Editor's note: We're trying a new approach to reviews of episodic game series like Tales from the Borderlands, inspired by our approach to early access releases and some online games. The debut episode will be reviewed without a score, as here, and we'll review the whole season with a score at its conclusion.
Tales from the Borderlands is a game I've been looking forward to for a while, thanks to having enjoyed the comedy of the original games far more than the shooty-shooty stuff that never quite clicked. A cursor is more my kind of weapon than any poison-spewing death cannon, and I'll take a good inventory over an arsenal any day. If you agree with this more civilised approach to problem-solving, then Tales from the Borderlands is a great chance to finally enjoy a trip through this world. If not, don't worry. You might no longer have a gun that shoots electric babies or whatever, but it hasn't forgotten its action roots, and it's not long before you're both using a mech to take out an army of bandits and getting involved in a high-octane deathrace.
Meet Rhys. He's a high-flyer at Hyperion, Borderlands' proud Evil Inc, who's just been outmanoeuvred by his arch rival and demoted to janitor. He wants revenge, and he's willing to get his accountant best friend to steal ten million dollars to buy it. Now meet Fiona, a con-woman with a not entirely legitimate key to one of those magic Vaults. She wants money. About ten million dollars, ideally. No prizes for guessing how this goes, or how badly.
Tales from the Borderlands is both of their stories mashed together; the fights, the squabbles, and of course, the lies, as told while both are looking up the business end of a shotgun some time in the future. Narrators don't come much more unreliable, or more entertaining. As Fiona, Laura Bailey is having about as much fun as her version of the Boss in Saints Row 4, while Troy Baker infuses Rhys with just the right mix of jerkish and potentially redeeming elements to be likeable however you steer him with Telltale's now trademark "X will remember that" choices. He's a born Hyperion who openly admits at one point to having started a club as a kid just to be able to have his own business cards ("That's the saddest thing I've ever heard," he's told, not without cause), but can still be fiercely loyal and try and do the right thing. Or he can be Handsome Jack reborn, despite being desperately out of his depth. Without a Clementine or a Snow White to act as a barbed morality chain, the choice is entirely yours, and it's not like Pandora doesn't deserve a little snarking bastardry now and again.
No knowledge of the earlier Borderlands games is required, though it won't hurt. It's a game of tropes though, from the con/heist plot beats that it shamelessly steals to the character archetypes - the jerk with an as yet undecided heart, the stylish con-woman with a kid sister, the mentor who can absolutely be trusted, and all of that. If you've ever seen anything in even the same galaxy as the story, you basically know most of what's going to happen up front - give or take a few wonderful extras like a philosophically minded loader-bot or having Hunter S. Thompson show up to bring in some Walking Dead style jump-scares now and again.
Telltale's take on the universe is somewhat different from Gearbox's though, especially in the humour. There are some crazy howling psychos, but mostly the characters are quirky rather than crazy and the dialogue wry rather than Borderlands' energetic patter - Fiona trying to maintain a cover-story under pressure, Rhys asking for directions from exactly the wrong person, a psycho guard polite enough to phrase things like "I realise this is rude, but I just don't like your face..." and other quieter moments that inevitably escalate into death, carnage and organs splattering down like autumn rain. Everything is done with incredible verve though, and Telltale's choreography has never been more cinematic in both the action sequences and the regular talking bits, where conversations will be interrupted by dramatic events or explode into immediately evident bullshit that we later see played out 'properly' though the other character's equally self-serving but temporarily more honest eyes.
The catch is that even by Telltale's recent standards, the result often feels like it may as well be a straight-up movie, with far too many interactions limited to just pressing a key to dodge something or some equally primitive QTE. Moments where you just get to explore are few and far between and contain almost nothing to actually do, with Tales always desperately pushing you to the next scene, the next bit of action, the next plot twist. There's a little bit more to do than first appears, admittedly, like scanning items for jokes using Rhys' cyborg eye and hunting for money that Fiona can use to unlock options, but they're brief moments that are easily overlooked. This episode's showpiece scene especially is a real case of "Well, clearly you don't need me..."
It gets away with it - for now, at least - thanks to its burning energy. Rhys especially needs more than a well-timed button press to win a fight, with even success usually leading to humiliation like breaking his hand against an enemy's face or trying so, so hard to strangle a guard that even the guard feels sorry for him. Fiona meanwhile has an entertaining choice hanging over her head all episode - a gun with only one bullet, to be saved for an emergency. You of course get to decide when that is, in one of Tales From The Borderlands' more pointed reminders that you're just a regular guy and gal trying to survive on a planet of crazies, rather than a tooled up Vault Hunter with a kill-count measured in genocides.
Provided that you're okay with an interactive movie rather than a full-on adventure game, this is an excellent start to the series. Rhys especially is shaping up to be a great character who's always going to be pulled between his natural urge to be a shark and the chance to become something else, while Fiona's profession all but guarantees back-stabbings and dramatic swerves. If there's a disappointment, it's that when the overall arc of the story - so far - is hinted at, it's summed up with the line "One way or another, everything on Pandora is leading you to a vault..." Vaults are easily Borderlands' least interesting plot element, and hopefully there's something more interesting going on than just another treasure hunt. Whatever the destination though, it's looking like the journey there is going to be a hell of a ride.