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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (362)

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Super Mario Land 2: 6 G... 2/5
Super Mario Maker 2 3.5/5
Pillars of Eternity II:... 4/5
Sundered 3/5
Iconoclasts 3/5
Divinity: Original Sin 2 4.5/5
Heroes of the Monkey Ta... 4/5
Lands of Lore III 2.5/5
Lands of Lore II: Guard... 1/5
Lands of Lore: Throne o... 2/5
Rage 2 4/5
EnHanced 3.5/5
Blossom Tales: The Slee... 3.5/5
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 2.5/5
Far Cry 5 4/5
Jotun 2/5
Armada 4/5
RiME 2.5/5
Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5

Next 25

Tales from the Borderlands   PC (Steam) 

Shoot & Loot Not Required    4/5 stars

Telltale Games was formed in 2004 by a number of ex-LucasArts employees who saw the writing on the wall long before the official sellout of LucasArts to Disney in 2012. Beginning with a handful of comedic Adventure titles in classic LucasArts IPs, like ‘Sam & Max’ and ‘Money Island,’ as well as a new IP, ‘Puzzle Agent,’ and a licensed story based on the British claymation, ‘Wallace & Grommit,’ Telltale soon built up a reputation for creating one – and only one – thing: Narrative-heavy episodic Adventure games.

Their first major success, and the one that has driven their continued development as a business, however, was when Telltale managed to secure the rights for the obscenely, inexplicably popular Chris-would-love-that zombie schlock, ‘The Walking Dead.’ Since then, IP holders have practically beaten-down Telltale’s doors in order to have their IPs receive the ‘Telltale Treatment.’ These IPs run the gamut from comic books like ‘Batman,’ to hugely successful TV shows like ‘Game of Thrones,’ to story-free videogames like… ‘Minecraft?!’

While I do love a good narrative in my videogames, I’m also very harsh on games that don’t contain enough actual ‘game.’ Interactive Movies aren’t really my thing, so I’ve been content to ignore Telltale’s releases for the most part. It only makes it easier when their episodic Adventures are based on IPs I don’t care about. In 2014, however, Telltale collaborated with Gearbox and 2K Games to release a 5-part episodic Adventure that takes place in the ‘Borderlands’ universe. “Tales from the Borderlands” (“TftB”) caught my interest right away, as the setting, backstory, and characters in the three ‘Borderlands’ loot-filled FPSes have generally been far more intriguing than the grindy-loot-slot-machine gameplay.

“TftB” looks exactly like a ‘Borderlands’ game. That is to say, it uses a relatively unique cell-shading style on its Unreal Engine polygons to give them a truly unique look, feel, and identity. Despite the fact that ‘Borderlands’ games take place mostly in ruined wastelands on other planets, nobody can accuse the franchise of looking like ‘a samey brown-and-gray shooter’ due to the incredibly stylish visuals. “TftB” nails the feel of traditional ‘Borderlands’ with the designs of its new characters and locations. The only problem with the visuals is that sometimes character animations look a bit stiff.

Audio-wise, “TftB” also delivers plenty of quality. The soundtrack is mostly understated, however, the intros and outros of each episode feature licensed tunes that aficionados of modern rock music (i.e., not me) will appreciate. The voiceacting is well-done, and features mostly established videogame voiceactors, with the notable exception of Patrick Warburton (a.k.a., Puddy from “Seinfeld”) as the incredibly slimy Vasquez. Returning characters from other ‘Borderlands’ games feature their original voice actors, which is great for a sense of continuity.

Technically, “TftB” is pretty solid. Of course, there’s not a whole lot to screw up when it comes to Telltale’s signature style of Adventure ‘game.’ I did, however, notice severe frame drops right before loading screens most of the time, which seems like a lazy oversight with regard to the game engine.

As a narrative-focused Interactive Movie style of Adventure game, “TftB” really doesn’t have a lot of crutches to lean on. It needs to have a great story with great characters because, unlike a normal ‘Borderlands’ game, it can’t placate players into an addictive stupor with 0.01% legendary loot drop rates…

Fortunately for everyone involved and for ‘Borderlands’ fans everywhere, “TftB” DOES INDEED have a fantastic, well-written, well-conceived story. Taking place immediately after the events of “Borderlands 2,” “TftB” explores the aftermath of the death of Handsome Jack and helps to setup some potential scenarios for the upcoming “Borderlands 3.”

