In cases when asked to compare two very similar games, (especially when both of them are very good games right off the bat), it can feel like you’re being forced to pick between your own children. There usually isn’t a “right” answer, and even if you do choose one over the other(s), it just feels wrong since it’s a bit cruel and unnecessary. And from all appearances the two games we have before ourselves today, Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange and Telltale Games’s Tales from the Borderlands, fall almost perfectly into this struggle. They both belong to the same game genre, they only have a few characteristics between them that differentiate their play-styles, and they even cost exactly the same. But make no mistake, there are indeed stark contrasts that definitely separate them, and for once I do actually prefer one over the other. But these games make spoilers their business, so I won’t ruin the ending verdict just yet.
So what are these games exactly? Well, to put it in simple terms, they’re both essentially point, decide, and click adventure games. Instead of the usual action-adventure game where you shoot unfriendly entities in the face, fly around, or drive some sort of tank, these games are comprised primarily of talking to a wide cast of characters, making choices that actually affect and eventually produce wildly different outcomes, and the occasional instance of walking around looking for clues. For anyone who played classic PC games in the 90s, this probably sounds eerily familiar, but if you’re someone who only has memories of recent, less obscure games, imagine Mass Effect without all the gunplay.
Oddly enough, both of these games are very similar to the Mass Effect series in ways other than a single gameplay aspect. Both have sci-fi elements throughout their stories and respective worlds, both heavily rely on your choices in determining how the game progresses and ultimately ends, and both subtly encourage multiple playthroughs to find and make as many choices as possible. I know that last part sounds weird if you’ve never played these games, but that’s exactly what’s made the Telltale series (which includes versions of The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and even a variation on Minecraft) so successful over the years. Because each game has a wide range of fleshed out and (abnormally for videogames) complex characters, and stories that can keep you engrossed over the course of several months despite a handful of episodes being spaced out over said months, more often than not you want to go through them again and again to see if you can get more out of them. Change character’s fates, alter the course of the story, or even redo every choice you made differently altogether to get the “best” possible ending.
It is almost like having a measure of creative control over a well produced television series, and for someone who watches [relatively] a lot of TV and anime, the attraction isn’t hard to get. So what separates these two games? Well, it’s not just the characters and stories... but let’s start with those. Tales from the Borderlands, like the FPS series it’s based off of, takes place on the alien world of Pandora, and follows a group of con-men (or con-women, in this case), some IT workers, the occasional hitman, a few robots, and many other characters on their quest to unlock the mythical Vault, an ancient construct that’s said to hold legendary loot, but is also said to be guarded by an equally legendary monster. But before anyone can face said guardian, they have to find a Vault Key, which isn’t anywhere as easy as any of the character’s thought it would be. What follows is a scavenger hunt across the planet (AND up to its orbiting space station) to find the Vault Key (and the Vault’s actual location), escape death again and again, and ultimately find treasure so that they can get off the godforsaken rock.
Life is Strange is equal parts less AND more complicated. It takes place in the fictional town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, and follows the life of high school student Max Caulfield, and her estranged but recently reunited friend Chloe Price. The story is basically the two of them hanging and bumming around the small town, while trying to deal with the never ending show of bullshit that is high school, and also getting to the bottom of a mystery that involves the disappearances of various young women in the town. Also, Max can rewind time. She doesn’t know why, we never get an answer as to how she can do it, but we do have front row seats to seeing what happens when she tries to change past mistakes, often with heartbreaking results. Even if it’s with the best intentions, time and life itself is never fully under control. Even with the ability to do things over, shit still happens.
So while these two games are exactly the same in how they play, they differ amazingly in just about every other area possible, from setting, to characters, to sense of humor and overall tone (one relies primarily on comedy, the other is much more serious), and even to the one area that I usually think about when I rate a game: replayability. Being story-based games with no multiplayer, these are both kind of one-shot deals, but oddly enough, Life is Strange seems to know this issue and offers a simply but rather nice feature to make you come back: collectibles. Throughout the game, there are dozens of opportunities to take photos of events around you (tying nicely into the photography theme the series has throughout), and while they don’t do all that much in affecting the story’s outcome, I’m amazed that no other game in this genre has even tried this feature. It just fits in so well, it’s kind of insulting.
Still, this doesn’t change the conclusion I came to when I finished both of these games: of the two, the one I’d come back to, the one I’d gladly go ahead and start over on, would be Borderlands. They’re both great, like I said, but the while one is more groundbreaking than the other in so many areas (the kinds of characters you meet, the relationship between Chloe and Max, the setting, the collectible pictures), Borderlands still manages to do what’s been done before so damn well. All the characters on Pandora have great chemistry with each other, the story has twists and turns but never once feels like it slows down or writes itself into a corner, and [SLIGHT SPOILER] the ending doesn’t pull a ME3 like Life is Strange does at the end. It may be what we’ve seen before, but it’s so good that I wouldn’t mind at all going through it all yet again. Also, it’d mean I’d get to play through the first episode’s dope-ass opening again:
They’re both easy contenders of my Best Games of 2015, I recommend both of them to the fullest... but if I had to choose... well, Easy Burnin’ it is.
Edit: And this marks my last non-“Best of 2015” article of the year: after this, it’s lists, lists, and more lists. Also, final note: no, I did not make that header image. I found it on google images, and all credit for it goes to whoever on sweatypistol.com made it. Thanks, whoever!
TGRIP is a film student studying in Portland, OR. TAY’s resident Xbox and racing game fan, he also (part time) reviews and does opinion pieces on games, movies, television, comics, and anime. He also runs his kinja sub blog Work(ing Title) In Progress. You can follow this third person narrating weirdo on Twitter @Dennis_wglasses, and his Gamertag on Xbox Live is “Aventador SV”.