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Telltale meets Borderlands? An odd combination that really works!

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    Tales from the Borderlands: A Telltale Game Series

    Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding

    Telltale meets Borderlands? An odd combination that really works!

    Telltale Games has quite certainly made a pretty big impression on gaming. They came from pretty much nowhere in 2005 and started out with some TV show licenses, but then a few years later got the idea of doing episodic games based on old point’n’click game series. There’s just so much about that setup that could’ve failed, but instead they managed to get a cult following of players and did not only revive the point’n’click genre and made it feel modern, but also got a reputation for it so by now they’ve made series for things like Batman, Back to the Future and Minecraft too. What’s interesting is how their formula both does and does not change between games – if you’ve ever played a Telltale game before you’ll know what the game is like, but they still tries to combine it with the source material to fit into that too. However, the quality does shift a bit between the games, so let’s take a deeper look and dissect Tales from the Borderlands…

    Graphics

    One thing that Telltale are famous for is their pretty distinct graphical style. Since quite a few of their licenses are based off of comics – like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us – they have created a style that’s pretty low on polygons (at least it looks like it is), heavily cel-shaded and have pretty thick outlines for things and characters. They have strayed from it in a few releases like Minecraft and Back to the Future where they use less of the comic-like outlines, but considering the original Borderlands games has a style that’s really similar to the Telltale comic-style that’s a no-brainer that it is the one they went for. The characters are also pretty nicely animated, even though exaggerated at times but to great effect, so everything comes together to a style that works very well. It might not be for everyone, however, and if you purely prefer realistic character models then it’s possible it can be a bit hard to get into the game just because of that.

    Sound effects and music

    The music in the game isn’t that memorable; in most cases it’s just low-key and there to put a bit of mood to the scenes, but the songs themselves are fine and have a pretty special sound somewhere between what you’d hear in a space movie soundtrack and typical western/desert sounds. Also a special mention should go out to the licensed songs they’ve used for the intro credits for each of the episodes; they really did a great job with picking them out as they work well for the game and aren’t TOO famous to the point where they become a distraction.

    In a game that’s relying more on a tight story and dialouge rather than gameplay itself to keep the player hooked, of course they need to have some good voice actors. With the leading roles being taken by Troy Baker and Laura Bailey, pretty much household names when it comes to videogame voice actors, and more or less famous people doing other voices Telltale has really managed to get some professionals together, and it shows – the lines are delivered flawlessly, and considering how much of the humor in the game comes from conversations the timing and flow is also really spot-on. Patrick Warburton is a bit interesting in his role as antagonist Vasquez as he uses pretty much the same voice as he does for Joe in Family Guy; it’s not really something that takes away from the performance, but it’s something that might distract a little bit before you figure it out and pinpoint it.

    One thing about the sounds that is a bit annoying though is how unevenly mixed they are. While there are some sliders in the options menu which you can use to adjust voices, effects and music independently from each other, it still feels like sounds within the same spectrum are vastly different in volume. The sound effects – which do sound good quality-wise – suffers from this and so do the voices too; sometimes it feels like if it was a movie they’d shot using the camera mic instead of a boom mic. A very strange thing to happen and it kinda makes you snap out of the game to either go to the options menu to try to fix it yourself or just change the TV volume.

    Story

    As mentioned, the Telltale games really revolve more around their story than the gameplay, and it’s the same in this one and as made obvious by the name it’s a spinoff off the Borderlands FPS games. Now Telltale usually does one of two things when doing their version of something – either they let you play as known characters from that universe (Back to the Future, Batman, The Wolf Among Us) or they just use the world that the other things in the franchise takes place in and builds something new from that, like in The Walking Dead. This game belongs to the latter category, and it’s to a great effect for multiple reasons; first of all it makes it feel less awkward to come into the game without any preexisting knowledge of the source media, and also because much of the gameplay is choosing between replies in dialogue. Often this means you can play to be either a jerk or a nice person. Doing those choices for established characters like Batman becomes more difficult since you know what’d be in character for him. With Rhys and Fiona – the dual protagonists of this game – they’re more like unwritten pages so it’s easier to play them as you’d like. While they’re blank the Borderlands games are a bit famous for their dark humor, and that’s really something Telltale has taken advantage of; the game is definitely on the more humorous spectrum in their lineup, and it just works so well. Some of it might be a bit TOO dark or violent, but considering it’s so over the top and done with such fine tuning it still manages to work in cases where it would’ve just fallen flat in pretty much every other game.

