Penning a narrative is in part about knowing your audience. Some styles and stories host core ingredients. Want a dramatic, gripping story with character growth and progression? The essential elements are obvious here, but the how is the tough part; people want to feel an attachment to our fictional friends, and want to feel as if they are in the presence of someone they love with regard to the core protagonist. Comical stories, however, come in all shapes, sizes, and capacities for maturity. I don’t envy anyone trying to create a humorous yarn because it seems impossible to please everyone. Many would argue, myself included, that the Borderlands series kind of fell apart with the third game. Before that, however, it had been lauded as one of the funniest series out there. New Tales from the Borderlands (NTB) is clearly Borderlands, but it takes significant risks and liberties with its characters and jokes.
Our three protagonists have different values, dreams, and backgrounds. Anu is a pathologically anxious, work-obsessed researcher and scientist in the employ of the Atlas Corporation, a business almost completely founded on guns and murder. Octavio is a street-wise youth who meanders through life stealing and dreaming of how to strike it big. Fran is a middle-aged frogurt (frozen yogurt) business owner who struggles to cope with her anger. While Anu lives on an Atlas ship in space, Fran and Octavio live on Promethea, a planet constantly in the throes of disaster. While the plot largely centers around Anu’s desire to make the world a better place through her work and intellect, NTB is primarily about the characters, their interactions, and a near-constant stream of jokes and banter.
Anyone picking up this game for a gripping tale of good versus evil or a desire to experience some novel human insight through characters we laugh and cry with is missing the mark with this purchase. While NTB gets a bit serious in the final chapter (of five), this is a game about yucks and smirks. Will you find the yucks and smirks, though? An essential aspect of any good story is likable, flawed protagonists and sympathetic villains. Folks may be disappointed here. I enjoy reprehensible, borderline annoying characters if the jokes are done right, but I have thick skin; I also don’t go in for this kind of humor often, so the occasional scratch to this itch is permissible at best.
That isn’t to say our “heroes” (losers) are completely awful. Each has admirable qualities. Anu authentically wants to do good in the world and despises violence. Octavio, while obsessed with fame and fortune, cares deeply about friends and family. Fran actively works on her anger and seeks to better herself while sharing her love of frozen treats with others. In practice, though, we see the worst of these characters. Fran’s constantly trying to get with her companions, at times in an overly forward manner, Octavio is sometimes incompetent in ways that infuriate his companions, and Anu is critical of others to the point where it made me wince. For the most part, this is where the jokes come from. If you’re not in for the kind of humor that relies on these characteristics and protagonists who seem to hate each other more often than not, this isn’t for you.
Other sources of humor exist, though: NTB relies heavily on wordplay, often phrasing otherwise benign concepts and explanations in an excessively technical fashion. While this is funny initially, I’d say the writers rely too much on this style of joke. Instead, I tended to laugh the most with the acting and physical humor. For example, another core character is an assassin bot who is programmed to kill only when someone has a contract on their head. At one point, a ne’er-do-well tricks the robot by putting a contract on a red laser from a gun. While the characters talk, the assassin bot can be seen in the background running around almost like a cat, chasing after a moving laser sight.
Player choices can craft humor, as well. I chose to make the worst possible decisions because I wanted to see how far the developers would go, and this isn’t exactly a game where I’m trying to save the world with altruistic allies. While decisions likely don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, the dialogue responses for my admittedly loathsome choices at times were individualized and spoken about at some degree of length. I laughed! Someone less into what I had chosen would simply not choose those responses.
For years, I have remarked on the tired quick-time-event (QTE) mechanics in Telltale-style adventure games, which are rarely done well, but I’d argue they were executed competently here. QTE have generous options in the menu for how they play out, including no timer whatsoever. What I like about QTE in this game is the warning symbol and sound effect before each instance. This meant I could lean back lazily and watch the movie play out and not worry about being hunched over my keyboard in case the game surprises me.
Gameplay also involves incredibly light minigames, such as simple hacking tasks and battling other people’s figurines with your own by smacking them into each other. Including games like these once would be fine, but they’re used with some repetition, albeit not overly so. If players want, they can skip these events, though they’re brief and uncommon enough that it’s not a bother; more meaty minigames would have been appreciated. Players can occasionally root around an area to look for money or just listen to comical observations and interactions with the characters. Money only serves to purchase skins for the characters that are quite limited—three or so costumes exist for each character, with a bunch of different colors for each outfit.
Aside from the physical humor and incredible acting, the voice actors kill their lines. Timing and well-read lines are essential in a game relying on jokes. The right pauses and emphases were placed on every single line in the script. Musically, I found the poppy songs a bit tired, but that’s personal preference; some folks might be into the jams that occur during montages.
New Tales from the Borderlands is clearly about the jokes and little else. A plot exists, but the story here isn’t anything to gab to your friends about. I tend to go in for the higher-brow stuff. I like my heavy fantasy epics and clever humor that is both dry and insightful. That said, I can appreciate what the developers were going for here. If you can tolerate some deeply flawed characters and the frequently crass, sometimes utterly distasteful jokes, NTB is entertaining. If that isn’t your thing, then definitely steer clear.