Told almost entirely as a flashback via a pair of unreliable narrators, “TftB” covers the exploits of two average, everyday non-Vault-Hunters living in the Pandora region of space in the distant, dystopian future, where a handful of megacorporations act as the universe’s government. Our first protagonist is a young, up-and-coming middle-manager at Hyperion (Handsome Jack’s company that operates out of a huge space station in orbit around Pandora’s moon) named Rhys. The second protagonist is a female con artist named Fiona, trying to survive along with her (presumably adopted) sister and elderly mentor among the psychos and societal dysfunction on Pandora’s surface. These two would be unlikely to ever meet under normal circumstances, but are thrown together when Rhys’ boss – the comically repulsive Vasquez – screws him out of everything. In an attempt to get even, Rhys and his accountant buddy Vaughn hi-jack one of Vasquez’s pending secret deals: Buying a Vault key from someone on the surface.

Naturally, things don’t work out as expected for any party, as the Vault key – one of the central McGuffins for any ‘Borderlands’ game, which is supposed to unlock an ancient alien treasure trove – in question turns out to be part of a scam being run by Fiona and her little family. Amid the chaos, double-dealing, backstabbing, and lying, Rhys and Fiona find themselves in possession of a different Vault key and set out together to unravel its mysteries… despite the fact that nobody in either group trusts anyone in the other group as far as they can throw them.

Throughout the Adventure’s 5 chapters, each of which takes roughly 2 hours to complete (resulting in a 10-hour experience overall), Rhys, Fiona, and their companions get involved in typically ‘Borderlands’ scenarios, which are equal parts humorous and deadly. Plenty of established characters from other ‘Borderlands’ games make appearances in “TftB,” usually more significant than mere cameos, helping to tie this cast of original characters and events to established characters and events in the series canon.

“TftB” is one of those games that loves to give players to illusion of choice. Yes, sometimes choices matter to the extent that a supporting character might get killed or injured, and yes, sometimes the consequences of choices can cut-off certain options later down the line. But make no mistake, “TftB” has a specific narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, and everything that happens in the story is intended to happen by the writers. There are no drastically different outcomes to look for.

That said, I didn’t really care that “TftB” more or less railroaded me into a particular narrative outcome. The writing is excellent, the character development and pacing feel natural and move along at a nice pace, and the divisions between each of the 5 episodes (with recaps by everyone’s favorite Russian walrus arms dealer, Marcus Kincaid) all made for a very pleasant tale. I liked the characters involved in “TftB,” numerous scenes were emotionally evocative, and the scenario made me keep coming back to see what would happen next. You can’t really expect more out of an Interactive Movie than that!

None of this current batch of Telltale games differs particularly – as far as I know – from a new standard: Instead of the traditional ‘Use [Object] on [Object]’ puzzles that used to litter Adventure games and usually lead to head-against-wall beating frustration due to insane moon logic, there are only dialog choices and Quick-Time Events.

Yup. While there are a few moments in “TftB” where the player must essentially play a Hidden Object mini-game to find a plot-mover, most of the ‘gameplay’ is simply talking. Every dialog between characters allows the player to choose 1 of 4 potential responses. These responses are timed, but failing to input a choice simply defaults to the ‘say nothing’ choice. Different choices can affect the way events play out, but ultimately, it’s like taking two slightly different paths to the same destination.

The other core piece of gameplay in “TftB” is the widely-reviled Quick-Time Events (QTEs), which test the player’s reflexes (barely) by flashing a button or direction on-screen, which the player must then mimic in a timely fashion to avoid death or failure. In most cases, biffing a QTE leads to a Game Over screen, but with “TftB’s” constant auto-saving, there is usually very little repetition of content involved. At least none of the QTEs in the game are particularly tricky… they’re really more of a test to make sure the player is still awake and/or alive.

Unlike certain other Interactive Movies, “TftB” doesn’t have any extra cruft. There are no hidden do-dads to collect (though scanning in-game objects with Rhys’ cybernetic eyeball can lead to some amusing text jokes), no encouragement to repeat the game a whole bunch of times, and no arduous Achievements/Trophies to hunt-down. It’s just a very mellow, low-key narrative experience.

While I can’t say I’m in love with the gameplay minimalism Telltale Games has embraced for their game production template, I enjoyed “Tales from the Borderlands” quite a bit for what it is. The strength of any Telltale game, it seems, comes from the strength of the IP it’s built upon, as well as any given player’s interest in that IP. The storytelling and world building in “Borderlands 2” and “Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel” sucked me into the world of Pandora despite their flaws and the competition from some questionable gameplay elements. “Tale from the Borderlands” provides a highly polished, buttoned-up dose of ‘Borderlands’ storytelling without any competing elements to serve as distractions… and it only makes me want to see more. If Telltale’s writers were put in charge of the script for “Borderlands 3,” I’d be thrilled.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 5/5
Gameplay: 1.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5



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