Borderlands 3: Psycho Krieg and the Fantastic Fustercluck – Final Review

The central environments explored in Psycho Krieg and the Fantastic Fustercluck are oftentimes impossibly beautiful – and frequently very bizarre. Each individual map is brimming with Gearbox’s characteristic creativity, honed over many years now and nearly perfected. The imagination on display here is indeed remarkable, though this DLC is characterized by quite radical departures regarding presentation. Consider earlier DLC for this same title, like Bounty of Blood or Guns, Love, and Tentacles. The environments featured in those DLC were similarly beautiful, that former work atmospheric, boldly clinging to traditional Western stylings, while the latter work strives for a perpetual eeriness, though an eeriness which is tempered by swelling charm. Crucially, then, those maps are all linked thematically and tonally: they are characterized by consistency, which seemingly points towards safety. Psycho Krieg boldly and totally rejects these perceptions, in that no tonal consistency exists here; each map is radically different from all other maps, meaning each map has a distinct identity, while this considerable diversity preserves freshness and heightens the joys of general exploration. Earlier DLC were characterized by relative predictability; this DLC is completely unpredictable. This erraticness, then, is certainly empowering, and Gearbox was thus permitted to weave together seemingly disparate ideas of presentation. And the maps are all radically different, some evoking relative disgust, others being quite arresting. Reflecting more disgusting attributes is one of the earliest explorable environments. While featuring many towering constructions of great beauty and magnanimity – consider a citadel of sorts which dominates the horizon – odd viscera clings to many surfaces, impossibly red and repulsive, while discarded body parts are distributed carelessly all throughout the environment. An odd, distorted stairway is explored in this environment, serving an almost disorienting function, distressing the player. The pervasive sense of whiteness, too, is remarkable, the buildings almost sanitized, clashing greatly with the similarly abundant red. In no way could this environment be described as beautiful, though the creativity is immense.  

But with the characteristic unpredictability, subsequent explorable environments are radical departures from this repulsive landscape. One location has subtle oriental stylings, with gorgeous foliage, the many trees in the height of their autumnal glory, being boldly red, boldly orange, while when navigating certain regions of this environment vibrant red roses spawn underfoot. The first environment is characterized by a radical instability; this environment suggests tranquility and stability. A more futuristic environment is also explored, and while moody certainly it does nothing substantial to differentiate itself from environments featured elsewhere in the base game; it is creative though not exactly innovative. In a clever, novel twist though, many of these environments are broken, fractured, with substantial gaps in the environment which disrupt locomotion. To counter this, in many environments an interactable book is present, and upon interaction it oftentimes spawns a pathway that the player can cross over safely, while even teleportation portals are liberally distributed, propelling the player forward at a rapid pace. The substantial nature of these gaps seemingly points towards Krieg’s instability, in that the dominant Krieg – psycho Krieg – has lost certain mental and emotional faculties, like ever-crucial empathy. The environments, then, in addition to being beautiful and creative, serve an almost allegorical function. This is remarkable indeed. And hearkening back to old game design, all explorable maps are linked through a hub-world of sorts, containing portals which transport the player to the respective maps. Many of these portals boast tangible, visible locks, and seeing the actual destruction of those locks is a clever way of communicating progress, the fruitfulness of player efforts.

