This is the review for the fifth and final episode, The Vault of the Traveller. To read the review of Episode Four, Escape Plan Bravo, head to page 2, if you want Episode Three, Catch a Ride, head to page 3, if you’re looking for Episode Two, Atlas Mugged, head to page 4 and if you’re looking for the review of Episode One, Zer0 Sum, head to page 5.
Telltale does love to end their episodes with big cliff-hangers, but few left me as hungry for the next episode as Escape Plan Bravo’s. The opening moments of the finale reward the wait, and it only gets better from there.
The Vault of the Traveller doesn’t let up once, kicking off with the fruition of Jack’s nefarious scheme and then running full pelt toward the conclusion, with great escapes, chases, shoot outs and a whole mess of loose ends getting tied up.
It is, essentially, everything you’d want it to be.
The gang’s Helios heist didn’t exactly go to plan, starting a chain of events that make this last episode the series’ gloomiest and most likely to punch you in the gut. It’s a “rollercoaster of emotions,” as Loader Bot puts it. Even the opening credits, normally fun and action-packed, are grim and reflective.
It’s a bold direction for a zany caper, but not out of character. In each entry in the series, I’ve been impressed with how emotionally resonant they’ve been; The Vault of the Traveller just intensifies it.
This isn’t The Walking Dead, though. Tales from the Borderlands is not a harrowing game about loss and survival, so even when it’s at its most bleak, the blow is softened by moments of perfectly-timed levity. I welled up at least twice, but quickly followed up with a chuckle. It’s never too light, though, and the stakes are consistently high.
All of this leads up to a climactic confrontation outside the titular vault, a huge QTE sequence that spans several scenes. It is, perhaps, my favourite bit of action in not just the series, but all of Telltale’s adventure games. The spectacle really seems to push the tired engine to its breaking point – I think an upgrade is in order – but it’s worth it.
It’s not great just because of its gargantuan scale or because it actually subverts QTEs a little bit, it’s a fight that plays out depending on who you bring into it, and that depends on your actions across the entire game. How much cash has Fiona saved up, who you helped out and who you killed, even how you presented yourself – these decisions all inform the team you’ll bring into this final conflict.
Amid all of the action, there’s still room for each of the main cast to shine. They get to kick ass, spout snappy one liners, grow and reconcile, and despite the blistering pace, it never feels rushed. It’s an ensemble episode with nobody drawing the short straw.
Rhys and Fiona are really still the stars, of course, and it’s been a pleasure to watch them transform throughout the game. The Vault of the Traveller really puts them through the wringer, more than anyone else, leading to the adventure’s most intimate and heartfelt moments.
In a very short space of time, the finale surprisingly manages to wrap everything up in satisfying ways. Given how much time was spent in that aforementioned huge QTE sequence and how quickly it hurtles toward the conclusion, I wasn’t sure if it would, but Telltale manages it regardless. Jack, the kidnapping Stranger, the vault – it’s all concluded without loose ends. Well, no more than you’d want from a game that deserves a sequel.
Tales from the Borderlands is the best Borderlands game, taking what’s already great about the setting, amplifying it and subverting it, squeezing it all into a sharper, less exhausting package. It might even be Telltale’s finest work as well. It is undoubtedly its most consistent, with no episode standing out as notably weaker than the rest. The Vault of the Traveller is, then, a masterful finale to an exceptional series, and one I desperately hope will get a follow-up.
It’s always hard to say goodbye, and that’s why we invented the fist bump.
Tales from the Borderlands’ fourth episode, Escape Plan Bravo, has arrived, and sees our motley crew of pragmatic wannabe vault hunters jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
It was a welcome surprise to see Telltale release this episode after only two months, cutting the wait time in half compared to the gaps between previous episodes. Along with its more rapid arrival, Escape Plan Bravo might also be the strongest episode in the series so far.
Incredibly funny, touching without being saccharine, blessed with plenty of character growth –this penultimate episode crams all the best bits of the series into one brilliant adventure. A heist, no less. In space!
