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Tales from the Borderlands Episode One review: Busy earnin'


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You should probably know who Handsome Jack is. That's really the only advice I'd give to anyone looking to dip into Telltale's latest episodic series, Tales from the Borderlands. Granted, Borderlands doesn't have the most sophisticated lore, subsisting largely on dick jokes, pop culture references and lots of screaming jerks, but suffice it to say that you don't have to be intimately familiar with Gearbox's first-person shooters to appreciate Tales. If you know that Handsome Jack is a villain, perhaps heard his smarmy voice in a trailer or two, you should be fine.

In other words, regardless of your level of Borderlands experience, Tales from the Borderlands is a witty, well-written adventure with broad appeal. And yeah, there's a dick joke or two.

Gallery: Tales from the Borderlands (Review) | 14 Photos

Tales from the Borderlands begins something like an interstellar Office Space. You play as Rhys, an employee of the (evil) Hyperion corporation, which has been thrown into disarray following the death of its (evil) CEO, Handsome Jack. Thanks to some murderous corporate shuffling, Rhys butts heads with his office nemesis, Hugo Vasquez, an excruciatingly well-groomed man with a golden, cybernetic pinkie and the voice of Patrick "Puddy" Warburton. Long story short: Rhys and his buddy Vaughn concoct a plan to screw over Vasquez, a plan that involves stealing ten million dollars of Hyperion's money and conducting a shady business deal on Pandora, a rough-and-tumble planet overrun by bandits and fortune seekers. The Office Space vibes left me waiting for Rhys and Vaughn to start smashing a Claptrap to the tune of Geto Boys' "Still," but trust me when I say that the duo's arrival on Pandora is much cooler.

But, as shady business deals often do, the meeting goes awry, and Rhys and Vaughn soon find themselves entangled with Fiona, Tales' second playable character, and her sister, Sasha, a couple of lawbreakers trying to make it on Pandora any way they can. Everyone in the group is after the same thing, which leads to a shaky alliance that forms the foundation of the first episode, and presumably the rest of the series.

Without going into details that might spoil things, I will say that the gang runs into plenty of colorful characters, including some that even casual Borderlands fans will recognize, and, of course, there are the requisite bandits and psychos. The world is full of nice little touches, like the columns of light emitted by collectible items, an effect pulled directly from the Borderlands FPS games. Action sequences make smart use of quick time events to pull you into the moment (though the QTEs themselves aren't terribly demanding). The writing is snappy, and the voice acting is top-notch, with great performances by the likes of Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Nolan North and Chris Hardwick. And then there's Loader Bot. I won't give anything away, other than to say I love Loader Bot.

As in other Telltale games, the majority of Tales from the Borderlands is spent talking with other characters or going about some light exploration. The game remembers your choices and alters the story accordingly. That includes characters remembering how you've treated them, though we'll have to wait for future episodes to find out how far-reaching your decisions really are.

One major change from Telltale's other projects is Tales' use of two playable characters. Splitting the focus among two protagonists allows Tales to look at the same events from different perspectives, and to let players control multiple events at once. So, for instance, while Rhys is quietly hacking a computer, Fiona is preparing for a very loud bandit sporting event. There's always the danger that splitting focus like this can damage a narrative in the long run, but in episode one, at least, it works beautifully.

Another change of pace from Telltale's recent offerings is that everything isn't so damned grim all the time. Unlike, say, The Walking Dead, I'm not constantly worrying about every decision potentially affecting the fate of a character I've grown to love. Hell, I'll bet that even if my actions do get a major character killed, it'll probably be funny anyway. And, on the other end of the spectrum, I'm not dying for the opportunity to kill off troublesome characters, because the story is more interesting and entertaining with them around. Tales from the Borderlands is more lighthearted than the murder investigations of The Wolf Among Us, meaning that your choices aren't burdened by the weight of responsibility – it's fun to take the chances you wouldn't risk in a darker story.

A gripe I will level at Tales from the Borderlands is that Telltale's graphical tech is starting to look very dated. While the cel-shaded character models themselves look great – they fit perfectly with the existing Borderlands aesthetic – animation is often stiff and unnatural. The faces are expressive, but again, animation is very stilted, and lip sync during dialogue leaves something to be desired. This doesn't really detract from the overall experience, but when the writing is this good, the occasional distracting, puppet-like animation really stands out.

But that's a tiny complaint against what is otherwise a creative, playful and often laugh-out-loud adventure. Borderlands fans looking for a challenge might be disappointed, with Tales of the Borderlands only offering light puzzle elements and very forgiving QTEs, but the story is a good one, full of well-realized characters and amusing dialogue. The decisions you make feel significant – even if they don't carry the dire consequences of a zombie apocalypse – and the results will almost certainly put a smile on your face.

This review is based on a Steam download of the PC version of Tales from the Borderlands, provided by Telltale Games. Images: Telltale Games.

Beginning with this review, Joystiq will no longer provide star ratings for individual episodes in episodic game series.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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