Tales from the Borderlands' writing is smart, thoughtful, and laugh-out-loud hilarious in places, but it's also highly effective--through both gameplay and story--at making you, the player, genuinely care about a bunch of jerks. It's reminiscent of developer Telltale Games' inaugural season of The Walking Dead, which emotionally loaded you up only to take it all away suddenly, sadly, and horribly. But Tales from the Borderlands doesn't end on the same somber notes. Rather, its conclusion offers a deep retrospective on what it means to be a hero and the dangers of power, along with hopeful notes about life, love, friendship, and having cool stuff. This final episode, The Vault of the Traveler, ticks all the right boxes for an episodic game's conclusion: powerful personal moments between characters, options that carry weight and change the episode's course, and confirmation that the choices you made three, four episodes prior have made genuine impact.
This last part is a particularly big one. Explaining in detail is spoiler territory, but the specfic circumstances of The Vault of the Traveler's epic conclusion are entirely dependent on which characters you helped in previous episodes. Did you help Athena and Springs' relationship? Did you impress Zer0 way back in episode one? Have you been saving your cash? Whether or not you succeeded or failed in the eyes of certain people deeply affects your options as you head towards your final confrontation. When I arrived at this portion of the episode, I literally leapt out of my seat. The setup, the situation, the meaningful callback to your previous decisions--seeing it all spread before me was an absolute delight. In particular, if you are a huge Borderlands fan, this episode's climax alone is worth playing the entire series.
Previous episodes have included exploration or puzzle segments that felt a little too "gamey," pieces of non-dialogue-driven gameplay that were out of place. The Vault of the Traveler has none of those. Running down a hallway searching for an exit is exhilarating and a little terrifying. Exploring wreckage for signs of life feels tense, and in the context of the situation, it's hard not to feel sad as the implications of your surroundings dawn on you. I know that all sounds vague, but it's difficult to get into the nitty-gritty without spoiling the finale's most poignant, powerful moments. And there are quite a few of them.
The most unsettling of these moments involves everyone's favorite sociopath, Handsome Jack. The big "gotcha" moment regarding his involvement in this series came at the end of Episode Four. It was here that Rhys made a capital B Big decision, which has a huge impact on how things start in Episode Five. The entire first half of this episode is all about Jack, culminating in perhaps the most eerie, heartbreaking, and mildly terrifying scene in the entire series. Telltale's writing is at its best when it just lets characters talk. Giving Jack space to talk about all you've been through is a gut punch. But it's only minutes later you're laughing again.
In addition to its satisfying emotional arcs, dark humor and semi-insulting banter are the other major hallmarks of Tales from the Borderlands. This final , written in collaboration with longtime Borderlands writer Anthony Burch, is the funniest episode in the series. One minute you're on the verge of tears as the characters spiral into despair, and the next a character speaks a line or an event occurs that brings you right back up to a side-splitting high. In my time with the episode, I alternated between wildly upset and laughing hard enough to choke.
The Vault of the Traveler also has something we haven't seen in a Telltale game yet: an arcade-style action sequence in which you're inputting button combos to attack. Providing context is another major spoiler, but take my word for it: it's the most gunplay--the most fun gunplay--we've seen since the crazy Psycho race in Episode One. There's also another gruesome sequence involving removing body parts, and in context, it's physically painful to push buttons and watch it happen.
Tales from the Borderlands' is a triumphant piece of narrative, a thrilling romp through an already rich game world piled high with both reverential and tongue-in-cheek nods to its source material. It asks you what it means to be a hero, but on a deeper level explores themes of greed, family, friendship, and forgiveness. It has its cataclysmic, epic moments, plot twists that were impossible to see coming, gut-wringing sad bits, and an embarrassing wealth of humor. The choices you've made throughout the series matter and ripple outward to the finale, and with a cast as irritatingly loveable as this one, it's impossible not to care about where they're going next.