Yes, Rhys, Fiona and chums leave the confines of the horrible world of Pandora behind for a jaunt into space. Their destination? The Hyperion base looking over the world.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. The episode picks up just after the end of the last one, with the gang finding themselves once more at the mercy of the villainous Vallory, Queenpin of Pandora.
Things are not looking good.
Like everyone else in the game, Vallory is looking for the vault, and that’s the only reason the gang is still alive. Gortys, the adorable, affable robot and newest member of the team, is the only one who knows how to find the vault, so Vallory allows everyone to keep breathing as long as Gortys helps her.
The next step to finding the vault is a trip to Hyperion, offering us a much greater glimpse at the inner workings of the rather evil corporation. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that almost everyone employed by Hyperion is sociopathic, and the death of Handsome Jack has not softened the corporation in the least.
Escape Plan Bravo is structured like a heist movie, as the gang are forced by Vallory to infiltrate not just Hyperion, but the inner sanctum of Handsome Jack. It helps, of course, that Jack himself, or at least an AI facsimile, is stuck inside Rhys’ head. The Pandoran part of the episode sees everyone working on a plan to break in, complete with the creation of a spaceship, lots of disguises, body swapping, impersonations and a lot of winging it.
Telltale has embraced the cliches of the genre, but with great Borderlands twists. Once again I come up against the challenges of reviewing a game that places story and jokes above all else, because explaining those twists and brilliant moments would inevitably threaten their impact, so I’ll keep it to myself. You’re in for some treats, however, and a very sinister moment with a unicorn.
Several familiar faces return in this episode, and one in particular gives Fiona a moment to really shine. In the previous episode, we got to see Fiona really grow, specifically in the direction of a professional vault hunter, but this time we get to see her grow emotionally. Fiona isn’t exactly quick to trust, but a surprisingly touching friendship develops over the episode that, depending on your choices, reveals a new side to her.
Telltale is one of the best developers in the business when it comes to creating compelling group dynamics and, particularly in The Walking Dead, they’re quick to make you care a lot about someone before taking them away from you. There’s been a lot less of that in Tales from the Borderlands, due mostly to the fact that it’s a comedy first and foremost, but we do get a very Walking Dead moment in Escape Plan Bravo that might see you reaching for the onions to explain the tears in your eyes.
Our man Rhys has a lot of things going on. I’ve had a great deal of fun roleplaying the one-time company man, trying to figure out what direction to take him in. I love the cast of loopy characters, so I’ve been nudging him toward being a genuinely good fellow, but the only person I’ve had him confess the fact that Handsome Jack is in his head to is Vaughn. Fiona and Sasha, I kept in the dark.
That secret has honestly been eating me up a little bit, and once again Telltale gives us the opportunity to come clean. As we get close to the final stretch, I decided to do just that, and it was tough. Trust is definitely one of Tales from the Borderlands’ central themes, and admitting a betrayal like that isn’t easy. It speaks to the skill that these characters have been crafted with that I really care what they think about each other. I want this team to work.
Escape Plan Bravo is a big episode for Rhys, since he’s sort of going home, back to his old company. And throughout, Jack is present, the devil on Rhys’ shoulder, whispering promises and spinning lies. He continues to be a delightful meglamaniac, and there’s a creepy father-son dynamic going on between the pair. It’s all a bit Star Wars, with Jack playing the role of the Emperor and Rhys being a much more amusing Anakin/Luke analogue.
At the heart of Rhys’ arc is a single question: is he still a Hyperion man? Does he want to be rich and feared, or has his time on Pandora, his time with Fiona and chums, had a transformative effect. That’s obviously up to you.
The closing moments of Escape Plan Bravo, and gosh are they good, throw all plans out the window. If entering Hyperion was the gang jumping into the fire, the final episode is going to see them launched into the sun. Exciting stuff, I know. But I’m feeling a bit mopey. I’m not quite ready to bid the Tales from the Borderlands farewell, and I doubt I will be by the end of the fifth episode. It’s not just the superb gags, effortlessly cool action sequences – of which Escape Plan Bravo has one of the best – and great tunes; it’s this group of mismatched heroes that I’m going to miss the most.
