I've always said that the best thing about Telltale games isn't QTE-heavy action or near-pornographic dedication to depictions of bad things happening to good people. It's disarmingly intimate character moments. Tales from the Borderlands episode two is chock full of them.
That makes it hard to discuss at length without spoiling the truly marvellous (and not so marvellous) bits, so I'll be brief. Episode two's first third is big on action -- a la the excellent first episode -- but then it slows down. Way down. I'm talking sexy noir movie saxophone slow. This isn't a sophomore slump, though. The slowdown I'm talking about is deliberate. Telltale flips their typical ratio, allowing themselves to drift into a rhythm less frantic than the one they have been in love with ever since The Walking Dead hit it big. Whereas many other recent Telltale game episodes used conversation to build to nausea-inducing action or fast-moving plot points, Tales episode two uses early action scenes as a badass ramp and does, like, seven slow-mo flips to land deep in character development territory.
Oh the scenes we get. Without spoiling too much, I will say these words: Eyeball. LOADER BOT. Bro? Bro. Bro-bro. Scooter! Gun. Sandwich. LOADER BOT AGAIN. Wallethead. You will understand what all of these things mean after you finish the episode, and you'll be like, "Gosh, that Nathan. He really gets it. I bet he has great hair, too." The short version? Character. Character, character, character.
So much is communicated through glances -- furrowed brows, grimaces, scowls, smirks, grins, giggles. There's a lot going on here, and Telltale's attempts at embedding subtle details for the truly observant are admirable. Unfortunately, the same creaky old game engine is still hacking and sputtering under the hood, leaving characters' full range of expression depressingly limited. I can't help but feel that less mannequin-like characters would have made this story really shine. (The engine is also, as ever, glitchy and finicky, but were you really expecting anything else at this point?)
On the whole, I dig that Tales episode two hedges its bets on slow, steady, and slightly zany character development. This structure -- easing off the gas pedal to such a degree -- is something I'd love to see Telltale do more often. That said, there are still places where Tales episode two falters.
Foremost, despite what I said earlier, it sometimes feels a bit too much like episode, well, two. We get all these moments where characters are cooped up together -- forced to hash things out despite how much they want to punch each other in the face -- but it's largely the same character dynamics already established in episode one. They just get fleshed out some more. More bro time with Rhys and Vaughn (albeit with some potentially interesting distrust in the mix), more Fiona and Sasha dealing with the ramifications of their criminal upbringing, more Rhys and Fiona bickering through (still very fun) unreliable narrator scenes, more of Vasquez being an unrepentant dick, etc. What character-based surprises there are come toward the end, and they're worth the wait! I just wish there'd been one or two more.
A couple fantastic moments aside, episode two plays things safe in terms of overall progression. It made me smile a lot, but I rarely laughed out loud -- or expressed any real sort of surprise at all, for that matter. The full arc of the episode is also less diverse, less satisfying. After episode one launched an all-out assault on expectations, episode two is stingier, perhaps saving ammo for future episodes. It's not bad by any means. Just a little disappointing. Also, a small part of me can't help but worry that we're hitting the limits of these characters' depths. That they're not oceans or even kiddie pools, but rather sponges that Telltale has already squeezed dry. I imagine I'll be proven wrong in the long run, but it's still a concern of mine.
Lastly, while it might feel redundant at this point, I have to lodge yet another complaint in the seemingly steel-thick hide of Telltale's QTE system. I can practically close my eyes and predict the damn things, and they rarely make for compelling action, for scenes where you feel like you're in control. They're just... something to do while action happens. QTEs don't have to be like that! But, aside from an undeniably rad early scene, Telltale's QTEs have yet to break away from their tried and tired mould.
Still, Tales from the Borderlands episode two is, on the whole, a solid entry in what's becoming a darkhorse contender for my favourite Telltale series, not to mention an instance of Telltale finally going all-in on character moments. Only time will tell how far Tales from Borderlands will go as a series, but I'm digging these characters and their journey. I feel like I'm on an adventure with close friends -- people I can laugh and cry and feel gut-wrenching guilt after tearing out a man's eyeballs and grow with. I don't know about you, but that's pretty much my definition of a good adventure story, right there. I just hope we don't end up looking back on episode one as the whole series' highest point. We shall see.