The narrative is similarly imaginative, striking an odd balance of whimsicality and distress. The narrative begins in earnest when the enigmatic, eccentric scientist Patricia Tanis teleports the player into Krieg’s divided mind frame, seemingly for purposes of research conduction. But a secondary motivation almost immediately arises: rescue Krieg’s saner, better half, gather together required objects for that rescuing. If this can be done, then sane Krieg can see extraction, and can accordingly be recipient of greater happiness, rather than being subjected to the torment he has long endured. All throughout the narrative conflict is communicated, and observing the banter between sane Krieg and psycho Krieg is actually quite compelling, in that they are radically different. Psycho Krieg, expectantly, is defined by a certain barbarism, blood-lust, his words twisted and erratic, while his character model is bathed in red, suggesting intensity and instability. Sane Krieg, meanwhile, is like the antithesis to this presentation, bathed in a light of blue, suggesting peace and tranquility – and, simultaneously, melancholy. Sane Krieg’s voice acting is superb, greatly increasing his endearing attributes, in that the tonal delivery reflects that melancholy, as if sane Krieg is impossibly demoralized, has all but given up hope on happiness. The voice acting, too, suggests sincerity and earnestness, and even if the narrative were characterized by monumental failings, then sane Krieg absolutely has the potential to counter those failings; here is a profound, grounded, immensely likable character, this likability resulting in player agency, urgency, in that for most players the desire to assist and save sane Krieg will be great in intensity. The dominance of psycho Krieg has been his greatest source of unhappiness; many are the instances where he has wanted to communicate a kind word, though instead only uttered is that barbarism. If sane Krieg is not extracted, and swiftly, then total destruction seems inevitable; or, at least, that is what the entirety of the narrative suggests, for a bizarre conclusion upsets these perceptions, sane Krieg content to live on in harmony with psycho Krieg. This all suggests considerable character growth, while the unexpectedness of the conclusion only enhances its great impactfulness.      

Amongst the narrative’s most poignant threads is Krieg’s relationship to Maya, a siren and pivotal figure in earlier games of the series. Sane Krieg has long possessed love and affection for this figure, though that love has gone mostly unexpressed, meaning that Krieg’s potential happiness has long been delayed. If he can voice his passions, if he can show himself as greater than barbarian, then seemingly this happiness can be attained. Love subplots are somewhat overused, which has the tendency to disrupt their impactfulness, but this subplot is well implemented here, Maya alternately showing confidence and fragility; it is easy to understand her appeal, why Krieg should cling to her. Never voicing his affections, it follows that they have never been reciprocated, when sane Krieg’s great humanity and empathy suggest that his affections are likely to be reciprocated – here is a compelling, immensely likable individual. But a third, somewhat more subtle, narrative thread is also of considerable import: namely, the exploitation and experimentation that Krieg was subject to. Towards the narrative’s conclusion, a larger antagonist is introduced: Benedict. His role as cruel experimenter immediately establishes his menace; if the player is fiercely aligned with Krieg, it follows that the player will want to punish the individual who tortured Krieg. This inclusion is compelling and welcome, particularly when considering that up to this point no larger, tangible antagonist was introduced; Benedict’s introduction, then, serves to establish narrative focus, while his great villainy results in greater player engagement. Besting him in a protracted boss battle – he has an impossibly large amount of hit points – was a very triumphant affair, and the player can walk away feeling as though they have directly bettered Krieg – at least as much as possible. The damage Benedict inflicted upon Krieg and countless others can never be repaired, can never disappear outright, but destroying the inflictor of that damage is satisfying enough.

Being simple DLC, it follows that no gameplay alterations or innovation are expected, and so it is here: the gameplay is a complete replication of that found in the base game; the blueprint is clung to always. Fortunately these gameplay systems are impossibly sound, with weighty and impactful guns and quite compelling movement systems. The procedurally generated weapons, meanwhile, result in a fair degree of excitement, especially when considering that legendary drops rates actually seem quite generous. Enemy diversity is impressive, too, with manifold different humanoid enemies, some riding rockets a fair distance above the player, while other, non-human enemies exert their own present, like insectoid, metamorphosing varkids or the bizarre, levitating guardians. Theoretically, this enemy diversity would result in gameplay diversity, as different tactics are required to dispatch different foes. This is absolutely not the case here, and while gameplay is indeed very enjoyable, ultimately it is characterized by great tedium, repetition, quite a monumental failing. Enemies may have different movement patterns, may have different elemental resistances, though none of this fundamentally alters the gameplay experience: shoot the enemy until they collapse; that is the extent of the gameplay, a very frustrating admission. But, again, despite this frustration much enjoyability is present here, and the game can be singularly engrossing, investing the player; a simple, short-lived play session is often not enough. But enjoyability – and enemy triviality – are perhaps connected to my character build. Playing as Zane the operative, the skills I had selected and honed over the base game essentially made me unkillable; no matter my recklessness, death rarely seized upon me. Many players may delight in this over empowerment, seeing it as reward for countless hours invested. While such empowerment can indeed be satisfying, the easiness of the entire affair almost eroded player engagement. The game, then, is largely a mindless one, almost adopting tropes of the arena shooter genre, in that constant motion is useful, advantageous, while stalled movement results in a certain vulnerability. The intensity of these counters – for they are intense even as they are easy, owing to the oftentimes immense number of enemies spawned at any one point – can be exhausting, though largely gameplay is excellent.