Tales from the Borderlands’ third episode, Catch a Ride, doesn’t muck about, starting straight after the climactic closing seconds of the previous episode. That’s all well and good, immediately jumping into the effortlessly cool action that’s become the series’ raison d’etre, next to the quick fire gags, but it’s been four months. Again!
There’s a moment of confusion amid all the action, slightly reduced by the quick recap at the start, where I had to try and remember what the hell I was doing, who I sided with in the last episode, and what it is that I’m trying to do now. Freaking out, Fiona and running away, respectively, it turns out.
Once I shook off the discombobulation, I comfortably slipped back into Rhys’ skagskin loafers and Fiona’s dusty boots. Telltale’s episodic model clearly no longer works, but Catch a Ride, like Atlas Mugged before it, works like a Loader Bot to make it worth the wait.
Depending on how you left things in the last episode, Catch a Ride is going to play out in two different ways, and each of these ways contains various smaller divergent paths. Regardless of whether you sided with Handsome Jack or Fiona when the clock was ticking in Atlas’ top secret facility, one thing remains the same: everyone’s out to get you.
Vasquez and August, the up to this point antagonists are really just part of a single, rather dangerous obstacle in the form of the Pandoran “Queenpin” and all round bad egg. She wants what the amateur vault hunters found in that hidden underground facility, but after all the trouble they went to, they’re not exactly keen on handing it over.
Running, fighting and exploring secret labs – Fiona, Rhys, Vaughn and Whatsherface have become rather proficient at these things over the last couple of episodes, and the Queenpin doesn’t exactly seem any more competent or dangerous than their previous enemies. The threat hasn’t really escalated at all, and now the group has been bolstered by actual vault hunter Athena. She’s the gloomy one with the fancy shield.
Unfortunately, the big bad has a couple of pet vault hunters of her own, and they present the real threat of the episode. I mean, they got through the first Borderlands FPS, and it could be a bit of a slog at times, so you’ve got to admire their tenacity. But enough about the villains! Catch a Ride, amid all shooting, carnivorous plants and some very unsafe use of vehicles, has a surprising amount of time for both Fiona and Rhys to have some fun arcs. They learn a bit about themselves, what they’re willing to do for their allies and then, at the end, they’re better people and they all live happily ever after. Except they don’t get to do that last bit because there’s still two more episodes to go.
For Rhys, Catch a Ride is all about dealing with whoever he decided to side with in Atlas Mugged. He can try to smooth things over with whoever he didn’t side with, and there’s room to do a complete 180, so it doesn’t feel like you’re completely tied to decisions that you made four months ago, though there are still consequences, of course. That all mostly gets dealt with in the opening half-hour, which sort of leaves Rhys playing second fiddle to Fiona for the rest of the episode. He remains a solid source of gags and the occasional bit of social awkwardness as he tries to make small talk with robots and flirt (not completely unsuccessfully) with Sasha, but by the end of the episode, it definitely feels like it belongs to partner in crime.
See, Borderlands is all about the vault hunters. We’ve had three games as them as the protagonists, and Fiona’s doing a good job of making Tales from the Borderlands the fourth. She’s moving up in the world, from a dapper looking con artist and thief to a skilled vault hunter with some rather special, only vaguely explained skills that, without spoiling things, make her a bit more handy in a gunfight.
Athena is the impetus for Fiona getting serious about the vault hunting profession, and the two find themselves in an odd-couple, mentor, pupil relationship. If you fancy it, you can give Athena the cold shoulder, but I oh so wanted her to have a new pal, and I couldn’t resist watching her gushing about how exciting and awesome vault hunting is.
The shield-wielding assassin doesn’t comfortably fit into the group, at first. They’re silly, slapstick and even when they are actually competent, they are still bickering, cracking wise and generally treating their rather deadly adventure like an excursion to a theme park… but, you know, it’s a theme park that can kill you. It’s awkward, but then her presence starts to bring a welcome juxtaposition to the others’ zaniness, but, it turns out, Athena’s just as weird as the rest of them and she actually fits right in. Even though she’s blunt and abrupt and mostly just like shooting things, she’s also given time to open up a bit, even becoming the source of a few great laughs.
