One of my biggest gripes with the mainline Borderlands series is its humor. I’ve had some good laughs while playing, but Borderlands’ jokes land more like a shotgun blast where some hit and others don’t. That’s okay in bursts, but shotgun blast after shotgun blast can get exhausting. Telltale Games’ take on this universe, Tales From The Borderlands, remedied this by providing a more nuanced and subtle take on the humor coursing through the franchise’s veins. It became one of my favorite Borderlands games, with a great story and memorable characters.
I’m happy to report Gearbox’s take on that formula in New Tales From The Borderlands retains that same sense of humor with a vastly improved visual style more in line with the series’ latter entries. It also features a cast just as memorable – I already want more of them. Unfortunately, though, the entire package is let down by a lackluster overarching narrative lacking cohesion, and I’m left wishing Gearbox gave these characters a better story to exist within.
New Tales From The Borderlands features a few familiar faces and names with Tales From The Borderlands’ Rhys, now CEO of gun-manufacturer Atlas, and other mega-corporations like Maliwan and Tediore. Most of the game takes place on Promethea, which Borderlands 3 players should recognize.
Altruistic but internally selfish scientist Anu teams up with her adopted street-smart brother Octavio, his assassination bot LOU13, and Fran’s Frogurt owner Fran. Together, they aim to protect Promethea from a Tediore invasion, secure a hidden vault treasure and, ultimately, attempt to create and change the world with an anti-gun device. The story sets this up quite nicely in the first episode of this five-part story, and I was excited to see where it went. But just a few hours later, I was left confused.
Without spoiling anything, the story bounces between seemingly random subplots that feel unimportant to the primary conflict. At one point, I’m desperate to dodge a Tediore invasion. Then, an hour later, I’m on a Shark Tank-like game show trying to pitch Anu’s device to investors. And then, my primary concern is seemingly to open a business amidst the rubble of the Tediore invasion that’s still ongoing. I wanted more of the save-the-world narrative the first episode set up, but the side beats and steps along the way are distracting and loosely attached more than anything else.
The story does wrap itself up nicely, with a sweet moment of a bow on top, and by the time the credits rolled, I was happy to have experienced what this squad of characters went through. I just wish the entire game featured the cohesion I felt in the first and final episodes.
Story aside, New Tales From The Borderlands features four of my new favorite characters in this universe. Anu is funny and quirky in a classic scientist-getting-in-the-way-of-herself way, and some late-game revelations add more depth to her personality that I appreciate. Octavio plays it cool, and I had fun shaping the kind of “cool” he is with my choices. Fran is a sexually-confident middle-aged woman who’s put aside subtlety in favor of outright telling people, “we should bone.” She feels the most like a classic Borderlands character – with a handful of fart jokes, too (admittedly, one of these made me laugh a lot).
LOU13 was my favorite, though. His deadpan humor and his journey to break free from the parameters of his assassination programming kept me smiling the entire way through. Each character shined in their own ways when isolated, but together, my favorite conversations in the whole game took place, letting each riff on the others in unique ways.
Of course, the success of these moments came down to Gearbox’s excellent character writing and the choices the game presented me with at both trivial and pivotal moments in the narrative. I could set Fran up with a big power play of a remark when arrested by Tediore troops, or I could just have her answer questions by making fart noises. I enjoyed crafting my take on each of these characters and Gearbox, much like Telltale, excelled in that regard.
Mostly gone are the Telltale “this person will remember” notifications. In theory, this is a nice touch, as it removes that gamified element from the formula and allows the player to live with their choices without knowing how they affect the story. In practice, though, I missed them. Without these tip-offs, save for a few random ones that occur without explanation, I felt like I had lost a touch of agency. Sure, I was picking the choices I wanted, but I struggled to piece together how my actions affected the grander narrative. The instant reactions were there; it was easy to tell if Octavio, for example, didn’t like what Anu said. But how my actions precisely changed the broader narrative remained a mystery. I had guesses throughout, but I wonder if Decision X led to Consequence Y.
I also wasn’t impressed by what I was doing when I wasn’t selecting dialogue choices. Gameplay boils down to swiping left, right, up, or down, or pressing a button, mashing it repeatedly, or holding it down. Occasionally, you can walk around a small area to find money or talk with locals, but these didn’t do much for me. This type of adventure gameplay was the standard years ago at the height of Telltale’s development, but it feels old now, and I wanted more variety.
Occasional minigames, such as a parody of a turn-based JRPG, or another where I had to hack into a computer by removing NSFW spam on a screen, helped in that regard, but I still wanted more.
Vaultlanders, a minigame that appears multiple times in each episode, is a fun minifigure-based fighting game but only for the first few times. There are Vaultlander figures to collect in each episode, and each has its own stats and abilities, but it matters little. I never struggled to defeat an enemy and never worried about my abilities or stats. That’s because playing involves mindlessly spamming the attack button and occasionally dodging by swiping a direction when the enemy attacks. Like all the other minigames, this one can be skipped entirely, but I was eager to find a purpose for its inclusion in the game and played through each one. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a purpose, and these quickly became pace-breaking annoyances I had to deal with when I just wanted to get back to the story.
Still, by the time my 10-hour journey in New Tales From The Borderlands ended, I was happy to have experienced it. There’s good in there, but it’s sometimes muddled by dated mechanics that feel more obligatory because Telltale did them in the previous game rather than something necessary to its enjoyment. The cast is excellent, and as a character-driven experience, this game excels. I just wished Gearbox propped them up with a story as strong as their individual arcs.
Ultimately, New Tales From The Borderlands feels like more of the same and fans of the first are likely to enjoy this, but given it’s been nearly eight years since that first one, I wanted more of an evolution.