My biggest gripe with the mainline Borderlands series is its humor. I’ve had some good laughs while playing, but Borderlands jokes are like shotgun blasts where some hit and others don’t. That’s fine in bursts, but shotgun blast after shotgun blast can be exhausting. Telltale Games’ take on this universe, Tales from the Borderlands, remedied this by providing a more nuanced and subtle look at the humor that came through the franchise’s veins. It turned out to be one of my favorite Borderlands games with a great story and memorable characters.
I’m pleased to report on Gearbox’s formula in New Tales From the Borderlands, which retains the same sense of humor with a vastly improved visual style consistent with later entries in the series. It also features the cast as memorabilia – I want more of them already. Unfortunately, though, the whole package has been abandoned by a dull overarching narrative lacking cohesion, and I wish Gearbox gave these characters a better tale to exist within.
The new Tales from the Borderlands features some familiar faces and names with Rhys, now the CEO of gun-maker Atlas, and other mega-corporations such as Maliwan and Tediore. Most of the game takes place on Promethea, which Borderlands 3 players should recognize.
The philanthropic but intrinsically selfish scientist Anu teams up with his adopted street-smart brother Octavio, his assassination bot LOU13, and Fran, the owner of Fran’s Froggert. Together, they aim to save Promethea from the Tediore invasion, secure the treasure of a hidden vault and, eventually, attempt to create and transform the world with an anti-gun device. The story sets it up quite well in the first episode of this five-part tale, and I was excited to see where it went. But after a few hours I was confused.
Without spoiling anything, the story bounces between seemingly random subplots that feel unimportant to the primary conflict. At one point, I’m desperate to dodge a Tediore attack. Then, an hour later, I’m on a game show like Shark Tank trying to present Anu’s device to investors. And again, my primary concern appears to be opening a business amidst the rubble of the Tediore invasion that is still ongoing. I wanted more to save the world than to set up the first episode, but the side beats and steps along the way are distracting and loosely connected more than anything.
The story wraps itself up nicely, with a sweet moment of a bow at the top, and by the time the credits rolled, I was happy to experience what this crew of characters did. I just want the harmony I felt in the first and last episodes to be on display throughout the game.
Story aside, I have four new favorite characters in this universe in New Tales From the Borderlands. Anu is a classic scientist—the weird and quirky in her own right, and some late-game revelations add more depth to her personality that I appreciate. Octavio plays it well, and I enjoyed shaping the kind of “cool” he is with my liking. Fran is a sexually-confident middle-aged woman who shuns subtlety in favor of simply telling people, “We should bone up.” She feels most like a classic Borderlands character—with a handful of fart jokes, (of course, one of these made me laugh a lot).
However, LOU13 was my favorite. His deadpan humor and his journey to break free from the parameters of his murder programming kept me smiling all the way. Each character shone in their own way when isolated, but together, my favorite interactions of the entire game occurred, each hurting the others in unique ways.
Of course, the success of these moments came down to Gearbox’s excellent character writing and the game presented me with both trivial and important moments in the narrative. I could set up Frank with a big power play of a commentary when he is arrested by Tediore soldiers, or I could just answer his questions by making fart noises. I enjoyed creating my own take on each of these characters and Gearbox, like Telltale, was excellent in that regard.
Most gone are Telltale “this person will remember” notifications. In theory, this is a nice touch, as it removes that gamified element from the formula and allows the player to live with their choices without knowing how they affect the story. In practice, though, I missed them. Without these tip-offs, save a few random ones that happened without explanation, I felt like I had lost a touch of agency. Sure, I was making the choices I wanted, but I was struggling to piece together how my actions affected the grand narrative. There were immediate reactions; For example, it was easy to tell whether Octavio didn’t like Anu’s words or not. But how my actions changed the wider narrative remains a mystery. I had guesses throughout, but I wonder if decision X led to outcome Y.
I wasn’t even impressed with what I was doing when I wasn’t selecting dialog options. Gameplay boils down to swiping left, right, up or down, or pressing a button, mashing it over and over, or holding it down. Sometimes, you can walk around a small area to find money or talk to the locals, but these don’t do much for me. This type of adventure gameplay was standard years ago at the height of Telltale’s development, but it feels outdated now, and I wanted more variety.
Occasional minigames, like parodies of turn-based JRPGs, or any other where I had to hack into the computer by removing the NSFW spam on the screen helped in that regard, but I still wanted more.
Vaultlanders, a minigame that appears several times in each episode, is a fun minifigure-based fighting game, but only for the first few times. There are Voltlander stats to collect in each episode, and each has its own stats and abilities, but that matters little. I have never struggled to defeat an enemy and never cared about my abilities or stats. That’s because play involves randomly spamming the attack button and sometimes dodging by swiping one direction when an enemy strikes. Like all other minigames, it can be skipped entirely, but I was curious to find a purpose for it to be included in the game and played through each one. Unfortunately, I served no purpose, and when I wanted to go back to the story, these quickly became sharp-toned annoyances.
Still, by the time my 10-hour journey in New Tales from the Borderlands came to an end, I was happy to experience it. There’s good, but it’s sometimes overshadowed by dated mechanics that feel more imperative because Telltale did them in the previous game rather than something they needed for its enjoyment. The cast is excellent, and as a character-driven experience, the game is excellent. I just wanted Gearbox to strengthen them with a story as strong as their individual arcs.
Ultimately, New Tales From the Borderlands feels like that and fans of the first are likely to enjoy it, but given that the first one has been around for eight years, I wanted a further development.