Secondary content in the DLC is not particularly abundant, with but a handful of side missions available. Normally, this would not matter, in that quality oftentimes trumps quantity. Here, though, not only is secondary content scarce, but that which is here is poorly developed and implemented, very rarely engaging or involved. Indeed, perhaps half of the side missions can be completed without even moving, in that the player must only interact with the quest giver for a predetermined number of instances. In one scenario, the player is tasked with rubbing psycho Krieg’s back a fair few times. That done, the quest promptly ends. In another, similarly basic quest, the player is tasked with giving a eulogy. In many games, the player might be provided with dialogue options, permitted to alter the precise nature of the eulogy’s deliverance. Not so here, as Zane simply delivers this eulogy without player input, and then the quest promptly concludes. This simpleness is incredibly frustrating, which only heightens the enjoyability of the more elaborate quests, like one centered around chess, where Krieg, Maya, and others adopt the form of various chess pieces. It is clever, imaginative, and enjoyable, even as it is completable in only ten or fifteen minutes, if that. Another enjoyable mission revolves around Krieg’s former cell, which is mostly sparce and barren. In order to remedy this sparseness, the player is tasked with gathering together decorations, like Christmas lights and other such objects. Again, the mission objective is in very close proximity to the mission giver, but the dialogue accompanying this quest was almost humorous. Players who skip side content oftentimes miss out on any given game’s greatest moments – so it was with Borderlands 3, and even Borderlands 2. But with Psycho Krieg, and even with the existence of these above mentioned quests, the player who skips this content, who sticks strictly to the central narrative, is really not missing much at all, owing to the sharp sense of basicness, the spurning of elaborateness.

As DLC, Psycho Krieg and the Fantastic Fustercluck is indeed enjoyable, anchored by sound if repetitive gameplay systems, though systems which are never built upon in any considerable fashion. But this stale derivativeness is countered by the innovation manifest in presentation, the environments starkly beautiful, some starkly exotic, bizarre. These environments evoke a sharp sense of place, communicating Krieg’s division, a division which is central to the overall experience; just as the gameplay systems ground the narrative, just as the world-building results in player engagement, sane Krieg serves a similar function, and his characterization marks the greatest achievement made in the DLC. Immensely likable, terribly tortured and oppressed – literally and figuratively when considering the cruel experimenter Benedict – his plight is of some consequence, and the feeling player instinctively stives to lessen the intensity of that plight, to bring about protracted and lasting happiness. An impactful conclusion neatly wraps up matters, and the entire affair is rather brief in length, lasting perhaps seven or eight hours. Regarding length and the quality of secondary content, this DLC might be reckoned as inferior to earlier DLC, though this inferiority does not mean the experience is unenjoyable, that it is devoid of value; far from it. Engaging in a brief bit of reflection, it was a mostly satisfying conclusion to my time with Borderlands 3. Having completed this DLC and the three preceding ones, I have now completed all of the more substantial content on offer here. My overall playtime now sits at roughly ninety-seven hours, quite a large sum, investment of time. Mostly, that investment was rewarded, the base game and the DLC bringing with them ample moments of enjoyability, while the design of these games makes them nearly infinitely replayable; a massive amount of content is present here. Some time down the line I may return to Borderlands 3, though the repetitive gameplay serves somewhat of a repelling function. Still I will be able to reflect upon the title, my time with it, and derive ample satisfaction. No poignant statements are made in the base game, this DLC, or any of the earlier DLC, though not every game need abundant poignancy, and instead of evoking poignancy, here every developer effort seems directed towards to one end: bring the player satisfaction, joy. Gearbox absolutely succeeded on this front.

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