Tales from the Borderlands Episode 1: 'Zer0 Sum' review: serial thriller

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win, Mac, iOS, Android, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Telltale Games
Developer Telltale Games
Release Date Nov 25, 2014

Tales from the Borderlands offers something that previous games in Gearbox’s shooter franchise never could.

Borderlands has always benefited from the surreal, often psychotic characters that you encounter on the planet of Pandora, but the lore surrounding that location has rarely been explored. Telltale is able to show us another level of this world and the people in it during Tales from the Borderlands Episode 1, "Zer0 Sum."

Telltale's adventure game formula — simple puzzle-solving, lots of dialogue and big narrative choices to make — is almost completely unchanged here. But Telltale has a confident take on the source material that leads to one of its best episodes yet.

Tales from the Borderlands neatly avoids a reliance on past knowledge of this world and these characters to do its heavy lifting. "Zer0 Sum" is perfectly enjoyable without any prior experience in Borderlands. That said, it certainly made me more appreciative of the setting.

tales from the borderlands

No one in this story has a peaceful life

You play as two characters throughout Tales from the Borderlands Episode 1. Rhys is a middle manager at weapons and robotics manufacturer Hyperion, and he's being passed over for promotion. Fiona is a grifter on the brutal, seemingly lawless planet of Pandora. No one in this story has a peaceful life, with the Hyperion elite scrambling for political power and rank while the inhabitants of Pandora are fighting just to stay alive.

Tales from the Borderlands spends most of its time dealing with two MacGuffins: a briefcase full of cash and the key to a mythical vault filled with technology and riches. Rhys is looking for a way to screw over his boss and gain power and influence at Hyperion. Fiona just wants to get rich.

borderlands bossonova

The player's point of view changes between these two characters as they tell their story to a third party. You'll even sometimes experience the same scene from both perspectives in turn.

This framing device allows the two lead characters to embellish the narrative and argue about how things actually happened, often with hilarious in-game results, but it also lets the player know that the two protagonists will survive the episode. This defuses the often claustrophobic sense of dread that fills the Walking Dead series and makes it easier to appreciate the humor and surprising complexity of the story.

But back to the money. Has there ever been a scene in a game, or a movie for that matter, where the transfer of piles of cash for an object of immense worth goes well?

characters involved always act like individuals

It's a straightforward way to get the plot moving, but the game doesn't much care for standard narrative structure and soon zigs and zags its way through each scene, piling on clever narrative tricks, surprising moments and scenes that would feel more at home in an action movie than an adventure game. While many of these situations are played for laughs — in one scene, a guard you're trying to kill finds the situation more amusing than scary — the characters involved always act like individuals with their own motivations and loyalties.

It's less life-or-death, but so far, Tales from the Borderlands also retains the tension of previous Telltale adventure games. I agonized over at least a few of the decisions, even with the lighthearted tone. You're given a hidden firearm with one bullet during the episode, and warned that it's "only for emergencies." Emergencies happen, and I'm still thinking about when I decided to pull the trigger.

Wrap Up:

Episode 1: 'Zer0 Sum' delivers a game worthy of Telltale's reputation

Tales from the Borderlands Episode 1: "Zer0 Sum" is everything I'd expected from Telltale's take on this franchise, executed with such skill that it's hard to find anything to complain about. This first episode of a five-episode season never went more than a few minutes without moving the story along or making me laugh. It's an enjoyable, violent and well-crafted introduction to the series. Episode 2 can't come soon enough.

Tales from the Borderlands was reviewed using a downloadable PC code provided by Telltale. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policies here.

About Polygon's Reviews