I haven’t updated this blog in forever, I know, but all this talk about Games of the Year got me thinking. Looking back at 2015, only two games really stuck with me. Of those two, only one overshadowed everything else I played this year.
At the end of the day, Tales from the Borderlands is about a group of characters who are each dealing with loss. One character has sacrificed everything for a friend and still lost, but wants to set things right. Another character, who spent his entire life emulating his idol, must cope with the fact that his idol was an irredeemable, manipulative psychopath. Yet another character has survived a harsh life thanks to the support of her small but close family, and must deal with an event that tears the family apart. All of these characters feel like real, genuine people and they all experience strong arcs over the course of the five episodes in the game.
This doesn’t sound like I’m describing Borderlands, does it? I’ll be the first to admit that I hated Borderlands 2 (after mindlessly enjoying the first game). The stagnant, repetitive mechanics and humor that read like it was copied and pasted straight from Reddit threads fell completely flat for me. So, when Telltale announced that they were working on a Borderlands game, I paid no attention to it at all. Then episode one, Zer0 Sum, was released and people started talking about how funny it was. I continued to ignore it. When episode two came out and people started talking about strong characters and surprisingly poignant emotional moments, I finally paid attention and decided to give it a shot. It turned out to be one of the smartest 180s I’ve ever made.
The character situations I described above don’t necessarily scream “comedy” but holy hell is Tales from the Borderlands funny. The humor is smart, surprising, and every single joke sticks the landing without feeling strange or out of place. Humor is really hard to do in movies and even harder to do in video games, but Telltale makes it look easy here. But it’s not just that the humor works, it’s the way the humor is woven into a smaller, more personal story with strong emotional beats that’s even more impressive. It would be easy to have humor come off as out of place or counter-productive among some of the events in this story but the fine line that Tales from the Borderlands walks between comedy and drama holds together perfectly.
Let’s talk about the characters for a minute. Tales from the Borderlands features a true ensemble cast of characters and they’re all outstanding. Each one feels like a real person with real goals, fears, motivations, and more. No one feels like a plot device in this story; everyone is integral to the overall plot and to their own smaller story. Even the robots (it can sometimes be easy to forget that this is science fiction) have strong character arcs and hard-hitting emotional moments. Seeing these characters come together, argue, and grow as people is the genuine heart of Tales from the Borderlands.
Lastly, it’d be impossible to talk about Tales from the Borderlands without at least mentioning the music. This is easily the strongest representation of licensed music I’ve seen in a game yet. The songs selected for the opening credits of each episode (and one extra for the final end credits of the game) hit the mark perfectly in terms of setting the tone and style of the game.
And so, I’d be insane to not call Tales from the Borderlands 2015’s best game. It’s an outstanding, strong story about people, loss, and the growth of friendship. It’s constantly laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, blended with emotional beats so good that they’ll surprise you. The music, writing, strong visual style, and praiseworthy voice performances all combine to provide an excellent experience.
Happy New Year, everyone!