    The overall story of the game begins with Rhys, a Hyperion employee stationed at the moonbase Helios circling the planet Pandora, trying to steal a big deal involving a so-called vault key from a rival employee. These vault keys can lead to incredible riches down on the surface of the planet, so getting one for Hyperion is a pretty good way of getting a promotion. However, after the initial Rhys scenes the viewpoint changes to Fiona – a con artist working with her sister and an engineer/hacker named Felix – as we get to see that the vault key that’s being prepared for the deal is a fake. So it quickly goes downhill but eventually ends up with Rhys and his companion-in-crime Vaughn and Fionas team joining up down on Pandora to try to solve things; first and foremost just surviving the bandit and wildlife attacks on the hostile surface of the planet, but also trying to solve the little problem of Hyperion AND his rival now hating him. Then from there it gets even more complicated. The game really packs the story full of twists and turns and it really makes you want to keep playing to see what happens next. It’s not only because of the story though but also the incredibly well-written dialogue and how the other characters react to things you say when you’ve got a choice of how to reply. In some games like Fallout 4 you also have multiple dialogue choices, but in many cases you can be a total jerk and the character you’re talking with won’t notice it at all; here instead they will remember it. It’s not something that’ll shift the story one way or another, it’s all pretty linear, but it’ll make the characters feel a lot more lifelike and realistic.

    Controls

    As evident by the name of the genre, "point and click" is something that was more of a PC thing than consoles. However, with the modern things like analogue sticks and 3D graphics the advantage that the mouse used to have for pixel-hunting isn’t as big anymore. The most common thing you’ll do in the game though is to pick replies on how to answer when talking to various other characters; usually there are 2 to 4 choices for you to make, and these are mapped to the face buttons on the controller, and there’s also a timer running so you won’t have too long to choose – if you don’t pick a choice it’ll usually lead to you being silent or automatically triggering the least intrusive reply. One thing that works well is that the text you see to represent each reply is very good at indicating how it’ll come out – in a game like previously mentioned Fallout 4 you could only see a part of the reply and sometimes it’s in a totally different tone than the whole sentence. In some areas of the game you’re free to wander around and interact with objects in the vicinity; you move around the character with the left stick and with the right one you move around what’s basically a mouse cursor. When you move the cursor over objects you can interact with, usually indicated by a small circle, that circle will expand to a slightly bigger one that shows you the face buttons in it to indicate what you can do with the object. With Triangle you can examine it, Square will let you talk to it (mostly used for other people), with X you can interact with it and Cirle lets you pick it up – and if an action is not available for an object that face button symbol will not be shown. Overall it’s a nice system that eliminates the pixel hunt from older games but also isn’t too in your face either. Rhys has a special ability when playing as him to use what’s called an ECHO eye; an eye inplant that lets him "scan" objects he sees; this is activated by pressing L1 and shifts to a first person perspective where you use the sticks to look around and then press X to get an infobox about what you’re looking at. It’s used in some parts of the game to progress but it’s often worth doing every chance you get as those info boxes are often very funny!

    In addition to the slower scenes of story and exploration, there are also more action-oriented ones, and these are controlled a bit differently. Here you’ll instead use an interface based on Quick Time Events, which basically means that the commands you’re supposed to enter appear as icons on the screen; so say if you need to avoid a punch by pulling the stick down, this comes up on the screen as an arrow pointed down. Easy enough, and since you’ve got the choice of using either the right or left stick you should be ready whenever it happens. You also often use the face buttons for these QTEs and here you either have to mash one of them to fill up a bar or just press it once. There are also times when you need to focus to grab or hit something, and for these a small cursor like the one seen in normal gameplay pops up along with a marker on your opponent or the object you need to catch; your goal is to quickly make sure that these overlap and then press R2 to execute the action. As the screen often doesn’t stand still when you do this it’s somewhat stressful, and works well with the scenes they’re found in. Overall the controls work well and it never feels like they get in the way of experiencing the game.