You’ll probably recall that most of the game is a flashback, and in the present, Fiona and Rhys are at the mercy of a shifty, masked fella. We get to spend a wee bit more time in the present in Catch a Ride, even learning what the mystery man is looking for, and I think at this point we can start trying to guess who he is in earnest. Does he know Rhys and Fiona? Have they met him before? Fiona wonders the same things, but I suspect we might have to wait for the season finale to find out.
Three episodes in, Tales from the Borderlands remains the source of hearty guffawing, likeable characters and Telltale’s most exhilarating action sequences, but I think that, this time, the studio tried to cram too much into two hours. Other than Athena, who we’ve already met in the last episode (and in Borderlands: The Pre-sequel, of course!), none of the new characters, like the Queenpin, get much time to do anything other than fight.
Worse than any of that, Vaughn is out of commission for much of the episode, and while his troubles do create some amusing situations, including a reverse Chewbacca carrying C3PO deal, where the utterly brilliant Loader Bot ends up carrying around on his back, it still feels like he’s missing. Let’s face it, an episode isn’t complete if Vaughn and his weirdly buff body isn’t getting all up in it.
Once again, an episode of Tales from the Borderlands closes when everything is up in the air and it’s all looking rather gloomy for the puckish rogues. And, once again, I’m ravenous, waiting for the next episode. Two hours is just enough time to get back into the world of Pandora, but after consistently long waits, these episodes seem even shorter than they are. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to another gargantuan gap, but ultimately I’ll probably end up forgiving Telltale if Tales from the Borderlands continues to impress in the penultimate episode. I’m weak, and my anger and impatience is fleeting in the face of great gags and flashy, hyper-cool action.
Four months is a long time to wait for a two-hour Telltale adventure game episode. Tales from the Borderlands’ second episode, Atlas Mugged, does an excellent job of making that wait seem worth it, however. Zer0 Sum set the bar really, really high back in November, though, and this time around it doesn’t have the element of surprise on its side.
There are expectations to juggle, maybe to subvert, and a Mad Max by way of Death Race pastiche to top. In the first five minutes of Atlas Mugged, you’ll violently mutilate a man with a spork. I think Telltale has it all in hand.
During the middle of the first season of The Walking Dead, I recall so many conversations that started with “Have you played the latest episode of The Walking Dead?” followed by a decision play-by-play. There were so many big moments that got seared into brains. By The Wolf Among Us, those conversations started to peter out. It wasn’t that Telltale stopped filling their games with meaningful decisions or climactic moments – I think we all just got used to them, and maybe a little tired of sharing them.
But I want to talk about the big moments from Atlas Mugged. I want to talk about the choices I made, and whether or not I’m filled with doubt. I want to laugh about the stupid jokes all over again with someone else. And I want to make predictions about the third episode. I’m writing this quite a bit before the episode is out, though, and I’m trying desperately to display some rare restraint.
Tales from the Borderlands throws something new into the mix, but doesn’t take anything out to make room for it. Atlas Mugged has the violence and tension that are now par for the course with a Telltale game, but now there’s spectacle, absurdity and a mountain of gags that just makes it more, well, fun. I don’t know if that’s something I can say about any Telltale game since Sam and Max, that it’s fun. Harrowing and stressful, sure, but zombie apocalypses, civil wars and serial-killer hunting are rarely good times.
More than simply being fun, Atlas Mugged feels like an adventure game. There are no puzzles, no inventory management and really barely any obstacles – expected, now – but it’s a literal adventure. A gang of buds and their robot pal go off to find a legendary vault on a crazy world so that they can escape their crummy lives. There are massive monsters, greedy villains, and the promise of lots of lovely loot. It is the exact height that it needs to be to ride the adventure rollercoaster.
