Probably every review of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is going to refer to this game as being Borderlands with a coat of Dungeons & Dragons paint. But as unoriginal as that might sound, it’s also an incredibly accurate statement that explains everything about the game that you need to know. This is essentially a reskin of Borderlands 3, and with that comes a lot of good and a fair bit of not so good. The shooting and looting loop is excellent and the humour is much stronger than it was in the previous game. But on the other hand, the structure of the game has barely changed since the original Borderlands and there’s a strong sense Gearbox needs to think about how to evolve their missions designs. In short, if you still love Borderlands and have a soft spot for fantasy then this is going to be for you. And if Borderlands is starting to grind your gears, it’s best avoided. Me? I fall firmly into the first camp.
If the whole concept of, “What if Borderlands, but D&D Borderlands!” sounds eerily familiar, that’s because it is. Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep was a piece of Borderlands 2 DLC built around the same idea, and this is a nearly direct sequel, taking place not long after. In fact, Assault on Dragon Keep was recently re-released as a standalone game titled Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep: A Wonderland’s One-Shot Adventure. Not that it matters – you don’t need to play it to know what’s going on.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the basic setup; Tiny Tina, two of her friends named Valentine and Frett, and your own custom-made character have crash-landed on a planet, and while awaiting rescue Tina decides to bust out Bunkers & Badasses, the roleplaying fantasy game that just so happens to feature a lot of guns. As the nameless rookie, Tina decides you get your own kickass campaign to go on where you have to battle evil Dragon Lord, as voiced by the amazing Arnett, the voice of Batman from the Lego Batman movie. How do we know he’s evil? Well, he chops off the head of the majestic, most amazing, mostest prettiest diamond pony in all the universe, Queen Butt Stallion. Clearly, the fucker has to die.
It didn’t take long for me to feel that Wonderlands wasn’t as edgy and dark in its humour, avoiding the kind of subjects that the Borderlands franchise usually jumps into. There’s always been a dark comedy to Borderlands, lurking behind the fart jokes and the zaniness. Tiny Tina herself is a perfect example, a completely broken child who experienced a huge amount of trauma and wound up dealing with it by creating a crazy persona for herself. Over the years the more tragic element of Tiny Tina has been pushed into the shadows, and in Wonderlands it’s barely even addressed at all, and despite the crude style of jokes, there’s not a fuck, a bitch nor a bastard to be found. That’s because while all the previous Borderlands games have been rated Mature, Wonderlands drops down to a Teen rating.
Now, let’s be fair here: an age rating doesn’t magically change a game’s writing and humour. Being rated Mature wouldn’t make Wonderlands funnier, but it does mean the jokes are more…reigned in. The writers themselves poke fun at it quite a few times, quipping that the hundreds of Pirates you fight drink Soda, not rum. The softer jokes and barbs combined with the bright, cheerful environments and the bombastic weirdness of Tiny Tina make this a much more appealing game for a younger crowd. So in that regard, I understand the change. However, as a long-time Borderlands fan, I did find myself missing the black comedy and the adult jokes. Borderlands is rude and crude, and that’s where a lot of my love for it comes from.
But the good news is that despite being handcuffed by the rating the writing is much stronger than Borderlands 3’s cringe-inducing attempts, although it’s still far from the highs of Borderlands 2. The tone is light-hearted and fun, and most of the jokes manage to stick the landing, although much like the third game there’s a sense that the writers are just flinging joke after joke at you without any breathing room. It’s a reference heavy story, too, managing to fit in subtle and not-so-subtle nods to just about everything, from the Monkey Island games to various role-playing tropes. It relies on it a little too much in fact, forgetting that referencing something isn’t funny by itself.
Tiny Tina is at the top of her game as the crazy, random, loud Bunker Master. Once again, Ashley Birch provides the voice of Tina and the difference between her somewhat flat role as Aloy in Horizon: Forbidden West and this is astronomical. She gives it everything voicing Tina, and if I hadn’t known beforehand I would never have been able to guess that it was the same actress doing both characters.
