When we last left Rhys, Fiona, and their vault-hunting entourage in Tales From The Borderlands: Zer0 Sum, our heroes were dusting themselves off from a death rally and powering up long-lost Atlas technology. In this second episode, Atlas Mugged, developer Telltale Games picks up immediately where it left off in a chapter that bumps the series to new heights but ultimately falls shy of its potential.
As before, Atlas Mugged's story is framed as a flashback told by Fiona and Rhys while at gunpoint by a masked traveller. Unlike Zer0 Sum's slow-paced start, however, Atlas Mugged launches players into the action with the official introduction of a particularly handsome Borderlands celebrity and an escalating series of QTE sequences. In the first hour alone, you'll outrun monsters, harvest organs, use Rhys's cyborg eye for something other than scanning hidden jokes, and – at times – actually feel like you're part of the team.
On the downside, a handful of issues from the first episode are also along for the ride. The problem-solving bits, for instance, are still undercooked. It's clear Tales from Borderlands wants to emulate the classic point-and-click gameplay of yore on numerous occasions, but these sections are less of a challenge and more of a chore. In the meatiest of these “puzzles”, for example, you'll play a game of “hot and cold” in a small room where the location of an essential item is two steps in the opposite direction from your first clue: “frozen”. In other moments, the game solves item combination puzzles by itself, leaving you with the not-so-brain-teasing job of finding a barely hidden item and using it on one of the few interactive objects when prompted.
Inconsequential QTE events are also alive and kicking. During one chase sequence, I took my hands off the controller and let fate run its course. In the end, doing nothing and passing the QTE prompt resulted in the exact same outcome. True, it helps that sequences like these are a nice break from talking, but there's a sense you're never really in danger. Even in the rare instances you do come across a do-or-die QTE, the abundance of checkpoints and lack of punishment all but eliminate the stakes. It's like reading a choose-your-own-adventure book where the only drawback to choosing wrong is having to flip to the previous page.
These gripes aside, Atlas Mugged is still a step in the right direction. There are more interactive moments and creative use of established mechanics (i.e., Rhys's eye is now more than prop). Moreover, the story moves at a decent clip, and by the time you reach the episode's cliffhanger you'll be genuinely invested in every character and hooked on the vault-hunting mystery that's unfolding.
Also, Telltale mimics Borderlands' over-the-top Mad Max style to near perfection. It's offbeat locations, characters, and series references speak to Telltale's skill in honoring another studio's vision, and it's this skill that will keep fans coming back. In fact, Atlas Mugged's closing act feels like it could easily be the plot of a full Borderlands sequel. Trouble is, playing these games ultimately makes me yearn for an actual sequel (yes, Pre-Sequel just came out and it was awesome).
There's a chance I'm being to harsh; that I'm holding Telltale's Borderlands to unfair standards. But then, this is a series known for offbeat gameplay, chaotic action, and creating a gazillion ways to die. Sure, Telltale gets Borderlands' vibe right, but it's still missing those key elements. As it is, the softball puzzles, extended dialogue sequences, and meandering walkabouts make me miss the genuine Borderlands gameplay I know and love – which I'm pretty sure isn't the point.
Either way, Tales from Borderlands is proof Telltale's take on adventure-gaming isn't perfectly suited for all franchises, but their ability as storytellers offers just enough to let these shortcomings slide. That is to say there's treasure to be found, but not everyone will find value in the hunt.