It's a Telltale Game (Part Three)
Episode Three: Catch a Ride Review -
Telltale Games has hit on something that I feel is underappreciated when it comes to Tales from the Borderlands. The previous episodes struck a precarious balance between engaging action and lighthearted comedy, no small feat in a gaming landscape obsessed with grim “reality” and somber tones. Even Telltale’s other adventures, games like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and The Wolf Among Us have an almost overwhelming amount of despair and tragedy. Not to say that those titles aren’t phenomenal or don’t have moments of levity, but sometimes games that tackle storytelling seem to forget that narratives can be funny and joyful. Too much misery can feel suffocating, and Tales from the Borderlands represents a welcome breath of fresh air. Despite a few hiccups, Catch a Ride continues in the footsteps of the excellent episodes Zer0 Sum and Atlas Mugged.
The adventure picks up with our heroes sorting through the fallout of a major decision made at the tail end of Atlas Mugged while surrounded by killers out for their blood. Despite a scenario of dire peril, Telltale uses obvious and subtle touches of comedy to make the experience fun while remaining exciting. Broad slapstick jokes work wonders, while situational humor arises that plays with the characters spent two episodes establishing. Slight tweaks to facial animations convey wry winks to the audience that drew out a number of chuckles. In my two hour playthrough of Episode Three, I laughed loudly and deeply several times. A number of jokes set up in previous episodes pay off beautifully and often unexpectedly.
From the moment I heard Telltale would be developing a story-driven adventure in the Borderlands universe I wondered how they would be expanding that world. From the main entries in the series, it appeared as if everyone on Pandora was insane and twisted in some way. The same seemed doubley true for Hyperion, the corporate overlords of the rocky planet. Yet Telltale’s writers have done a fantastic job inserting some believable humanity into a violence-saturated world that exists with a solidly video game-like logic. You like and empathize with protagonists Fiona and Rhys. You learn to enjoy the robotic wit of Loader Bot, the casual attitude of Sasha, and Vaugh’s nerdy angst. We see them interact and form
connections with each other that range from friendships to uneasy truces. Despite the craziness of Pandora, Telltale assures us that the craziness is human, quite a feat in the absurdist fantasy setting home to mutants, monsters, and a constant undercurrent of mayhem.
A new character introduced in Catch a Ride presents an interesting scenario. Avoiding spoilers, the newcomer exists as a blank slate of innocence. It doesn’t understand violence or death, two of the primary interactions between Pandorans. Watching this character develop in the world of Borderlands is engaging on a plot level because you see that innocence slowly stripped away and it leaves you feeling sad. Though the blank slate attitude is heavily (and successfully) mined for laughs, it’s touching in a way that I didn’t expect from Tales from the Borderlands. Telltale’s writers still have plenty of tricks in store for players of this series.
The aesthetic of Tales from the Borderlands continues to be a phenomenal fit for Telltale. Their engine’s ability to replicate Gearbox’s Borderlands aesthetic seems absurdly perfect. This continues to be the case with Catch a Ride, though I noticed several moments where there wasn’t quite enough polish for the game to run smoothly. Sometimes animations would ghost along a different path for a second before snapping back to their intended place. At one pivotal moment, the screen was completely obscured by the foliage of a tree, slightly spoiling an otherwise triumphant scene. These didn’t overly mar my experience, but they successfully pulled me out of the narrative, a problem for a game that survives on the strength of its storytelling.
Episode Three functions soundly on a mechanical level, though I ran into a couple minor bugs that made one or two optional interactions disappear. The dialogue options are fun and varied, including a more action-oriented skill set for fast-talking protagonist Fiona. Two of the three puzzle sequences in Catch a Ride relate to Fiona's newly embraced role as a woman of action, and I am being very generous with the term puzzle. If anything, the presence of those segments hammers home how weak Telltale can be when it comes to how their games play. They can get away with it when their writing works so well, but it would be nice to see some puzzle sequences that trust the player to think for more than half a second. Gameplay is the one area where Telltale falls somewhat short. Improving that aspect could really boost their games to a whole new level.
Even though I consider Episode Two to be the high-point of Tales from the Borderlands so far, Episode Three takes on the somewhat thankless task of moving the series from madcap chases and silliness to something that resembles high stakes with an emotional core. Telltale makes such a transition look easy, despite how incredibly difficult it can be to execute. While a few technical issues left me feeling a bit frustrated, my overall experience was highly enjoyable. It is always good when the worst thing I can say about a game is that I am sad I have to wait for more of it.
Is It Fun?:
The light adventure of the previous two episodes gets dark
A drastic change in setting is a welcome respite from desert
The music merely serves its purpose
A child could play this game, but really, really shouldn't.
Yes, in a storytelling kind of way
People who played episodes 1/2 and thought they were sweet
Tales from the Borderlands Episode Three was reviewed PC and is now available for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android.
Review originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 06/24/15