There’s a moment in Tales from the Borderlands’ second episode, Atlas Mugged, where a ghostly Handsome Jack sticks his arm through Vaughn’s crotch and then talks to Rhys using his obscene new hand puppet. It’s absurd, lewd, and hilarious. This one small moment is the best example of Tales from the Borderlands’ humor, which seems to bubble up from a never-ending spring of inventive, crass comedy.
Episode One, Zer0 Sum, lets you know early on that the Borderlands series’ flavor of blunt and sometimes childish humor continues to play a central role. It’s still going strong in Episode Two, and in fact, may be stronger. The series began on a high point and continues to ride that wave, and although Atlas Mugged has a few lulls to allow for some environmental exploration, it’s still a blitz from one high-energy scene to another.
Rhys and Fiona have an ever-growing list of enemies. Two episodes in, with the keys to a mysterious abandoned Atlas project in hand, they try to outrun assassins, Hyperion’s murderous boss, and a vengeful ex-boyfriend, all the while looking for a little cash. Hungry for more information on the Vault they discovered in the previous episode, Rhys and Fiona are doubly desperate to stay out of trouble, with very little success.
After an entertaining, beautifully choreographed opening sequence--another hallmark of the Borderlands shooter franchise--our four main characters are split up. The separation is not by choice, and most of the episode revolves around the girls and guys trying to find each other. Now that we know more about Rhys, Vaughn, Fiona, and Sasha and the story set up is over, we get more insight into their personalities. Depending on choices you made at the end of Episode One, Fiona, a normally confident con artist, becomes emotional as she and her sister explore their adoptive father’s home. Rhys and Vaughn have a relationship hiccup, after which you can choose whether to keep Vaughn as your best bro or watch him a little more warily. The dialogue among these four and the people they encounter feels almost unscripted, like people who know each other well bantering off the cuff.
On the subject of hilarious dialogue, Dameon Clarke’s performance as the digital ghost of Handsome Jack is incredible. It’s one of the greatest elements of Atlas Mugged. Rhys is the only one who can see and talk to Jack, and watching Rhys’s struggle to balance his interactions with Jack and the real world leads, again, to some awkward and gut-busting situations. Jack, one of the most charismatic characters in the Borderlands universe, isn't just a shoehorned-in, a forced entry that brings no weight to the plot. On the contrary, his presence is a major plot point. His role feels organic. It’s like Jack was always meant to come back for Tales, and he is the exact same Jack we know and love/fear from the main series.
Jack isn’t the only canon Borderlands character to appear in Atlas Mugged. The bounty on Fiona’s head brings one of the series’ deadliest assassins out to play: Athena. Athena appears briefly, but her starring scene is a high-speed chase through the slums that requires some quick trigger fingers and button presses. Fiona and Sasha end up taking their broken vehicle to Scooter’s garage. While Scooter’s scene isn’t terribly engaging, it’s a smart way to connect Tales back to the main Borderlands universe via one of its most mundane and non-fantastical elements, a repair shop.
Rhys, Fiona, and their friends, however, still remain the stars. Under the stress of being hunted, they are slowly cracking; they are interesting, well-rounded characters, and following their emotional state is one of the series’ high points. The supporting cast has also been given more time to shine; the villainous Vasquez is further fleshed out, and August's tenderer side is revealed.
Tales from the Borderlands is at its best when it’s letting you be ordinary, talking among your companions, but it still does a good job of incorporating the series' hallmark shoot-and-loot mechanics, both within the game's tense quick-time sequences, and during missions that require you to steal from your adversaries. You do a lot of that in Episode Two, stealing from safes, conning mechanics into giving you money as well as fixing your car, and shooting dudes in the chest.
This episode also frequently uses Rhys’ Echo Eye, an implant that allows him to scan and hack into anything with a power supply. With a little power-up from Jack, Rhys’ Echo Eye is now one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal. You still have Fiona’s tendency to amass large quantities of money, the amount of which will determine just how badass Scooter’s upgrades to your car will be. Both the money-handling and Echo Eye mechanics are major elements in Episode Two, building on what was briefly introduced in episode one and incorporated well into the evolving plot.
Atlas Mugged has the same level of tension that closed out Zer0 Sum. The ending is more than a little nerve-rattling. If you’ve come to care about this ragtag band of jerks, you’ll be both satisfied and possibly angry at the final emotional payoff. This is a Telltale Games production after all. It continues to be a crazy ride through a story that successfully employs the most beloved elements of the Borderlands franchise.