Tales from the Borderlands Episode One – Zer0 Sum did a lot of heavy lifting when it came to establishing characters. By the time we saw the credits roll, we knew what our protagonists’ goals were, some of their personality quirks, and understood the insanity of the planet Pandora. Episode Two fleshes out the supporting cast and allows them all to bounce off of each other, interacting in fun and unexpected ways.
Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two - Atlas Mugged was reviewed on PC.
The basic conceit of Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two is that of an extended chase sequence that slowly transitions into a series of madcap scenarios that would feel right at home in a heist film with a sense of humor. The pacing keeps up the breakneck momentum of Zer0 Sum, but interjects a few slower segments for dramatic effect. The first episode ends with the discovery of a device that puts protagonists Fiona and Rhys on a path toward untold riches while also painting a massive target on their backs. Powerful people want what the duo have and would like to see them dead, just for kicks. The two schemers and their companions struggle to stay one step ahead of their pursuers and reach a cache of valuable technology.
Chases can be tricky to pull off well. They walk a tightrope between the basic tension that exists within pursuit (will the heroes be caught or will they escape?) and the desire for novelty. The best chases are straightforward, with just enough of a twist to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Atlas Mugged manages to toe this line well, keeping things fairly simple (if you can call getting shot at by a giant space gun “simple”) while also introducing new elements that keep the chase fresh, like bounty hunters, colossal monsters, and character reveals.
I noticed one thing that gives me very slight pause. There seems to be a lot of deus ex machina moments involving a servile Loader Bot. I don’t know if this is an intentional move or if it is just how the writing shook out for the first two episodes, but I count around five times that Loader Bot has shown up at the last second to save everyone. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was leading to an intentional dramatic/joke payoff in future episodes. Given how well the other aspects of the story are coming together and the sheer level of narrative competence on display, it’s likely that a subversion of some sort is in store for this trope.
Atlas Mugged deserves praise for how it fleshes out the supporting cast. There wasn’t a whole lot of downtime dedicated to exploring the characters of Vaughn, one of Rhys’ best friends, or Sasha, Fiona’s sister. I didn’t even mention their names in the review of Episode One because the focus was so clearly on Fiona and Rhys, building them up to be protagonists in whom players could invest themselves. We learn that even though Vaughn remains prone to cowardice he tends to rise to the occasion, even finding the experiences on Pandora to be a bit liberating. We also learn more about Sasha through her interactions with Fiona when they revisit their home in the city of Hollowpoint. She and Fiona don’t always agree on important issues and her stubbornness can lead to problems when it comes to forgiveness. These are all little things, but they are important piece of information that serve to humanize the cast in the grand scheme of this episodic series. They have motivations and desires as individuals that are distinct from those of the protagonists. Those differences make the narrative, and by extension the entire game, more thought-provoking.
It has been interesting to see Telltale’s take on violence in Tales from the Borderlands differentiate itself from the violence depicted in The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead. A scene early on in Episode Two brought to mind the part of The Walking Dead Season One where players can try to stave off a zombie infection by performing an amputation. The scene is, as you might imagine, painful, uncomfortable, and horribly unpleasant. However, Tales from the Borderlands is not The Walking Dead. Without mincing words, Atlas Mugged requires players to remove someone’s eyeball with a spork. Framed as highly comedic (I mean, it DOES involve a spork!) and gross, the scene manages not to be overly graphic while incorporating slapstick, puns, and situational humor. Two similar situations, one played for horror, the other played for laughs, and both work very well in their respective contexts. This represents another tangible example proving the skill of Tellltale’s writing staff.
As far as visuals and gameplay go, Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two is identical to Episode One. The Borderlands aesthetic lends itself very well to Telltale’s game engine leading to a great looking game that is carried along on the strength of its narrative. The only difference between Episode One and Episode Two was that I thought Atlas Mugged ran a tiny bit smoother on my PC. There were a few graphical hiccups, a background mountain flew along with the characters when they were in flight to a different location and Sasha seemed to blink out of existence once or twice. None of these interruptions took me far out of the narrative or would be enough for me to hate the three hours or so I spent playing.
Tales from the Borderlands Episode One set a really high bar for Episode Two and I believe Atlas Mugged passed in truly magnificent style. For as much as I love the human drama of The Walking Dead seasons and the fantasy-noir of The Wolf Among Us, for as much as I cried and raged in those games, Tales from the Borderlands makes me laugh and smile, while still retaining an emotional core. Atlas Mugged stands as one of the finest episodes Telltale Games has ever released.
Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two - Atlas Mugged is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android devices.