to cast gamers in a meaningful role, Zer0 Sum saves the best scenes for itself. Yeah, you'll see loads of interesting people and locations and you'll witness a fair share of action scenes, but your actual part in the whole mess is largely reduced to bare-bones QTE events, extremely light puzzle solving (move box, enter vent), and pointing Rhys or Fiona in the direction of the next dialogue sequence.
To be fair, when Zer0 Sum takes a shot at being a game, it does it well. An intense Loader Bot battle at the beginning hints at more twitch-shooting sequences to come, and the final “boss” encounter succeeds at making rote QTE actions feel important. Aside from these rare moments of gameplay, however, Zer0 Sum still feels as though it's happy doing its own thing while occasionally looking back at the screen and saying, “Oh, you're still here? Fine, press this.”
More troubling still is that when the game remembers you're in the room, your actions don't appear to amount to much. In one seemingly do-or-die stealth scenario, for example, you'll be instructed to sneak up on a guard, subdue him with a QTE sequence, and hack a nearby terminal. That all sounds dangerous and game-ending, except failure to correctly pull off the QTE event (or even press a single button) results in the enemy killing himself. Oh, and that potentially cool hacking mini-game? Here's a protip: select “hack”.
Even your dialogue choices don't appear to have much influence – at least, not yet anyways. Despite the game's warning that everything Rhys or Fiona says will have a ripple effect on the events to come, and even though the game displays a “so-and-so will remember that” reminder after nearly every dialogue scene, there's little evidence that anyone is listening.
For instance, in one scene I was role-playing Rhys as a complete asshole, yet was later told I couldn't be trusted because I act too professional. In another, I was given an elaborate background story that I was told – in no uncertain terms – was vital to earning the trust of a Pandoran outlaw. Out of curiosity, I decided to flunk every one of his questions to see how he would react and if it was indeed possible to “lose”. Sure enough, instead of eating a bullet or failing the scene, an excuse was made on my behalf by another character and the game continued along as if I'd bothered to take my objective seriously.
In short: if dialogue choices really matter, Zer0 Sum does little to prove it. Likely, my idiot role-playing will come back to bite me in the ass later, but in this episode they don't carry much weight.
So if the most of the real action leaves players sidelined, and there are virtually no puzzles to solve, and the dialogue mechanic is more-or-less window dressing, the question remains: what's the point? After all, there are not shortage of Borderlands games that scratch the itch for real action, and there are plenty of Telltale games that offer more to do. The optimist in me believes the point is that Zer0 Sum is merely laying the groundwork for what will become a larger, more involved adventure (and indeed, you get the impression it is). The cynic in me, however, thinks Telltale coded a wonderfully engaging Borderlands movie and remembered at the very end that they were suppose to be making a game.
Thankfully, Zer0 Sum's story is strong enough to generate interest for the next episode, and those brief flashes of gameplay are compelling enough to keep fans on the hook. That said, if this debut episode is indeed supposed to be an opening tutorial of sorts, here's hoping Telltale takes the training wheels off soon.