The one thing that’s always been a problem for the Borderlands series is the fact that you have to play it. It incorporates everything terrible about MMORPGs with everything terrible about modern-day shooters. All Tales from the Borderlands had to do was force Borderlands’s gameplay to get out of the narrative’s way, and you’d still have an exponentially better game almost by default. It’s awe-inspiring, then, to watch Tales soar so very high above the call of duty in that regard. The story crafted here isn’t just a fine Borderlands sequel, but one of the most enjoyable sci-fi adventure stories in recent memory. It boils down to one single element, missing from all the Borderlands games, and so much of gaming in general: optimism.
That shouldn’t be mistaken with happiness. All one has to do is turn on a Nintendo console for 10 minutes, and you get happiness. Hundreds of games can do bright, colorful, cheerful. Optimism is harder. Optimism, in the context of this particular game, means taking a world that, despite the color, is aggressively nihilistic and cynical, and telling a story equally aggressive about finding reasons to defy that nihilism instead of feeding into it.
Tales starts out on that cynical note. Like all stories in this universe, it’s essentially a treasure hunt for a Vault, Borderlands’s persistent MacGuffin device for unlimited riches and power, always protected by a big evil on the post-apocalyptic desert planet Pandora. Tales follows two specific protagonists who wind up in search of the Vault: Rhys (Troy Baker), an ambitious corporate stooge from megacorporation Hyperion who needs the Vault to screw over his nickel-slick scumbag boss (played with maximum sliminess by Patrick Warburton), and Fiona (Laura Bailey), just another con artist born and raised on Pandora, barely scraping by with the help of her foster sister and criminal foster father. The two meet as a result of a deal gone bad where Rhys tries to buy a Vault key with stolen corporate money, and through a series of unfortunate events, the money goes missing, and the map to the Vault is up for grabs.
The first two episodes are fairly standard Telltale Games fare of micromanaging relationships, and deliberate scheming, and even this stretch benefits from a wild humor streak that the developer hasn’t been able to let loose with since the Sam & Max days. It’s also a brand of humor far more self-deprecating than Borderlands’s trademark sneering sarcasm, which makes the game’s introduction to Pandoran life joyously irreverent, even when the game refuses to flinch on the gore factor.
The series shift toward something greater happens with the introduction of a single character at the very start of episode three: a tiny robot, Gortys, created solely to point the way to the Vault. Imagine Star Wars: The Force Awakens’s BB-8 with the voice and personality of the most endlessly happy six-year-old girl who ever lived. By this point in the game, our random band of misfits is simply that. Gortys’s appearance almost instantly galvanizes them into a family, something that less resembles the damaged survivors of Mad Max: Fury Road than the family unit at the center of Little Miss Sunshine, broken people trying their best for the sake of the youngest of them.
Darkness invades this story around this point. Rhys and Fiona have to dodge bounty hunters, an Amazonian rocket launcher-wielding crime boss wants their heads, and the literal specter of Borderlands 2’s Handsome Jack hangs over everything. And yet, shooting one’s way out of trouble happens rarely if at all. The game is forced to get delightfully innovative when it comes to its bigger action beats, which have long been Telltale’s Achilles’ heel. A particular chase sequence through a jungle later in episode three is dizzying in its madcap kineticism, and paced in such a way as to keep Telltale’s gifts for dialogue and character moments front and center. The biggest actual shootout in the game is a finger gunfight that puts the famous one from Spaced to shame in every way. The finale ends with Telltale’s greatest work in that regard: a drag-out brawl where each button press is intuitively familiar to anyone who’s picked up a fighting game in the last 20 years.
All of Tales’s improvements in the gameplay department remain secondary to Telltale delivering their most effective work in character development and storytelling. Surprisingly, even in contrast with the far more complex relationships in their Game of Thrones series, there isn’t a single character in the game that doesn’t feel as if they have the capacity to become better people than they were at the start. Tales goes out of its way to show the soul behind every criminal, and test the game’s heroes with their demons and nightmares, and yet still maintain lightness in its touch. Unlike much of Telltale’s recent work, it’s possible, and very desirable, to persevere with a little help from your friends here.
You make many of them throughout, even a few from previous games in the series. More than a couple will break your heart before the end, and the game will lift you back up just as suddenly. Borderlands’s signature human ugliness does, in fact, serve a purpose here. It plants the expectation of avarice in every character you meet—an expectation the game takes great pleasure in destroying piece by piece along the way. A character gives a rambling speech in Tales’s final moments that comes from a place of total, unabashed sentimentality, and the game does such a wonderful job of earning the sentiment, it’s all one can do to not tear up at it. All the plot threads end in some manner of redemption, but the big winner here is the Borderlands universe as a whole. It’s a world that was tailor-made to be destroyed, and now it’s been shaped by Telltale into a place you never want to leave.