What I’m loving about Tales from the Borderlands is that it allows itself to go wherever the story needs it to. Case in point, after three episodes of being a treasure hunt, the game just up and says, “let’s change genres. We’re now a heist film.” Ok, a treasure hunt and a heist aren’t too far off from one another in the narrative output department, but it is still a big shift in focus.
Now that our plucky cadre of miscreants are under the thumb of Pandora crime boss Vallory, they have to satisfy her desire to complete the vault key rather than their own. The vault key is a cute little robot named Gortys. The final piece of the key is back on Hyperion’s orbital station where this whole story began. So, they concoct a plan to get the last piece of the key and save their own skins from Vallory’s wrath.
Really, “Escape Plan Bravo” follows the narrative beats of a heist film to a tee. Setting up the plan in a montage sequence, then several scenes of the group getting ready with all the necessary items to pull it off before step-by-step everything goes wrong. Fiona and Sasha have to outfit themselves to pass as corporate executives. Rhys will go pretending to be his now dead boss Vazquez. Then they have to cobble together a working spaceship leading into the game’s funniest opening credits sequence yet. A perfect parody of The Right Stuff and Armageddon with a song sequence that manages to outdo Saints Row IV‘s own opening effort.
Soon after that, things start going wrong. The cobbled together spaceship is not as stable as everyone was lead to believe and requires some in flight maintenance. Outside. On the wing. In space. Leading to a scene that reminded me how good Telltale was at the heartfelt stuff and that just last episode proved that not even the Borderlands could curb that skill. I never thought a Borderlands game of all things would make me well up.
Once the crew does land on Hyperion station, it’s a series of encounters of Fiona and Rhys desperately trying to keep their cover. One of which grants us the privilege of playing through the most outrageous sequence in the game yet. From last episode up until this point there were moments of rye comedy interspersed between the character drama and the free wheeling use of tropes from other genres, but nothing that made me bust a gut laughing like pretty much the entirety of the climax of “Zer0 Sum.” And along comes what could be called the action set piece of the episode to remind us what Tales from the Borderlands originally came here to do.
Rhys disguised as Vasquez is confronted by irate members of the accounting department. They are sick of his treatment of them and are finally going to take him down. Are you about to pay for sins of the now dead Vasquez? Is karma coming home to roost? Then they pull out finger guns and being probably the most epic shootout in any adventure game. One that would be the envy of one of the mainline first person shooter Borderlands games. This “firefight” goes on for something approaching five minutes and I could not stop laughing as the situation’s ridiculousness built up to a near operatic crescendo. What purpose does this scene serve in the larger narrative? Proving that Tales from the Borderlands knows when style over substance is a perfect tonal balm to make the piece sing.
I brought this up in previous episode reviews, but I don’t like the Borderlands games. Don’t know if that quite came across. The opening sequences promise something like an action-comedy TV show of stylized hijinks in a sci-fi wild west setting. Yet, the games themselves are a dull slog of repetitive shooting and looting without any consideration for my brain cells starving to death in the meantime. And yet, Tales from the Borderlands continues to be one of my favorite games this year. It’s not just me. It has become a common refrain around the internet, “I don’t like the Borderlands games, but I love Tales from the Borderlands.” or “Tales from the Borderlands is a Borderlands games for people who don’t like Borderlands.”
It seems to do everything in its power to divest itself from the specter of its title property. Not like Telltale is embarrassed of the parent property, but more like they get the core of what makes the Borderlands‘ milieu interesting, something that Gearbox can’t grab onto for long. Possibly due to the FPS format they’ve constrained themselves into. In fact, every major positive thing I’ve heard about the main Borderlands games comes from some tidbit where the game finally came together and delivered on some emotional hook the player had been promised. At least before it devolved back into numbing slog of mechanistic shooting and looting.
I too have those few, collective, scant minutes of the promise being fulfilled out of a 20 hour snoozefest of a game. Moments like the standing outside a church at the far end of the wastes in a three-way stand off waiting for the bell to ring or dropping down into a sewer to bait out 4 mutant reptiles with a pizza or a good old fashion wild west bank robbery. Scenes that managed to coalesce the shoot and loot play into the narrative rather than something you do while the narrative happens to others. Tales from the Borderlands is an entire game delivering on the promise of an irreverent, kooky, sci-fi wild west in space. Inherently, we want to care what is going on around us and much of the Borderlands games is pushing us away from caring what’s going on. Tales is saying, no come back, you can care. This is all about caring about what’s going on, it’s why these people are in this situation in the first place. It’s why Rhys and Fiona keep persisting. They care. You can care.
That’s what the big set piece is all about. A piece of walking talking feces in a suit having this huge (like really huge) in joke with the nerds in the accounting department and everyone just enjoying themselves by pretending to shoot one another like they are the ones living on Pandora. It’s absolutely farcical with how far it ends up going, but at the same time no one shames them. They get to live a fantasy, without the consequences and have a laugh before going back to work. In short, they all get to enjoy themselves.