New Tales From the Borderlands review: Charming characters, no room to breathe
New stories from the borderland is eager to please. The script, excellently delivered by the game’s voice cast, maintains a cadence of jokes that rival Veep for pure frequency. In the 10 or so hours it took me to finish the game, I lost count of the pop culture references somewhere between Babe and OnlyFans. You might not like all the jokes (I, for one, didn’t care for a particular fart joke), but by the way, there are enough of them here that some just have to land.
New stories from the borderland is, by name, a spiritual successor to Tales from the borderlands. Although developed by Gearbox and not Telltale Games, you’ll feel right at home here if you’ve played any of these branching narrative games. You control a trio: Anu, Octavio and Fran. The sister-brother pair Anu and Octavio are obvious foils. Anu is an anxious scientist who abhors animal experiments and violence of all kinds; Octavio, on the other hand, sits comfortably in the lovable buffoon archetype, insisting he’s street smart to Anu’s book smart (though the evidence for those alleged smarts is thin). Fran, finally, is Octavio’s friend and former employer, an overtly sexual frozen yogurt vendor with anger issues. The three are joined by supporting characters along the way, but their relationships to each other form the central driving force, narratively and mechanically, for New stories.
The first of five episodes – and the best of the game, for my taste – does an excellent job of introducing these three in their own separate tracks. Anu appears in a highly stressful scenario that confirms her commitment to animal rights just before a dramatic confrontation between two warring companies takes the stage. Octavio is introduced alongside LOU13, a robot assassin who, for whatever reason, needs to hear your full name before shooting you in the head. Fran appears to us in a moment of constant frustration that sends her spiraling towards unreasonable heights of anger that I, as a player, chose to embrace throughout the game.
Their stories are slowly stitched together with a patience that felt novelistic, in that the script was confident enough about each thread to take its time before weaving them together. Episode 1 ends with the gang all together, as one would expect, but crucially, in addition to a shared history between individuals, they are still getting to know each other.
At least until episode 2 starts, when we’re treated to a montage (set to great music) showing the central cast plus LOU13 hanging out and bonding wordlessly, culminating in them doing the wave. It’s a fun, absurd image, but once you take control of the characters after the music video, the group has its own dynamic: Fran, who had just met Anu when we last saw her, is now comfortable making the same sort of joke about the scientist’s overthinking tendencies like her own brother does. Where the first chapter felt patient in its plotting and characterization (especially with regards to the purposefully loud Borderlands aesthetic), the follow-up felt far too practical, as if these characters had known each other all their lives.
This may sound like an overly literary complaint, and perhaps it is. But in this genre, narrative is the primary driver of gameplay. These Telltale games place the player in the role of a fiction writer putting together a first draft, having to make gut-level decisions about how and why a character does what she does. The rest of your interactions are secondary to these decisions, especially i New stories, where non-narrative segments usually take the form of: unsatisfying (though skippable) hacking mini-games; an action figure/fighting game mishmash that plays exactly the same the seventh time as it does the first; or put the player down in a place where they can walk around and interact with people, objects, and the occasional trash bag with money in it. (This is Borderlands, after all.)
Ultimately, New stories suffers from pacing issues, both on a character and plot level. Team cohesion is introduced as a mechanic that affects story beats, but when I had failed my first roll of the dice behind the scenes, resulting in the death of a cute, dog-like character (OK, dog-ish), I struggled to see when and where I had gone wrong with my interactions in the short time I had been given.
The plot loses steam in episode 3, an admittedly fun diversion involving an extended riff on Hai tank, only to reach a frantic episode 5, where significant character losses pile up alongside narrative developments I wish were more fleshed out. Fran in particular suffers from a frustrating mix of genuinely funny interactions and an overreliance on playing up her sexuality for comedy, especially for a character who expresses attraction to multiple genders. Great bits like a slow-burn joke involving an unnamed mode on her hoverchair that caused a traumatic childhood scene of bloodshed are overshadowed by far-too-frequent jokes about her enjoying sex a lot.
Still, the game has plenty of laughs. The dialogue is quick and well-tuned, and when the jokes hit, they hit. In particular, I found a recurring gag of a soldier you keep finding in freezers, morgues and ventilation shafts to be consistently funny in a Gene Parmesan kind of way, and I’ll be laughing for weeks at Fergus, an unpaid Chippendales-esque intern who dances to a song called “Free Labor,” which, it turns out, are the only words he knows, like a late-capitalist Hodor.
Anu and Octavio’s journey as brother and sister also had some real highlights, but in the path I took through the story, it was overwhelmed by some of the game’s more magical elements, shunting quiet, emotional conversations aside for a more traditional dramatic video game plot things involving shards and glowing green energy. I genuinely enjoyed it New stories from the borderlands and its characters. I just wish their stories had a little more time to breathe.
New stories from the borderlands will be released on October 21st on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was previewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by 2K Games. Vox Media has affiliated partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find more information about Polygon’s ethical guidelines here.