Review: New Tales from the Borderlands improves on Telltale’s original


New Tales from the Borderlands

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S

Developer: Gearbox Software | Publisher: 2K Games

2014’s “Tales from the Borderlands,” an episodic interactive story game by Telltale Games and Gearbox Studios, worked way better than I — or anyone else — thought it would. The now-defunct Telltale was famous for its choose-your-own-adventure narrative games; Borderlands is a franchise best known for its loot-and-shoot gameplay. Somehow, it was a perfect match, injecting realism into the world of Borderlands while maintaining the series’ trademark comedy and violence.

“New Tales from the Borderlands,” that first game’s spiritual successor, had big shoes to fill. When the game entered development without Telltale at the helm, I worried that the second installment could miss out on what made the original such a revelation.

Set just after the end of “Borderlands 3,” in which gun corporation Atlas and the planet Promethea survive an invasion from competitor Maliwan, “New Tales” focuses on how the normal scientists, street folk and business owners in the game’s world survived. Just as in the original, the characters represent different perspectives on life, and yet again, the game builds from an interesting premise to a purely fun time playing as a small ragtag group of nobodies trying to save the world. But where the original game felt like an action-adventure movie, “New Tales” feels like a sitcom. Not your regular sitcom, of course — the violence and world-ending stakes are a big standout — but a sitcom nonetheless.

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Players control three characters: Anxiety-ridden Atlas scientist Dr. Anuradha Dhar, her Promethean wannabe-entrepreneur brother Octavio Wallace-Dhar and temperamental Promethean frozen yogurt shop owner Fran Miscowicz. As in past Telltale games, your choices matter, from small dialogue options to bigger, more consequential ones. And as in those games, there are friends and allies to interact with, all unique and bringing new personalities into the fold. For example, Octavio’s assassination-bot friend LOU13 (pronounced Louie) accompanies you for almost all of the game as a stoic robot trying to find out what his future holds.

The three main characters all have their own dreams to fulfill. But the opening of a Vault — one of many alien treasure troves that corporations and Vault Hunters seek to find and profit from — and another corporate invasion of the planet Promethea force everyone on it, including our protagonists, to adapt.

Speaking of the characters in general, I feel like “New Tales from the Borderlands” is yet another home run in terms of character design. I found myself relating with Anu, Octavio and Fran, particularly around their respective key flaws of anxiety, ego and anger. As the story went on, I really felt how this trio went from being thrown together almost randomly to being a family. Plus, one of the best things about a long-form story game like this is witnessing a character’s growth in real-time. One story moment in episode five caught me off guard in a good way; it was a gut punch, delivered by Anu, that also lent insight into her thoughts heading toward the game’s end.

“New Tales from the Borderlands” takes a lot of what made Telltale’s gameplay unique and either keeps it the same or improves on it. Asides from a slight difference in how quicktime events (QTEs) play out (“New Tales” telegraphs the kind of QTE that’s coming up, making it slightly more accommodating) the game is strikingly similar gameplay-wise to its predecessor, and broadly to Telltale Games’ whole catalogue. It’s easy to pick up and play, no matter your level of experience with that style of game.

The game looks great, and one of my favorite parts was just watching the characters move in scenes. The dialogue and movement always match perfectly, with Octavio’s loosey-goosey style countered by his sister’s quick anxious movements and Fran’s stillness in her hoverchair. It’s clear the development team and cast put a lot of effort into the motion capture performances. On top of that, the settings are always covered in little touches that just make the world feel developed. As for the dialogue itself, if you know Borderlands, then you already know what it’s like: dark humor and serious conversation all blend together in a soup, each standing out in its own moment without muddying the overall flavor profile.

As I played through “New Tales,” I couldn’t help but compare it to the original. I love “Tales from the Borderlands,” and so did fans — so much so that Gearbox incorporated one of the game’s main characters, Rhys Strongfork, into the mainline Borderlands titles as an important non-playable character. After playing through “New Tales,” I still have to give the edge to the original; the story is paced better, and is consistently high energy. At times, by comparison at least, “New Tales” drags.

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Still, I spent a lot more time making choices in “New Tales” than in the original. I cared a lot about how these characters treated each other, especially the brother-sister duo of Anu and Octavio. Often, especially in pivotal moments, these choice-focused narrative games ask players to make choices quickly. That was easy in the first game, mainly because the pace was high enough that instinctual decisions were easier to make. Usually, I abide by that expectation — play at the pace the game sets — no matter what.

But playing “New Tales,” I couldn’t.

I paused during a timed decision to give myself more time to think. I never did that in the original game. I know that’s not how the game is meant to be played, but I cared so much about the outcome of that choice that I literally had to take a breath and think more before making the decision. Part of the reason I had a moment like this in “New Tales” and not in the original was because the story had developed in a slower but more realistic way.

“New Tales from the Borderlands” is exactly what it should be: A completely new story from the world of Borderlands, but something we haven’t yet seen much of. The characters felt real; in a series like Borderlands, it’s interesting to see how common folk survive in a crazy, violence-filled futuristic world. Much like my time helping the original cast of “Tales from the Borderlands” find their meaning in life, I enjoyed the experience of helping Anu, Octavio and Fran change the world.

Michael Czar is a freelancer writer covering gaming and esports. His esports writing has primarily appeared on Upcomer. You can follow him on Twitter @xtraweivy.