In an interview at PAX this year with Shacknews, Gearbox Software admitted it had far more experience with shooters than with narrative-based adventure games. And unfortunately it shows. As the name suggests, New Tales From the Borderlands is meant to be a follow-up to the critically successful Tales From the Borderlands from Telltale. Gearbox had the idea for a sequel to the game after completing Borderlands 3, but at the time Telltale had already folded. So the developer went ahead and attempted to go at it alone, smartly bringing a few Telltale devs on board to help make a game that is largely out of its comfort zone. In hindsight, though, they probably should have brought in more writers.
Diagnosing what exactly goes wrong with New Tales From the Borderlands is tough, but it generally stems from inexperience. In the standard Borderlands games, humor is used as an accent, a way to break up intense gunplay and serious scenes about sacrifice and loss. Here, Gearbox attempts to do much the same, mixing comedy with a character drama that’s mainly about a strained relationship between two siblings. Unfortunately, the game somewhat forgets about the drama, especially in the last two episodes of the five-episode adventure, and relies too heavily on jokes that are mistimed, random, or too repetitive.
Walks like Telltale, talks like Telltale, quacks like Gearbox
At its core, New Tales From the Borderlands is about three characters — the Atlas scientist Anu, her hustler brother Octavio, and frogurt shop owner Fran — who are all down on their luck. Within the first several scenes of the game, Anu is fired by Atlas CEO Rhys, who fans of the original Tales from the Borderlands will recognize for making a non-violent device that, despite her protests, is a gun that can send anything or anyone into another dimension. (That actually sounds impressive to me, but Rhys wants something more lethal.)
Meanwhile, Octavio is busy trying to scrape a living on the streets of Meridian City with his assassination robot friend LOU13. He tries his best to be a wannabe cyberpunk, using his ECHOdex watch to hack into radios and computer terminals, but desperately seeks validation as a fledgling entrepreneur. His employer, Fran, is waiting on an insurance claim to go through after a stray Maliwan laser beam destroyed the side of her diner-like shop. But having to deal with the red tape of the claim and the broken-down machinery of her restaurant aren’t great for her anger issues.
Without spoiling too much, Anu, Octavio, and Fran eventually form a team after Tediore attempts a hostile takeover of Atlus and Meridian City in search of a Vault Key. To prevent yet another corporation from stepping on the little man, the trio hopes to swipe the treasure inside the Vault first and create their own company from the ground up using Anu’s invention.
Which ending you receive will rely on your team’s cohesion, rated out of a number of skateboards (because why not?), based on the dialogue choices you make and your success with the game’s numerous quick-time events. The main trouble, though, is that the game attempts to be immersive but doesn’t give a lot of feedback on whether a choice you make improves team cohesion or not. I thought I was consistent in picking options that supported the other characters, opting not to pick obviously wrong answers that might have been funny, but I still didn’t get the best ending. The only time you get feedback is at the end of an episode, where a screen shows your overall team score and the relationships between the three characters.
When you’re not busy picking dialogue options or doing QTEs, there are a handful of short, innocuous exploration sections. Here, characters can interact with objects, talk with NPCs, and collect extra money to purchase skins at a quick-change station. Sometimes you'll have to do a hacking mini-game or play a match of Vaultlanders, both of which are too easy but are fun distractions nonetheless. On the brighter side, Gearbox is able to bring its technical expertise, allowing you to customize how easy the QTEs are and making the game run smoothly without a single crash.
Cheap thrills and cheaper laughs
How funny this ten-hour adventure will be for you will largely depend on your tolerance for lowbrow Borderlands humor. Remember, this is the franchise that habitually makes a punching bag out of Claptrap, has poop skins for guns, and has characters laugh after dealing 69 damage to enemies. If this type of middle-school humor is up your alley, then you won’t mind the jokes about jabber pee, Fran’s sexual hunger for pretty much anything that moves, one optional scene featuring a lot of sexual fetishes, and one long sequence that replaces curse words with the word “foop.”
Where the game’s humor succeeds most is the writing for LOU13 with his deadpan responses, penchant for murder, and existential angst about his programming as an assassin. Stapleface, a female psycho that Anu meets in the first episode, also has dialogue that’s very fitting and appropriately exaggerated. The occasional segments with Badass Superfan, a soldier who challenges you to the Vaultlander mini-game, are also amusing what with his unflagging obsession for plastic figurines.
However, most of the jokes are a miss for a long list of reasons. First off, there are too many of them, with attempts at comedy falling flat multiple times in a row and several running gags that repeat themselves too often. Over and over again, the game reinforces the fact that Anu is a nervous wreck on the verge of a panic attack, Octavio is a braggadocio who clings to status symbols, and Fran is always ready to punch or screw something. It’s interesting the first few times, but by the third episode, it gets old.
Apart from problems with the sometimes childish material, some of the hit-or-miss humor has to do with poor comic timing or just bad timing in general. More than once, the writing throws in an unnecessarily lengthy joke during an intense battle or life-and-death situation. Octavio does this an insufferable number of times in the last episode, ruining the tension leading up to the final battle. There’s also one gag in the fourth episode that relies on Octavio forgetting where an important location is, and it just doesn’t work at all.
Thematic peaks and valleys
Overall, the story is inconsistent and loses focus at times. Right from the start, New Tales From the Borderlands tells you that it’s going to be about family and persistence amidst violence and inequality. It’s already concerning that the game has to tell you its theme upfront, rather than showing you what it’s about, but it doesn’t really explore violence and inequality in any meaningful or interesting way that hasn’t already been done many times before.
The game does a better job delving into the importance of family and understanding, with the friction between Anu and Octavio being clear at the start and the last episode forcing Anu to deal with her insecurities. If you cut through all the absurdity and the nonsense, at least that message gets across.
On the other hand, Fran gets lost in the shuffle as a third wheel, despite her badass personality, with her relationship with Anu and Octavio being tangential at best while she mostly deals with her anger issues alone. The game would have been better if it concentrated on Fran being a surrogate mother to Octavio and her frustrations with Anu being more concerned about the lofty ideals of science and non-violence in contrast to the everyday people who have to fight to survive in a world wholly owned by corporations.
Old wine in new bottles
Like the three protagonists it features, New Tales From the Borderlands is a hot mess. If you don't take the game too seriously, there's a fun, heartfelt adventure buried somewhere beneath the layers of erratic writing and misplaced humor. It's an oddball romp with a bumbling cast of characters who deserve more substance than they were given. If the original Tales From the Borderlands is ice cream, New Tales From the Borderlands is frozen yogurt. And at the end of the day, even Fran admits that frozen yogurt just isn’t as good.
This review is based on a Steam download code of New Tales from the Borderlands supplied by the publisher. New Tales from the Borderlands is available now for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X and Series S, and Microsoft Windows.
New Tales from the Borderlands
- Technical improvements, good graphics
- Some cool side characters like LOU13
- Heartfelt story between Anu and Octavio
- Jokes are less hit and more miss, poorly timed
- Slapdash story loses focuses at times
- Lack of immediate feedback on team cohesion
- Mini-games and QTEs are too easy