Telltale Games have produced a series of similar titles covering a spectrum of genres. I first came across the concept with a demo of Back to the Future however my interest was piqued by another demo, the adaption of Game of Thrones, a title we shall come back to another month. Beyond my own immediate sphere, other IPs to receive the Telltale treatment include The Walking Dead, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy and even Minecraft.
All these games are based on a broadly similar template. Effectively an evolution of the point and click genre, you do not directly control the action per se. The story progresses around you with your interaction limited to making conversational choices with the occasional bit of QTE-style joypad swipes or button stabs. Unlike the 90s heyday of point and clickers, where you would scan the environment for clues, exhaust all conversational options and direct where and with what you character would interact, options here are more linear but at the same time offer a greater nuance. Conversation options must be chosen within a short time period, each offering an attitudinal variance. Whether you choose to be belligerent, cooperative or submissive, or indeed to hold your tongue entirely, there is no turning back. Your choices will be remembered by your conversational partner and therefore influence the narrative and how that character may react to you later on in the story.
To Borderlands then. Originally developed by Gearbox Software, the series began in 2009 with various sequels and off-shoots following. The core games are an FPS with some RPG elements, exploring a fictional world based around a struggle for power. Having never played any of the series to date, I come to ‘Tales’ as a newcomer, giving me the benefit of an open mind at the detriment of a knowledge of the world.
On first impressions I find the visuals disappointing. I am aware of the Borderlands series in passing and the cel-shaded style utilised in the recent iterations but it is a visual style that I have never really taken to. This is compounded by Telletale’s own model, something that I noted in my brief foray into the Game of Thrones demo some months ago. Characters seem to lurch around the screen without any real weight to them, detached from the environment. Perhaps it is a conscious style choice but I found it amateurish. I expect more from a current-Gen game.
Visuals do not make a game though so let’s get into the meat of it. Tales is split into five parts, putting you in ‘control’ of two lead protagonists. In the first, we follow the exploits of Rhys and Fiona. Having expected a big promotion Rhys unexpectedly finds himself taking out the trash until he stumbles upon a potential money making scheme that will have the double benefit of putting one over on a disreputable colleague. That takes us down to the planet surface of Pandora to interact with all sorts of scum and villainy, where we soon encounter Fiona, also walking through her journey.
There is a limited time in which you have to respond to prompts, together with a notification that often pops up right after, advising that the character will remember whatever action you took. As someone who finds decision making an anxiety-fuelling, difficult concept (tangent – remember those old Fighting Fantasy books that were knocking around as kids, many penned by games industry legend Ian Livingstone? They were decision-based by nature as you had to negotiate caverns and the like and therefore had to choose whether to go left or right etc. Well I could never decide, always worried I would make the wrong choice and so would read with the fingers of one hand spread throughout the book, marking various points at which I could return. Anxiety of decision making has, it seems, been a life long struggle. Anyway, back to the review), this finality of position and ticking clock of a decision window cranks up the tension within each scene. I’m not sure how much of an influence these decisions have on the overall story but it adds some replayability for those eager to experience every possible permutation.
Unlike with the old point and click games of yore, you do not usually have to direct your character around the screen. Conversation option chosen, your character will then blurt out some dialogue before the story moves on. Interspersed are moments of limited action, often simply a swipe of the controller this way or that to avoid incoming assault or to direct an offensive action. An early scene goes a step further, giving you limited control over a missile wielding robot, picking out targets and doling out front row tickets to the death show.
This is basically just an interactive story. Being unfamiliar with the series, after a brief foray I opted to peruse some review scores online and was very surprised to see that the vast majority were extremely favourable. To my mind this felt like just an update of the old Dragon’s Lair concept. Sure, the story itself had some promise, the characters seemed fine and I had some interest in seeing how it all played out. But in between there were non-interactive cut scenes and seemingly endless dialogue, particularly galling given the one paltry line of text I had chosen. Some of the same criticisms could be levelled at the classics of the point and click genre I suppose. Monkey Island, the most famous of them all, would often be a case of choosing a line of dialogue that precipitated characters having an elongated conversation (tip: never ask the pirates about their grog) whilst most on-screen events were commenced by the player but carried out by resultant animation. But the mouse driven, direct control over the screen gave these a more tactile presence whilst the scripts were genuinely witty. However the action ultimately played out, however linear the experience may be once you understood the order of events, they felt like games you were playing, rather than a film you were watching where you occasionally have to press yes or no.
However I decided to persevere, completing the first chapter and the more it went on, the more I found I enjoyed it. Whilst I remain ignorant of the wider Borderlands world, this ring-fenced story became engrossing, helped along by appealing core characters and just the right blend of the bizarre and the spectacular. It did though feel at points that the whole thing would be better as a standard TV show. At times it seems like the you are a spectator for the most spectacular parts of the game, your interaction tacked on to a well produced animation that would otherwise get along just fine without you.
Let’s end on some positives though. The music is uniformly excellent throughout, the lead track Busy Earnin’ by Jungle the standout, perfectly capturing the mood of the game. Bonus points too for the voiceover guy that sounds like a strange mix of Scottish pretending to by Mexican. Rhys meanwhile sounds suspiciously like Sam from Uncharted 4 whilst the main man himself, Nolan North, also pops up amongst the band of dubious characters. In fact beyond my earlier critique of the art style, presentation throughout is excellent and the story well paced, escalating to a wild free for all at the end of the chapter, evoking memories of Mad Max both recent and original.
At around a couple of hours, I came to enjoy this for what it was. Whether I retain the enthusiasm to play through the other four chapters remains to be seen.
Whilst our friends in North America were enjoying the serene (read boring) delights of Abzu, us neanderthals over the pond get to exercise our trigger fingers in a rather more visceral experience.
A twin stick shooter, this has echoes of many a standard shooter, such as Gears of War or Killzone. You are on a one man mission to kick ass and chew bubblegum and you’re all out of bubblegum.
For the purposes of this piece I didn’t spend a great amount of time with it, only exploring it as a single player experience. Movement is controlled with the left stick, aim with the right, a combination of the trigger buttons spitting out hot lead or lobbing grenades.
Enemies come thick and fast, a combination of standard grunts, mechanised death machines and exploding eggs that bring back memories of Aliens. Pretty much everything on screen is destructible, explosions often filling the screen with fire.
Going in I expected something more akin to Ultratron, a single screen affair where you dash around the screen. Instead you traverse decent sized maps, hunting down objectives and taking out anything that gets in the way. There are even RPG elements as you upgrade your kit, as well as a chance to match yourself against online leaderboards, where you can also find co-op play.
There is a lot on offer here with a vast map of missions and plenty to do within each. Blasting is satisfying and with a veritable horde of enemies always streaming forward, plenty of chances to practice it. That said I found frustrations. Whatever weapon I picked up they all seemed to act the same but either way I seemed to spend as much time reloading as I did firing. And after a while it all just seemed rather monotonous.
Great looking and satisfying shooting. Perhaps more fun with some buddies online.
PS3 owners can get knee deep in hack and slash action with Blood Knights and take to the high seas in Port Royale 3: Pirates and Merchants.
PS Vita owners meanwhile can get their groove on with psychedelic shooter Laser Disco Defenders or get all puzzly with the rather annoying Type:Rider, with both titles also available to PS4 owners via cross buy.