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Tales from the Borderlands: Episode One – “Zer0 Sum” Review
“Choke on it,” she said. It was only a few seconds later upon being promptly reminded “Sasha will remember this,” that I realized the consequences of my action; I let a man die without thinking. It’s this kind of moment that is the quintessential Telltale Games’ work. Two years after the debut of The Walking Dead, this kind of moment is hardly significant, but up to this point, “Zer0 Sum” carried a much lighter tone than Telltale Games’ releases earlier this year.
The first episode of Tales from the Borderlands titled “Zer0 Sum,” is different in tone than this year’s The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead: Season Two. “Zer0 Sum” fully embraces the characteristics of the Borderlands series. It’s filled with wacky psychos and downright silly moments but also lifts the curtain on the comedic cast to reveal some deeper insights on Pandora and its inhabitants.
“Zer0 Sum” features two protagonists, Rhys and Fiona, who are both “ordinary people,” at least in comparison to the celebrity status vault hunters of past games, one of which makes a prominent appearance in this episode. The story begins with Rhys, a company-man who works for Hyperion (Handsome Jack’s big bad corporation from Borderlands 2). Rhys is cheated out of a promotion and sets out with his best friend Vaughn to screw over his new boss. Things go awry and the pair eventually cross paths with Fiona and her sister Sasha; both are con artists planning their biggest score.
They all agree to an uneasy alliance and begin to build something resembling a friendship. The first-half of the game is told through two perspectives and it resembles a Tarantino movie, with the same events happening from different points of view. The second-half keeps this structure though it occurs in a more linear fashion. The out-of-order storytelling is a novel concept but it’s uncertain if future episodes will be able to maintain this structure.
“Zer0 Sum” fully adapts the comedic overtones of the Borderlands series. This episode is practically bursting with clever dialogue, genuinely funny moments and dub-step-wielding bad guys. It harkens back to Sam & Max (once upon a time, Telltale wrote more comedic games) but don’t let that fool you, this episode offers plenty of profound insights about the Borderlands universe. In particular, Rhys and Fiona’s vulnerability brings their world under a completely new perspective. Pandora has never felt more unfair or dangerous than through the eyes of ordinary people. The result is a story that feels much more deep and nuanced than the source material has ever dared to be.
It seems hardly worth mentioning at this point, but the art style and voice acting is terrific; this has been true in Telltale’s work for the the last two years. The voice-cast has is all around solid, especially Patrick Warburton as the dastardly Vasquez. On a technical level, the episode ran flawlessly though keep in mind it was played on a high-powered gaming PC. Your experience on the console versions may vary.
As good as this episode is however, it isn’t without it’s flaws. In comparison to Telltale Games’ previous work this past year, “Zer0 Sum” feels a bit lacking in certain areas. This episode isn’t filled with many dramatic moments or difficult decisions. You won’t find yourself rushing to the watercooler after finishing this episode. The decisions presented to the player are more revealing of the characters performing them than the player who chooses them. Comedy will never be as thought-provoking or as powerful as drama but to the credit of Telltale, “Zer0 Sum” does a good job mixing in a bit of both. If you have any fondness for the Borderlands games, this won’t be an issue but if you’re a newcomer, you may be left wanting more.
Despite the funny dialogue and clever storytelling, “Zer0 Sum,” can’t escape that Rhys and Fiona simply aren’t as immediately appealing as Clementine or Bigby Wolf. This is a sacrifice this episode willingly makes in order to portray it’s characters as vulnerable people in the context of the Borderlands universe. That isn’t to say that this episode doesn’t have memorable moments; it does. A town shootout early in the episode and the “Mad Max” inspired finale are two particular standouts. It’s a thoroughly entertaining episode.
“Zer0 Sum” is a solid start to what will surely be one of the most genuinely funny and entertaining games of the year. It may not live up to the legacy of Telltale’s previous work but to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t need to. It hints at a greater depth of the Borderlands series and like any good adaptation, reminds us why we liked the source material in the first place.