Over the past year, across the series of its five episodes, Tales from the Borderlands showed itself to be just short of a true comedic masterpiece. Mixing phenomenal writing, some of the best Telltale has managed so far, great voice work, and taking full advantage of the Borderlands setting, Tales from the Borderlands delivered in story, characters, action, and hilarity the way few games can ever even dream.
Simply put, episode 5, “The Vault of the Traveler” continues that high bar right on to the end. It’s therefore incredibly unfortunate, even with such great material on the surface, the lack of behind the scenes technical stability disrupts and mars the experience overall.
As far as delivering a satisfying climax and conclusion to the series though, “The Vault of the Traveler” certainly doesn’t disappoint. After the cliffhanger at the end of episode 4, things are bleak, and Telltale expertly doesn’t simply shrug that weight away, instead leaning into the Rhys’ rather dire predicament, making the end result massively impactful to the Borderlands universe overall. Ultimately, in what is arguably one of the best scenes of any Telltale game to date, the player is treated to the final confrontation (at least for now, maybe) between Jack and Rhys, a fitting, surprisingly emotional, conclusion to their story arc together throughout the series.
But the lovably awful Handsome Jack aside, the real meat of “The Vault of the Traveler” is focused on just that: the vault. As big and unseemly as you would expect any alien vault of immeasurable wealth to be, the vault of the traveler, and specifically Gortys’ ability to open it, becomes the true driving force of the episode, telling a story that spans the entire emotional spectrum effortlessly.
Finally connecting the past narrative with the present, the reveal of what has really been going on not only offered a satisfying surprise, but managed to change the way I looked at the story overall. Even into the latter half of the episode, “The Vault of the Traveler” still had me hooked with surprises and questions being answered around every corner.
What gives the finale its real feeling of epic conclusion however, is just how well Telltale uses the push for, and fallout from, the vault to bring together all the major story threads from throughout the series. All the sudden decisions I had made previously, and entirely forgot about in episodes since, were seemingly just as important as the decisions I made two minutes ago. This cohesiveness for the game as a whole was something I just didn’t expect, and was delighted to see. And best of all, by bringing in the story threads from previous episodes, it made the ending of Tales from the Borderlands feel all the more tailored and achieved by me and my actions, stretching all the way back to the beginning.
My only real complaint from a narrative point of view is that, due to the structure of the ending, the player is forced to pick and choose the end of what side-character story arcs to see. While an interesting structure, that pays off in the end by showcasing the side characters you care about the most, all while adding replayability, it felt odd wanting to see how a certain couple of characters ended up and not being able to.
The episode’s true problem however comes from the complete other side of the game-making equation. Over the past few years, even as Telltale has carved out a place for itself, delivering excellent narrative adventures, game after game, those games have never been applauded for running particularly smooth. Frequent long load screens and even chuggy animations have plagued all of the developer’s titles. But episode 5 of Tales from the Borderlands is the first time the technical issues actually impaired my ability to play the game.
While not a universal problem, most copies of the game running just fine, during my experience playing on the PS4 “The Vault of the Traveler” routinely froze on multiple loading screens. In one such instance, quitting the game and replaying the entire previous scene (because check points only take place after the loading screens) solved the issue and I was able to continue. In a second instance however, no matter the number of times I quit the game and replayed the previous scene, “The Vault of the Traveler” froze on the same loading screen. Only after completely deleting and redownloading the entire game twice was the issue resolved.
While it is a true testament to the unbelievable strength of Tales from the Borderlands’ characters and narrative that within minutes of finally getting past the dreaded loading screen I was laughing and entirely immersed in the experience once more, it is also true that, in the end, I actually spent just as much time frustrated with the game as I did playing and enjoying it.
When it worked, and replaying it since I have yet to encounter even the hint of a problem, Tales from the Borderlands delivered an excellent conclusion with its finale. Tying together numerous loose story threads, answering all the questions I had, and even giving me a few new questions for the inevitable next season, “The Vault of the Traveler” is among some of the best narrative work Telltale has done. Overall, I can’t recommend Tales from the Borderlands enough, which makes it all the more disappointing that the technical side of things simply couldn’t maintain the same quality as the rest of the game.