After such an exciting action packed first episode, Tales From The Borderlands returns after a three month hiatus for another installment of blood-splattering adventure and comedy gold. Based on the 2K Games and Gearbox Software first-person shooter Borderlands, the game puts Telltale Games’ now infamous style of dialogue driven gameplay smack bang in the middle of the cut-throat planet of Pandora, where anyone and everyone will do you over in order to stay alive and make a few dollars on the side. For anyone who has yet to start this so far brilliant series, then proceed with caution, as this review contains a vault’s worth of spoilers.
Atlas Mugged finds our reluctant heroes Rhys and Fiona right where we left them. Having just stumbled upon a secret Atlas facility underneath the base of a now deceased psychotic warlord the pair soon realise that inside lies the map to one of Pandora’s illusive, sought after vaults. Armed with two halves of a vault key, they’re on the cusp of unlocking a wealth of alien technology that could be worth a pretty penny to the all-powerful Hyperion corporation. However, word spreads fast on Pandora and it isn’t long before they find themselves hunted down by dangerous mercenaries, psychotic bandits, power-hungry CEOs and of course, the vicious beasts that stalk Pandora. To make matters worse, the cybernetically enhanced Rhys is also himself being taunted, unbeknown to anyone else, by a holographic version of Hyperion’s former president, and Borderlands big bad, the villainous Handsome Jack.
Thanks to a narrative that is told in media res, the plot makes clever use of putting two unreliable narrators at the centre of this tale. Bickering with one another throughout, even when in the clutches of a mysterious bounty hunter, Rhys and Fiona make a point of correcting one another’s stories whenever they feel their egos coming under fire. These funny cutaways keep the comedic pace flowing, even though core of this episode sees the pair split up for the most part, in order to enjoy their own separate adventures for a little while.
Rhys and his sidekick Vaughn definitely get their share of the humour this time around, with the big focus being on the state of their relationship. Their friendship is put to the test, leading to gameplay that perhaps relies more on dialogue-choosing mechanics than on action packed set pieces. You can be as serious or as jokey with Vaughn as you like, by choosing from the dialogue options assigned to each of the action buttons. Anyone who has spent just five minutes in the company of Rhys will know what his personality is like, meaning that bromance chatter will definitely lighten the mood at times when things are looking pretty darn grim.
The return of Handsome Jack also throws a new spanner in the works. While it might seem a little self-indulgent to bring back a character who met his demise at the end of Borderlands 2, his scene-stealing appearances give the black humour levels a much needed boost to an already outstanding voice cast while potentially setting up for a return if we ever get a proper Borderlands threequel. One such sequence where he reminisces about using someone from the mail-room as a punching bag for simply having hair plugs is both sinister and hilarious. He also acts as the devil on Rhys’ shoulder, often advising him to take the darker path in order to get out of a tight spot, often making a more convincing argument against the voice of reason. It could potentially impact your relationships at a later date however so it’s important to choose wisely.
Fiona’s mini adventure is little more sombre, as she and her sister Sasha return to their hometown of Hollow Point in order to regroup and deal with consequences of their double-crossing adoptive father Felix. The interactions between the two adds an emotional element to the game that we haven’t seen yet in this adventure, but is perhaps is a trademark in other Telltale Games’ series. However, there’s little time to wallow in pity as Fiona and Sasha soon find themselves having to deal with bounty hunters, motorcycle psychos and some familiar faces for anyone who has played Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, pulling through another thread and tightening up a universe that is crying out to be explored further.
One set piece from Fiona involves searching Felix’s home for clues as to why he might have turned on them. It’s a none too difficult throwback to the bygone era of LucasArts adventure games, which involves looking for clues and determining their value, before putting them altogether and solving the puzzle. It does however lead to the discovery of some opinion changing revelations designed to keep you on your toes, particularly with how you’ll proceed when conversing with other characters. However, she arguably gets the bigger slice of action packed sequences that are fuelled by the usual quick time events and button-bashing prompts, as she tries to escape Hollow Point and rendezvous with Rhys and Vaugh.
What the gameplay does lack, particularly when compared to the first episode, is some real stand out set-pieces that not only change up the way Telltale Games’ traditional style of storytelling but further weave this game into the mythology of the Borderlands series. Episode one had such brilliant moments such as the action orientated on-the-rails shooter sequence involving the criminally underrated loader boat, along with various hacking elements enhanced with Rhys’ cybernetic eye. Meanwhile Fiona was able to use her conning skills to make the most out of a bad situation and sometimes even earn a little extra on the side when conversing with her peers. Life ain’t nothing but gunfire and money if you adhere to the mentality of Borderlands.
Some of these elements return in watered down form in episode two, but don’t quite make the splash they did the first time around. Shooting sequences are minimized to simply aiming crosshairs at a target and pulling the trigger, while Rhys’ hacking abilities are used simply to put a few wires back in place. Fiona still has a way with words in a particularly enjoyable scene where she works a con on the gullible Borderlands patron Scooter, but it’s still unclear if swindling your fellow scavenger will amount to any sort of pay off in a later episode. The inventory system plays a more significant role this time around, but it’s hard to imagine someone not picking up a few spare grenades, knowing full well they’ll be needed a scene or two down the road.
Even the decision making system feels a little underused this time around. It’s not a question of whether you’re going to shoot someone or not, simply a question of where you’re going to shoot them. If these are simply to see how you compare with other players of the game, given in a nifty little statistical roundup after the game’s credits, then we’re a long way from the life or death decision making process that haunted the main characters in other Telltale Games’ spin-off series’ such as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones or The Wolf Among Us. We’ve established that our protagonists can pretty much talk their way out of most situations, but we rarely see the stakes raised when it comes to the supporting cast. In fact, the only big decision you’ll make is choosing one of two destinations at one point, which barely amounts to a slightly different cut-scene at the end of a chapter and which characters will grace your presence in the next scene.
Atlas Mugged can be completed in around ninety minutes which seems a little shorter than the first episode, particularly when you consider that this time around the story is driven more by dialogue than it is by action. However, we’re only on part two-of-five and still a long way off from learning the fates of Rhys, Fiona and that legendary vault that everyone wants to get their hands on. As with all Telltale Games’ it’s important to remember the bigger picture and by the time the closing scene comes around, you’ll have forgotten any minor criticisms you may have with the gameplay in this episode thanks to a hugely satisfying cliffhanger, leaving you hungry for more. With plenty of self-referential humour, emotional reveals and fantastic dialogue, this is one tale that you can’t help but feel a lot more invested in.