Gearbox Software's New Tales from the Borderlands (NTftB) is a narrative game, in the style established by Telltale Games - after all, it's sort of a sequel to Telltale Games' Tales from the Borderlands, although the connection is very loose and there's no problem playing NTftB directly.
Borderlands as a series, despite its ups and downs, has always had better writing, more vivid characters and more interesting lore than we're used to finding in looter-shooters that focus on frantic action. That's why creating a spin-off series focusing on the narrative aspect of the franchise wasn't a dry idea. That series is Tales from the Borderlands, and the development of the first - and eponymous - game was entrusted to Telltale Games, who delivered a very good game in their signature choices-and-consequences driven narrative, and the future looked bright. What happened next with Telltale Games' fate as a company is beyond the scope of this review, but one of the many consequences was that Tales from the Borderlands was put on ice for a long time by gaming standards - New Tales from the Borderlands is being released eight years after the original game, with new protagonists.
We are on the planet Promethea, whose inhabitants are struggling to get back on their feet after the war with the Maliwan Corporation. Life is hard in general, but especially on the day the story begins, things are not going well for our heroes. Pacifist Dr. Anu Dhar is having a hard time adjusting to the demands of her job for the Atlas Corporation. Her efforts to develop a non-lethal way of resolving disputes are not popular within the company that makes and sells weapons to anyone interested, and the deadline to show that her research isn't a waste of money is yesterday.
Her brother, Octavio Dhar, has other problems. A bit of a day labourer, a bit of a small-time crook, he wants to get the good stuff, make a name for himself on the street and become a big, flashy businessman with a forehead in society. He lacks a good business idea, of course, and the investment capital he has available is zero dollars and change. He starts his day determined to solve, at least, the second problem.
Fran is Octavio's employer, but also the owner of Atlas Corporation CEO Rhys Strongfork's favorite frozen yogurt stand, Rhys Strongfork. Things were going well until a spinning orbital strike from Maliwan Corporation took out half her shop. Customers didn't appreciate the new layout, and the stars on the food guides have dropped below zero. The only hope is that the insurance company will finally pay the bills, and after months of paperwork, the last inspection for final approval is today.
Since I mentioned CEO Rhys Strongfork, his case shows that the problems at Promethea affect all socio-economic strata. No one ever lost money selling guns, but even so, there's a lot of competition, they're basically on the losing side of the war with Maliwan Corp, and Atlas' stock value is at rock bottom. As if all that wasn't enough, he also lost the bid to buy his beloved Vaultlander action figure. That alone would have been enough to ruin his day, but it's just the beginning. With Promethea and Atlas in bad shape, the Tediore Corporation decides it's a good time to launch their own invasion, both of the company and the planet.
Before I analyze what's done - and especially what's not done - in terms of gameplay, I have to give credit to the technical department and especially the art direction of NTftB. Environments and characters are well designed, in resolution and texture quality perfectly in line with the standards we expect from an AA+ production in 2022. All voice actors without exception give their best, portraying their characters superbly. And a very positive impression is made by the animation, for which motion capture technique has been used - especially the way Dr. Anu Dhar moves, fits her neurotic character like a glove.
This is where the purely good news ends. NTftB's main problem is that it has taken narrative gaming to the absolute limit of what can be considered gaming. Interactivity is extremely low, and ninety percent of it relies on the completely obsolete Quick Time Events mechanism. I honestly can't decide if the fact that even QTEs don't come up often is a positive or negative. On the one hand it's an, at best, uninteresting gameplay mechanic, on the other hand there are whole series of ten minutes or so (almost sitcom) where we just watch what's happening on the screen. Is this gaming?
The instances where we have control over one of our characters and can freely navigate the environment can be counted on the fingers of one hand during the almost ten hours of NTftB. There are some mini-games to punctuate the action, but they are simply poorly designed. The hacking is so simplistic that I don't understand why it exists, the QTE dancing is distracting from watching the actual dancing, and the Vaultlanders dueling is the "best" because it may still be QTE-based, but at least it sticks with the world and atmosphere of the game.
Otherwise we just choose lines during the dialogues. It begs the legitimate question, would it have been better to create an animated series of about seven hours with the same story, watch it and enjoy it without breaking up the narrative with nuggets of interactivity that convince no one.
But since I mentioned history, I have to mention that there are problems in this area as well. While the writing is good, and even with flashes of real inspiration in terms of humour and surrounding wacky atmosphere, things are not as good in terms of characters and plot development. The game is divided into five Chapters, and the story up until Chapter 3 wasn't nominated for Oscar, but served as a cohesive web to learn about the characters, the world, and to tell a few jokes.
The problems start in Chapter 4, where huge and unjustified changes are made to the characters in order to "get the story". Up to this point, Octavio was the personification of the "lovable dumbass" trope. I don't have much sympathy for such characters, but he was a decent example of the genre. Suddenly, though, he lost 100 IQ points (which he certainly didn't have spare), and while he was "off-screen" as we were controlling Anu, he made a decision of such unfathomable stupidity that it destroyed any interest I had in the story - gone was the "suspension of disbelief" my grandmother used to say. And in general, from that point on, Octavio goes from "somewhat naive, impulsive and frivolous" to "a mentally challenged man". Why? A question without an answer.
From there the whole thing goes from improbability to improbability, but that's not necessarily a bad thing within the Borderlands world. The final disappointment comes at the time of the last boss fight. Of course I was no longer expecting anything different from a series of QTEs in terms of mechanics, but I certainly wanted something more epic than a satire of trying to phone a major company's support center while the world is literally on fire.
The basic concept of the series, "narrative games in the lore-rich world of Borderlands" is still interesting and I think it can deliver very good games. But New Tales from the Borderlands doesn't even try on a gameplay level, and it has some serious narrative failures as well. I hope the series continues, but a new balance needs to be found.
We would like to thank CD Media for providing the review code.