Episode Five: The Vault of the Traveler - Review
It's a Telltale Game (Part Five)
The Tales from the Borderlands series stands as the most entertaining collection of episodes released by Telltale Games to date. I can’t remember the last time I smiled and laughed during a game as much as The Vault of the Traveler. Through the obscure alchemy known as “fantastic writing,” Tales from the Borderlands elevates itself from simply being funny (a difficult feat by itself) to a place where it conveys genuine pathos. By Episode Five, we’ve grown attached to the characters and we’ve become invested in the stakes. Important figures in both Tales from the Borderlands and the broader Borderlands universe have died in previous episodes, but The Vault of the Traveler ups the body count considerably. While the finale powerfully hits other emotional notes like sadness or anger, it remains fundamentally lighthearted.
Some of what lies ahead could be considered spoilers. If you haven’t played any of Tales from the Borderlands yet, do yourself a favor and download the first episode for free. It comes with our recommendation.
Telltale Games has been given an almost shocking freedom to change the game world of Borderlands. Previous episodes in the series have made smaller changes, but Episode Five goes all out and completely changes the fabric of the in-game universe. By the time the credits roll, staples of the Borderlands franchise have been left shattered and broken, leaving an exciting and intriguing future in store for upcoming entries in either the Gearbox or Telltale series. We’ve grown so used to game worlds and characters that remain relatively static that something as simple as following a story through and leaving the world different seems novel and progressive. While there have been no announcements regarding future Tales from the Borderlands seasons, the cliffhanger ending of Episode Five practically begs for a follow-up.
As the series has progressed it has become clear that Telltale made a conscious decision to incorporate the jokes directly into the story. What might have seemed to be a funny, one-off moment in the first episode becomes a hilarious gag an episode or two later and somehow grows into a huge set piece during the finale. This does two things that are vitally important and really difficult to pull off. First, it cultivates humor and attachment. Sure, it might have been funny the first time Rhys and Vaughn fist bump and call each other “bro,” but seeing that friendship develop and those fist bumps become more and more ridiculously elaborate eventually makes the gesture really meaningful during the more serious moments. We understand that it means something more to the characters in whom we’ve become invested, so we empathize and feel closer to them by proxy when things become solemn. Second, the jokes become ground the serious moments of the story in a happy-go-lucky territory. Sure, the finger-gun segments at Hyperion were smile-inducing in the first episode. Sure, they were hilarious during the infiltration segment. But that particular joke coming back as a large-scale plot device during a tense life-or-death battle? Brilliant.
That kind of set-up and pay-off is one of the hallmarks of great writing. Lesser writers often don’t look that far ahead in their stories. The hero just happens to be fluent in Mandarin for reasons that are explained in a bit of throwaway dialogue. The escaped heroine stumbles randomly into the room where the pivotal McGuffin has been hidden. Less talented writing occur when things just happen; where cause and effect don’t seem to exist. Tales from the Borderlands sets everything up from the beginning and propels itself forward with the almighty writers’ rule of “and then.” Beginning with Rhys and Fiona making active decisions to engage in a risky endeavor, every story beat from then on is a series of “and then” moments deriving from those fateful decisions. This leads to an unprecedented, breathless pacing that manages to move assuredly even in the insane world of Pandora. Because of that logical structure, players are able to easily understand the stakes and the various motivations of everyone involved with a minimal amount of effort.
The entire finale is one big highlight of the best that Tales from the Borderlands can offer. Rhys finally confronts Handsome Jack. We at last learn the identity of the masked man who kidnapped Fiona and Rhys back in the first episode. The Gortys Project reaches its full potential. Players get a chance to assemble a team of vault hunters to take down the vault guardian. Fiona and Sasha fly into an alien portal and encounter vault dwellers. There are few moments that feel anything less than awesome.
One of the few studios that puts a heavy emphasis on writing, Telltale Games will have put out six entire games in the past two years when the final episode of their Game of Thrones series lands next month (seven if you include Minecraft: Story Mode, though that won’t conclude until next year). That kind of output seems insane for such a small studio. Since the release of their first season of The Walking Dead, all of those games have ranged in quality from good to superb. I’d argue that the reason both seasons of The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones, and Tales from the Borderlands have been so successful has been because of the commitment Telltale shows to high caliber writing. People don’t play Telltale games because they have fun quick time events or heart racing gameplay mechanics; they do it to experience a well-told story and make meaningful choices. Storytelling carries the entire company.
If a smaller studio like Telltale Games can be so successful by emphasizing story above AAA graphics and revamped gameplay mechanics, why can’t other studios learn from their example? Or rather, why are we content with lesser, lazier writing when we know how much better it could be? We should expect from all our games because of what Telltale routinely shows us is possible on a shoestring budget. On that small budget, Telltale delivers swashbuckling space heists, world-shattering disasters, giant robot fights, and gorgeous scenes that play just as well on a mobile phone as on a tricked out PC. Constrained art direction combined with some fantastic composing and licensed music selection by Jared Emerson-Johnson really elevate the presentation above what many have come to expect from Telltale Games, which is no small feat.
There are very few criticisms to level against the conclusion of the Tales from the Borderlands series. The largest problem I encountered was the lip syncing running off track once or twice for a few jarring seconds. I also noticed some graphical stuttering, but given the sheer number of effects and moving objects on screen it’s likely that the fault lies with the aging Telltale engine which allows for so much multiplatform flexibility. The only other thing that really stood out to me as being moderately irritating were a few instances of obvious set ups for dramatic turns. Episode Five contains some incredible surprises, but a few of its most meaningful moments are a bit too obviously telegraphed. All told, however, these insignificant nitpicks didn’t really detract from my enjoyment.
Tales from the Borderlands begins as one of the best game series Telltale Games has made to date and ends as a serious contender for Game of the Year. Vault of the Traveler is the perfect conclusion for the series. It will tickle your funny bone, pull your heartstrings, and punch you in the gut while keeping plenty of surprises and fake-outs in store to keep things incredibly interesting. I wouldn’t be upset Episode Five was the last we saw of Tales from the Borderlands, but I hope we see more and that we don’t have to wait years for a season two to become a reality. If you value games as vehicles for compelling stories, you owe it to yourself to play Tales from the Borderlands.
Is It Fun?:
The last Telltale Borderlands game...?
Some really kinetic action scenes and fun environments
Smile-inducing as usual for this series
Surprisingly, some quick-time events prove difficult
The capstone of a wonderfully fun series
Anyone with a love of Borderlands and a spark of humor
Tales from the Borderlands Episode Five was reviewed PC and is now available for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android. So, basically everything.
Review originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 10/22/15