    Gameplay

    So what is there to say about the gameplay that haven’t already been brought up in the other sections? One thing that feels rather important to point out is that if you’re a fan of old-school adventuring, this game is still quite different. Unlike the old Sierra games, for example, it’s pretty hard to die in this one; while in those death lurked around every corner and often in cheap ways like just clicking on something that looked completely innocent, here the only way to die is in a few of those random action scenes if you fail the QTE inputs or if you take too long to decide an action in some scenes. The game is also pretty kind with how it autosaves, so if it happens that you get your head blasted off then you’ll just be dropped off not far from where the game over happened. The dialogue is also handled a bit differently; in the old ones you very often had to go back and forth between different places and talk to people, and often only one dialogue choice let you progress the story. Here most dialogue choices will progress the story, instead mostly just affecting how other characters will feel towards you.

    The game isn’t so much about beating it as it is about experiencing it; getting to the end of the five episodes isn’t exactly hard, it’s not really a feat or a challenge to overcome. There aren’t any action sequences that should pose much of a problem, and the puzzles that are here often take place in smaller spaces with a limited amount of items to interact with so they’re really easy to solve – especially since here they use LOGIC – compared to the old point and click games. Sometimes an object you need to progress might be a bit hard to see, but as said the places you’re in are usually pretty small so it’s just to start looking with the right stick cursor, and it’s really not a common situation. The game also feels like it notices this, since earlier Telltale games like Back to the Future had a hint system to help you solve puzzles, but that’s gone in this one.

    Time-wise the game isn’t really that long; each of the five episodes takes roughly a little over 2 hours to complete, and replayability is somewhat limited. While it’s interesting to see what different dialogue choices might lead to, the overall things that are the same makes it a bit too repetitive to warrant a second playthrough just for that. There are also no extra trophies to get for random stuff after finishing the game, instead all are tied to chapter completion so if you play through the game you’ll get the platinum; which is a bit sad since random trophies does add more replay value to the game, and things like "talking to a cactus" in Back to the Future was a really fun scene that otherwise would’ve been easily missable. So the game will clock in at about 10 to 12 hours, with no real incentive to replay. However, the price isn’t that high and it’s also a great ride while it lasts, so it’s not really something to drag it down. Short but sweet, as they say!

    One thing that needs to be addressed to Telltale veterans are the glitches. Other Telltale games has had a lot of problems; not with glitches that stop you from progressing by locking you out of items and conversations, but rather that they have a lot of slowdown and some freezing issues. That, of course, in a game that really wants you to get into the story, is a major mood breaker. However; this game is pretty much free from that! It might be that the PS3 version is worse off, so it’s the extra power of the PS4 to help it up (PS4 games install completely to harddrive even when being played off of a disc), but it feels really nice to play a Telltale game and not having that slowdown and choppiness. So that’s a huge improvement!

    TOTAL

    Let’s get it straight; this game isn’t for everyone. Even though it’s based on an action series it still requires you to like a bit slower gameplay and storytelling to be able to get enjoyment out of it. Since the glitches from earlier games are gone, the graphics work well with the source material and Telltale has managed to get a really interesting story out of it that both works well in and also expands the Borderlands universe, it’s really a great game! The only thing that drags it down a bit is the lack of replayability; adding some extra trophies or making a bit "bigger" alternate scenes for different choices would’ve helped it up a bit. But Tales from the Borderlands is definitely a 9 out of 10; it’s really a great game if you’re into the genre, and the humor really makes it awesome!

    So with Telltale keeping to make great games with big licenses… can we see one based on Chris Carter’s Millennium? Please?

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