Tina’s likely to be as divisive as ever. Her zany antics, general loudness and habit of ending every sentence by YELLING can be hugely endearing and fun, or bloody annoying. As the Bunker Master, her voice is a constant companion, narrating quests and even occasionally changing the whole world in front of your eyes. If you found her grating in the past games then you might want to skip Wonderlands entirely, or just turn down the volume. However, if you’re one of the many people who found her unique brand of insanity captivating, this game is for you.
Valentine and Frett are reasonable side characters who pop in and out, each of them being a parody of D&D players. Valentine isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he loves the idea of getting to be a hero, and he tends to be guided by his emotions, unlike Frett the Robot who loves to stick to the rules. There’s a fun sub-narrative about these two reconciling their two very different styles, providing a solid lesson all D&D players could do with remembering: there’s a time for rules and a time for winging it.
Overall, then, I had a good time with Wonderland’s story, and particularly enjoyed the Dragon Lord who gets a decent amount of dialogue and a solid backstory. Will Arnett seems to be having a great time voicing the character, and that shines through in every line. What I’m driving at here is the story does what it needs to do; provide a basic narrative excuse for everything and illicit a couple of laughs, like when Torgue literally blows up the entire ocean.
The D&D premise looks like it was a blessing for the artists and animators who have stretched their muscles and raided the colouring box. The environments are full of strong, rich colours and feature some seriously cool views of broken up pirate ships or villages that have been lifted high into the sky by a magic beanstalk. There are plenty of nice details to be found in the levels, and some fun enemies. With that said, enemy variety is a little low for the size of game, with basic skeletons making up the meat of it.
Performance was mostly solid throughout, running on my Ryzen 3600 and the ageing but still kick-ass GTX 1080ti. I had everything ramped up to the max and didn’t notice any major framerate drops. The only issue I had was stuttering in windowed mode which the game would sometimes randomly switch to upon first loading it up.
Despite lacking the Borderlands name in the title and the thick layer of D&D coating, this is a Borderlands game through and through, which ends up being just as much of a weakness as it is a strength. On the one hand, the shooting is still a lot of fun and the guns feel great to use. Legions and legions of skeletons, pirates and other cannon fodder will merrily charge at you with all the intelligence of a goldfish trying to solve a math problem, eager to be gunned down amidst a barrage of colours, explosions and special abilities. There are still mountains of guns to loot and obsess over. There are still heaps of pop-culture references, dumb jokes and randomness.
Given the abundance of fantasy tropes, I found it a tad disappointing that Gearbox stuck to their guns. Quite literally, in fact. You might be battling goblins, climbing beanstalks and fighting an evil Dragon Lord, but you’ll do it with an assault rifle or a shotgun, for the most part. A few weapons get slightly dressed up, like how pistols will have crossbow parts or a shotgun has a bubbling cauldron of crystals, but I think there was a lot more room for Gearbox to get creative and lean into the fantasy aspect more, instead of sticking with the franchise’s usual fare. A hand-held trebuchet that hurls flails, maybe?
Regardless, the guns are still a pleasure to use and nicely varied. There still isn’t a way to upgrade a weapon, so if you find something you love it’ll inevitably end up in the garbage after an hour or two, but with so many gun variations being hurled at your face you’ll just as inevitably find something else to fill the gaping void in your soul. And then taking that boom-stick and using it to mow down dumb enemies is cathartic, fast fun.
The new spell system manages to mix things up a little bit by replacing grenades. Being a D&D reskin you get to loot a decent variety of magic spells like meteoric fireballs or powerful auras. It’s not like these add much mechanically – it’s just another ability with a cooldown – but it still feels awesome to throw out spells, and combined with your class ability it gives you plenty to do. If you choose the spell orientated class you can really toss out magic quickly, and can even equip two spells at a time.
Speaking of the class system, that’s gotten a few nice changes, too, mostly because you’re no longer picking a set character with a set class. There are six to choose from when you create your custom character, but later on, you get to adopt a second class as well. It’s not possible to get enough skill points to max out both skill trees, but it’s a lot of fun to mix up your class and pick out which abilities go best. And then near the end, you can swap out the secondary skill tree whenever you like so that you can play around a little. I really like this change to the system because it allows for a lot more experimentation and wider playstyles in terms of whether you chase elemental damage or want to buff spells or want to focus on your companion dishing out more damage.
