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New Tales From the Borderlands review: Charming characters, no room to breathe

New Tales From the Borderlands is eager to please. Its script, excellently delivered by the game’s voice cast, maintains a cadence of jokes that rivals Veep for sheer frequency. In the roughly 10 hours it took me to complete the game, I lost count of the pop culture references somewhere between Babe and OnlyFans. You might not like all of the jokes (I, for one, did not care for a particular fart joke), but by golly, there are enough of them here that some just have to land.

New Tales From the Borderlands is, per its name, a spiritual successor to Tales From the Borderlands. Though developed by Gearbox and not Telltale Games, if you’ve played any of these branching narrative games, you’ll feel at home here. You control a trio: Anu, Octavio, and Fran. Sister-brother pair Anu and Octavio are obvious foils. Anu is an anxious scientist who abhors animal testing and violence of all kinds; Octavio, by contrast, sits comfortably in the lovable buffoon archetype, insisting that he is street smart to Anu’s book smart (though the evidence for those purported smarts is thin). Fran, finally, is Octavio’s friend and onetime employer, an overtly sexual frozen yogurt purveyor with anger issues. The three are joined by ancillary characters along the way, but their relationships with one another form the central thrust, narratively and mechanically, of New Tales.

Anu, Octavio, Fran, and LOU13 stack their hands in a pact in front of a fire in New Tales from the Borderlands

Image: Gearbox Software / 2K Games

The first of five episodes – and the game’s best, to my taste – does an excellent job of introducing these three in their own separate tracks. Anu is shown in a high-stress scenario that establishes her commitment to animal rights right before a dramatic confrontation between two feuding corporations takes center stage. Octavio is presented alongside LOU13, a robotic 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 daily frustration that sends her spiraling toward unreasonable heights of anger that I, as a player, chose to embrace throughout the game.

Their stories are slowly joined 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, besides some shared history between individuals, they’re still getting to know one another.

At least until episode 2 starts, at which point we’re treated to a montage (set to great music) showing the central cast plus LOU13 hanging out and wordlessly bonding, culminating in them doing the wave. It’s a funny, absurd image, but once you retake 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 kind of quips about the scientist’s overthinking tendencies as her own brother does. Where the first chapter felt patient in its plotting and characterization (especially with respect to the purposefully loud Borderlands aesthetic) the follow-up felt altogether too convenient, as if these characters had known each other their whole lives.

A car, with Atlus decals, bursts through a large wall in a rain of sparks in New Tales from the Borderlands

Image: Gearbox Software / 2K Games

This might sound like an overly literary complaint, and maybe it is. But in this genre, narrative is the primary driver of gameplay. These Telltale-style 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 in New Tales, where non-narrative segments usually take the form of: unsatisfying (though skippable) hacking minigames; an action-figure / fighting-game mishmash that plays exactly the same the seventh time as it does the first; or setting the player down in a location 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 Tales suffers from pacing issues, both on a character and a plot level. Team cohesion is introduced as a mechanic that affects story beats, but by the time I’d failed my first behind-the-scenes dice roll, resulting in the death of a cute, doglike character (OK, dog-ish), I struggled to see when and where I’d gone wrong with my interactions in the short amount of time I’d been given.

The plot loses steam in episode 3, an admittedly fun diversion that involves an extended riff on Shark Tank, only to reach a feverish episode 5, where significant character losses pile up alongside narrative developments I wished were more fleshed out. Fran, especially, suffers from a frustrating mixture 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 get overshadowed by all-too-frequent jokes that she likes sex a lot.

Octavio, the buffoon brother, holds a rifle with a confused look on their face, in New Tales of the Borderlands

Image: Gearbox Software / 2K Games

Still, the game has plenty of laughs. The dialogue is snappy and well-voiced, 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 hilarious 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 Hodor of late capitalism.

Anu and Octavio’s journey as brother and sister had some real highs, too, but in the path I took through the story, it got overwhelmed by some of the game’s more magical elements, shunting quiet, emotional conversations aside to accomplish more traditionally dramatic video game plot things involving shards and glowing green energy. I genuinely liked New Tales From the Borderlands and its characters. I only wished their stories had a little more time to breathe.

New Tales From the Borderlands will be released on Oct. 21 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by 2K Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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