How is Episode 2: Atlas Mugged?
Atlas Mugged picks up immediately where episode 1 left off, and wastes little time launching you headfirst into a perilous high-speed chase. But while episode 1 was a celebration in high-octane bloodletting, episode 2 eases off the gas, instead using its two-hour runtime to shuffle the stakes and build up the basis for the greater plot. This is a smart step, given events late in the last episode that both change the protagonists’ ultimate goal and give them new and distressing complications to deal with as they go. It also allows time for some honest-to-goodness character development, as the protagonists deal with the emotional fallout of the previous episode’s explosive conclusion and start to evaluate their partnership. While that signature brand of Borderlands humor is turned down some to accommodate introspection, it’s by no means gone, and there’s plenty of clever mockery and well-placed slapstick (are frying pans ever not funny?) to keep you from forgetting what kind of game this is.
However, traveling at a reasonable speed leads to pacing issues, especially when some scenes make you feel like you’re taking the overly long scenic route. While every sequence establishes something that’s clearly going to be important later on (there are four different character intro screens this episode, and one new name that’s brought up with ominous regularity), it feels like there’s a lot of padding stuffed in between as conversations go on too long or interactions don’t culminate in anything of substance. A scene in the desert between Rhys and Vaughn comes to mind, where some pretty funny genital-based humor falls flat because it drags too long and ends abruptly so something plot-relevant can happen. Sequences like this very much feel like connective tissue – necessary to keep the meat of the story together, but not much fun to chew on.
Thankfully this doesn’t define the whole episode, as other scenes are timed just right and have a lot more punch (let’s just say I’ll never be able to look at a spork the same way again). Plus, the scaled back action sequences are still expertly realized, and give every indication we’ll see more insane fun as the season rolls out. Still, one has to hope that the fluff is scaled back in future episodes, especially as the plot starts to thicken.
How is Episode 1: Zer0 Sum?
As mentioned, Tales from the Borderlands centers on the adventures of Rhys and Fiona, who tell the story of their adventure from two very different perspectives. As opposed to controlling one of these characters while the other acts as your wing(wo)man, you play both to tell different parts of the story.
This can be jarring the first time you’re playing as one character and suddenly jump into the other’s shoes, or on one occasion where you play both when they’re standing side by side. However, the learning curve for controlling both isn’t steep, and changing dialogue option fonts work as a nice, subtle signal that you’ve swapped. Playing as two characters also creates a lot of the game’s humor, as their interpretations of events often clash in ways that one or the other will hilariously correct. When Rhys, for example, claims to have sealed a business deal in a hyper-violent way, Fiona’s perspective reveals that he did a lot less killing and a lot more begging and crying.
Perhaps what Tales does best is integrate previous Borderlands games into the narrative, which is done in a way that will please fans without leaving newcomers in the dark. The events that set up Rhys’ side of the plot are a direct result of a certain important death in Borderlands 2, and Fiona’s initial get-rich-quick scheme centers on the mythical vault keys. Well-loved characters from the Borderlands universe take on roles of varying importance, from Mad Moxxi’s appearance on a few posters, to Zer0 actively interfering with the protagonists’ plans.
Some of these references will pass by those who haven’t played much Borderlands, giving the sense that you’re supposed to already know who this character is and shouldn’t expect more than a cursory explanation. However, it isn’t overly disruptive since the story centers on a brand new cast, and there’s nothing you absolutely have to know that goes unexplained. In the end, both Borderlands fans and non-fans will find something to enjoy; it’s just that fans will get an extra helping of OH MY GOD IT’S HA****** ***K layered on top.
Since Tales so carefully emulates the Borderlands world and tells two stories while doing it, a whole lot of things tend to happen at once. Where previous Telltale adventures like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us are point-and-click affairs with moments of tense action, Tales flips the ratio: much of the game is spent in firefights and dodging psychopaths bearing fire axes and death-cycles. The action is done well, and you can get yourself killed (my Fiona got run over by a truck before the kidnapper reminded her she was alive and demanded she tell the story right), which makes ducking and dodging to the game’s prompts frantic, despite being structurally simple.
This has an interesting effect on your defining choices as well: Tales’ big decisions don’t have the crushing guilt of those in Walking Dead or prompt the careful consideration needed in Wolf Among Us, but they have their own fitting sense of urgency. Instead of choosing who lives and who dies, you decide whether you keep your cool in a black market business deal, or whether to save your last bullet as you escape a firefight. That gives this familiar mechanic a different sort of tension, making it unique and appropriate to Pandora’s established atmosphere.
Unfortunately, that much action makes some of the story’s quieter moments feel comparatively dull. A scene where Rhys and another character bond over his spectacular inability to choke a guard, for instance, is quite funny and character-building, but it’s easy to spend that entire time wondering when you’re going to get back to the explosions. Overall, this one’s a matter of taste: Tales’ action-packed approach might not be for you if you prefer the subtler dramas Telltale has created in the past, but if you like the idea of back-flipping onto a speeding caravan or slicing open a giant dog monster with a katana? This is exactly your speed.