The adventure in Atlas Mugged picks up right where it left off in Zer0 Sum. The gang have just reactivated an old Atlas lab, and now it looks like they have a lead, putting them one step closer to getting rich. Vault levels of rich. Oh yeah, and a hologram of Handsome Jack has just appeared, and despite being dead, he’s lost none of his psychotic tendencies or sharp barbs. Throughout the two and a half hour journey, the gang gets split up, put back together again, and they face constant opposition in the form of Hyperion scumbag, Vasquez, and Sasha’s old mark, August. All this, so they can find a secret lab and get mega rich. Hyper rich? Rich enough so that it’s worth going up against Hyperion, bandits and gruesome alien nasties.
Most scenes are the set-up to some gag, whether it’s a fourth-wall-breaking piss-take of Telltale’s big decision moments or another instance of Rhys or Fiona being unreliable narrators. While Borderlands did elicit a few chuckles from me, particularly in the Assault on Dragon Keep DLC, it’s a little bit cruel. There’s a lot of punching, up and down, and like so much of modern comedy, it’s got piles of irreverence and cynicism. Atlas Mugged still has a lot of that, but it’s significantly improved by a surprising amount of sincerity.
Rhys and Fiona can be dicks, and almost every dialogue list contains an option for being an utter arsehole. But next to them is the option to be empathetic, supportive or just plain nice, and selecting those options doesn’t stop the jokes from flowing. Particularly when the two groups, Rhys and Vaughn, Fiona and Sasha, are split up, there are plenty of opportunities to connive, and when they’re together, they can argue and slag each other off to their hearts’ content. But friendships can also be fostered.
There’s a seemingly throwaway moment halfway through the game where that friendship can be affirmed, and it’s a genuinely warm scene. And dotted throughout the game are several moments where these sneaky criminals open up and show a bit of vulnerability. Importantly, it’s vulnerability that is in step with the character, and not tacked on to force a connection between puppet and puppeteer.
All of this runs through a story that’s becoming an interesting mystery made up from several equally intriguing threads and questions. In the shooters, vault hunting seems like a pretty simple job involving shooting the crap out of everything, but in Atlas Mugged it’s a lot more than that. It’s adventure archeology. It’s Indiana Jones with robots and moon guns.
Really, though, the important question is if this episode made me slip out of my chair and spray a tasty beverage everywhere due to belly-jiggling laughter. And yes, it did.
For over two years, the folks over at Telltale Games have been trying to make us feel miserable, spinning stories about desperate survivors amid a zombie apocalypse and a fairytale lawmaker struggling to keep a handle of the monster that exists just under his skin. With Tales from the Borderlands, we’ve been given a break. Horror and harrowing crises are out; laughing at dick jokes is in.
The studio hasn’t missed a beat. They’ve treated Borderlands’ violent world and psychopathic characters like toys in a toy box, combining Gearbox’s juvenile, but still entertaining, universe comfortably with their own brand of storytelling. It works so well that Tales from the Borderlands is easily the most fun I’ve ever had on Pandora.
Tales from the Borderlands is a story already played out, and we’re hearing about it from two unreliable narrators. Those narrators are Rhys, incompetent Hyperion company man and ladder climber, and Fiona, cynical con-artist and ne’er-do-well, voiced by Troy Baker and Laura Bailey. Zer0 Sum, the first episode of five, plays out in three acts, with the first two showing a deal gone south from Rhyse and Fiona’s point of views, while the third sees them team up in an effort to somehow salvage a botched job.
It’s like a heist movie, Usual Suspects but filled with idiots. The two and a half hour long caper manages to squeeze in big cons, dodgy deals, a whole bunch of elaborate quick time event fights that end in grisly cartoon violence and gore, and–well, there’s a lot more, but Zer0 Sum has a fair share of surprises, and I’d have to be a Handsome Jack level arsehole to spoil them for you. It’s a beefy game, though, and its pacing is that of an action flick, so there’s not much faffing around.
Rhys is trying to stick it to his new boss by stealing a vault key and becoming the head honcho over at Hyperion, which gets in the way of Fiona’s own less than legal plans. Greed is the common factor here, and it’s at the centre of Tales from the Borderlands. Everyone is out for themselves.
