Review: Video game 'Takes from the Borderlands' finishes on a flat note

A scene from "Tales of the Borderlands," a video game series with multiple episodes by Telltale Games. (Courtesy/Telltale Games)

Several months ago, I highlighted an episode of Telltale’s “Tales from the Borderlands” as one of the funniest experiences I have ever had with a video game. If that was the case for “Episode Four: Escape Plan Bravo,” then the concluding episode, “Episode Five: The Vault of the Traveler,” has some of the grimmest and most violent moments I’ve ever seen.

At first, “Traveler’s” opening takes some of the tension out of the episode. Series co-protagonist Fiona and her sister, both of whom are unarmed, incapacitate a pair of trained soldiers with guns. That tension is quickly reintroduced when the story refocuses on the other protagonist, Rhys, and his conflict with Handsome Jack. 

In a scene that manages to be both comical and tense, Rhys uses a wheelie chair and some torture implements to escape Jack’s betrayal. The writing remains sharp, continuing a tradition in “Tales.” From that comedic opening, however, the title sequence is punctuated by a tragic sacrifice. In previous episodes, rock and roll accompanied these sequences, where the title is introduced, but in “Traveler,” although the spectacle is greater than ever before, the music is somber, foreshadowing the tone of much of this episode.

Shortly after that title sequence, Rhys and Handsome Jack come to a final confrontation. This is where I first noticed how graphic this episode gets. As a part of this scene, a character has to remove their arm, albeit a robotic one, as well as part of their cybernetic eye. 
The whole thing is very reminiscent of “Heavy Rain,” although Ethan should feel lucky he only had to cut off a finger. In a later scene, one character chokes another to death, and the great sound design means you can hear the bones in the dying character’s neck snapping. Nothing funny about that, unfortunately.

Thankfully, the tone of the episode picks up again when the main cast is finally reunited. This is quickly followed by a hilarious scene in which the protagonists do their best to interrogate their abductor. I will say that the revelation of the mysterious kidnapper’s identity is genuinely surprising. I won’t spoil it, but I never expected that plotline to turn out the way it did.
There are very few technical glitches in “Traveler,” which is great. The loading times felt longer than previous episodes, but I don’t have any scientific data to back that up and it ultimately doesn’t matter. 

Toward the climax of the episode, the player is asked to assemble a small team of three for the final raid on the vault for which the episode is named. Bizarrely, two actual vault hunters are unlocked almost by default, with a third available if you have enough money.
Just to spite the game, my superstar tag team consisted of two unstable old men and a mechanic with no combat experience. When the whole series leading up to this point has been about the extraordinary abilities of ordinary people, it feels wrong to go with the same vault hunters that we know from past “Borderlands” games.

“Tales,” by the way, tried to spite me right back by making one of the old guys unavailable, giving me enough money in the process to hire the third vault hunter. Rather than let my team of ordinary people be messed up by the presence of an actual hero, I opted to bring along a traitorous street thug. I’ve played three games with vault hunters, so I was more than ready to see how a team of normal guys would fare against a skyscraper-sized monster beyond our comprehension.

Not once did I regret my team’s choice of members, though. The sight of a senior citizen driving a machine gun-laden pickup truck is unintentional comedy gold. In fact, the final battle has a great “Power Rangers” vibe to it, and not just because of the references to the show. “Pacific Rim” and “Dragonball Z” are also referenced with giant robot fights and characters shooting lasers out of their hands. For a battle that had me laughing for a good portion of it, “Traveler” still pulls off a better fighting sequence than many other serious action games.

Although there is some closure towards the end, the actual ending comes off as a cliffhanger for me. The two leads just vanish into thin air with absolutely no indication of where they went or what will happen from here. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with these characters, so it’s almost frustrating that Telltale wasn’t willing to give them a proper ending, but instead generate buzz and anticipation for a sequel. I’d expect that kind of thing from EA, but clearly even Telltale is not immune to the prospect of making a ton of money on a “Tales from the Borderlands” sequel.

As a series, I would recommend “Tales from the Borderlands” not only to anyone who has played one of the main “Borderlands” games, but also to anyone who enjoys comedy or good storytelling, because “Tales” is full of both. Although the tone of the final episode threw me off a bit and I was disappointed in the actual ending, I still maintain that “Tales from the Borderlands” should be in contention for game of the year.


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.