In Danger at Last in Tales from the Borderlands, Ep. 1

I never felt like I was in much danger while playing Borderlands 1 or 2. That’s not to say I didn’t die—I did—but death never hurt much, and I always felt like I was floating above the overall gruesomeness of the setting. More to the point, there was never a threat, human or otherwise, that I couldn’t overcome with a little grinding and a few new toys. Pandora was an ultraviolent playground first, a credible post-apocalyptic-wild-west-in-space a distant second.

Telltale was damn clever, then, to give Tales from the Borderlands two protagonists who can’t simply answer Pandora’s gunplay with more, better gunplay. For me, hearing that “guns can be a crutch” and that “you’ll always be able to talk your way out of more situations than you can shoot your way out of” is a breath of fresh air, because as a result, Pandora feels dangerous at last.

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I’m certainly not suggesting any lack of gunplay, or any dearth of deaths. This tale’s plenty violent. But Tales from the Borderlands is shaping up to be a study in the kinds of characters who could thrive in a place as demented as Pandora without being openly insane, omnimurderous gun otaku. We have two competing narrators, each trying to prove equal to that unenviable task.

There’s Rhys, a social climber at the moon-dwelling Hyperion Corporation. He’s a man constantly in the middle of congratulating himself, and he has the scuzzy, amoral swagger of an investment banker. Then there’s Fiona, the hardscrabble con-woman. Whereas Rhys has spent his days literally floating above the bloody happenings on Pandora, Fiona makes her living within that chaos. But both (in a parallel deployed with jackhammer subtlety) are “closers” for sundry dealings that are distinct from (if closely related to) Pandora’s beyond-frequent slaughter.

Pushing the bulk of the bloodshed to the periphery gives the rest of the world room to breathe—not just in the broad strokes, like the playground psychotics of bandit society or the rivalries among Pandora’s various profiteering corporations, but in the little touches, like the apparently vibrant craft beer scene at The Purple Skag. And probably-needless to say, there’s an emotional depth that goes leagues beyond the frankly unearned moments of pathos in Borderlands 2.

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But you expected that. By and large, we all know what to expect from a Telltale game these days. You make some difficult choices that have meaningful effects on the plot. You make some easy choices that do likewise. And sometimes you punctuate all that thoughtful action by mashing the Q key a lot.

Still, Telltale hasn’t attempted a full-on comedic narrative since Puzzle Agent 2 in 2011, so you might not be expecting genuine laughs in among all the slow burning interpersonal tensions. Here’s a story that manages to be pretty funny and pretty wrenching, sometimes simultaneously—which makes it feel like something of a Telltale apotheosis, like the game they’ve been aiming at making ever since their Renaissance began (long about their first season of The Walking Dead).

Telltale is on a roll as far as making intriguing, worthwhile games, in their signature style, from increasingly unlikely source material, and I’ve never been more excited to see where their wandering, wordy muse takes them next.

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