When you’ve got a cast filled with sarcastic, selfish crooks, there’s always the risk that it leaves the player with nobody to sympathise with. This potential problem is conveniently sidestepped, though, because the wannabe vault hunting duo are saints compared to the Pandorans and Hyperion suits getting in their way. And, just as Borderlands 2 made a contemptuous villain like Handsome Jack the highlight of the game, Zer0 Sum’s villains –mostly bandits –offer as much comedy as they do threats, even when they are just screaming gibberish.
That comedy oozes out of Tales from the Borderlands’ every nook and cranny. From dialogue choices like “Who called the whaaambulance?” to Vasquez, Rhys’ scummy boss, philosophising about why every ship in the galaxy looks like a cock. The reason, of course, is destiny. Everywhere you look, there are jokes. Even the “X will remember that” pop-ups have been infected. Slap someone in the face, and their face will remember that. It’s a comedy game, so almost every part of it, every gear and cog, exists to elicit a chuckle.
The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, while distinctly Telltale, feel like part of their respective universes. They could be stories taken straight out of the comics of Kirkman and Willingham. Tales from the Borderlands is no different. Telltale’s choice laden dialogue options persist, but this is very much a Borderlands game, and if it wasn’t for the third person perspective, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at Borderlands 2.
Bandits sometimes drop loot, with the familiar glowing shafts of light, and you’ll spot a few loot boxes here and there too. Old friends reappear, most notably Zer0, whose typical bandit-killing adventures run throughout Rhys and Fiona’s own story. And even the UI is taken from Borderlands 2, though it changes between the two protagonists – Rhys has a Hyperion UI, while Fiona’s is a bit more rustic.
This extends to the duo’s special mechanical twists, too. Like Handsome Jack, whom Rhys sort of models himself after, he has an augmented eye, an Echo Eye. This allows the company man to scan objects to gain more information. It’s an ancillary thing most of the time, but is the source of yet more gags. Normally it brings up vital statistics on the stuff he scans, like bandits. All you need to know about them is that their hygiene level is zero.
Fiona, on the other hand, can gather cash, which she can use to bribe the unscrupulous residents of Pandora, or simply spend on fancy garments, like psycho masks. Some of the cash she can find is hidden away or requires a moral choice – like stealing a dying man’s wallet – and like the Echo Eye, it’s not needed to complete the episode, but does open up more options.
Big choices! It wouldn’t be a Telltale game without them, and Tales from the Borderlands has them in spades. I confess that I was concerned that the lighter, slapstick tone would remove the weight from the major decisions and their consequences, and it does, but only a little bit.
You’ll likely find yourself picking the dialogue options that seem the silliest, because that’s really what this universe is about. But that doesn’t mean that none of them are meaningful. There are still life and death calls to make, and as either Fiona or Rhys, you can choose to foster trust between this band of crooks who have been flung together, or find a way to screw the others over.
Many of the consequences are not apparent, this being only the first episode. Instead, they flesh out who Rhys and Fiona are, or who you want them to be. Does Rhys walk up to a hard looking bloke and call him Grease Face, or does he just ask him for directions? Is Fiona the sort who wastes the one bullet she has in her gun on someone she barely knows, or does she save it for later? Despite their greed and shady methods, both characters can be molded into pretty decent people, if that’s your cup of skag tea.
Sasha and Vaughn, Fiona and Rhys’ sidekicks, respectively, are the game’s moral compasses. Vaughn is Rhys’ best chum and a Hyperion accountant, and he’s really out of place in the wild west of Pandora, while Sasha is a scrappy, gun-toting con-artist and Fiona’s little sister. Neither is exactly model citizen – which, in Pandora, is probably a crazed killer – but they exist to be cared about and to be looked out for, making one think twice about doing something really stupid or treacherous.
Telltale’s trip back to its comedy roots is a triumph. Rhys and Fiona are a duo I want to spend more time with. Baker and Bailey do a phenomenal job of bringing them to life, with spot-on comic timing and just enough humanity so they don’t simply feel like vehicles for jokes. Pandora is a world I’m enamoured with once more, and being able to explore it without grinding or shooting a thousand addle-brained enemies over and over again is a very welcome change.