There is also some extra attention paid to the melee. Now you can loot new swords, hammers and axes with their own stats and special benefits, and the skill trees boast plenty of buffs for smacking enemies in the face. In fact, building toward a purely melee build is actually viable as far as I can tell. However, that would be a boring way to play because there’s just a single button for hitting things, so doing that for 15+ hours is probably going to become duller than Kim Kardashian’s personality. Plus, in a franchise built around hoarding guns like some sort of militaristic dragon, why would you want to?
Probably the biggest issue with adhering so closely to the established Borderlands template is barebones mission design, the very same that we saw in the original game and that has barely changed in the intervening years. It’s a little frustrating that Gearbox still hasn’t evolved how they create quests, and so numerous games later we’re still running around, endlessly shooting enemies and picking up items while a character narrates at you over the radio. The writing team does a lot to disguise the quests with fun themes or ideas, like one fantastic sequence where Tiny Tina is trying to run through a quest while Valentine and Frett keep getting distracted by an unimportant NPC while Tina gets increasingly pissed off. These moments are great, and indeed, most of the side quests are solid, but I did find myself growing bored of the same basic structure all the time. A few interesting set pieces or twists could have gone a long way to keeping things feeling fresh and interesting, but there aren’t any. I’m left with the sense that I had fun playing Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, yet I can’t remember any specific moments.
In keeping with the D&D theme, there’s a nice new overworld to navigate which connects all the missions together. Your character becomes a bobble-headed version of themselves, there are shortcuts to unlock and even a few abilities that allow you to go back and access new areas or get to the special Loot Dice that increase your chances of finding valuable gear. A lot of the overworld side-quests involve tackling the new Combat Encounters, which are self-contained arenas full of enemies to fight, basically distilling the whole Borderlands concept into a couple of rounds of action. I love some of the small overworld details, too, like the fallen Cheetos that act as walls or the soda rivers, all neatly selling the idea that the overworld is a true D&D map. It can’t be said that the overworld adds much to the game per say – it is, after all, a hub-world with a different camera angle – but I still liked its inclusion for what it was.
Borderlands has been built on its shooting and its looting. Millions and millions of guns were promised in the first game and that number has only grown thanks to the game stitching various parts together to form new bullet-spewing gear. Most of the time that means small stat differences and elemental effects, but sometimes it can result in awesome weirdness. And, of course, there are the unique Legendary items, like a Banshee blade that screams as you swing it or the Queen’s Crey which can summon frost meteors. Hunting down valuable loot, finding slightly better gear that fits your build and the thrill of a Legendary popping out of a chest – these are all as satisfying, rewarding and addictive as they have ever been.
As much as I adore the rainbow showers of weapons, armour, spells and trinkets, however, I have to admit that Borderlands has probably taken it a little too far at this point. With the new lootable spells, armour and cosmetics there’s arguably more gear than ever spewing from enemies and chests alike, all offering tiny percentage differences and the most minute of changes. With so much to dig through, I quickly found myself ignoring almost all of it, stopping only to investigate the purples and legendaries, and maybe the occasional blue. The rest stayed on the floor like a carelessly dropped handful of Skittles, doomed to be thrown in the garbage heap. I have no doubt some die-hard fans will dig through every single drop, but I reckon the average person will be like me and ignore the majority of it, lest they lose dozens upon dozens of hours of their lives sifting through useless tosh. Maybe I’ll be in the minority with this statement, but I believe Gearbox need to tone the loot back down a little bit so that it starts feeling important again.
I also don’t like how the game handles cosmetics. It’s great that enemies constantly drop new patterns and colours for your custom character to use. But it’s annoying that they take up space in your inventory if you don’t remember to go in and open them up. And you can’t even sell duplicate cosmetics, so they take up even more space until you toss them out. It’s a daft piece of game design that takes away valuable inventory space in a game that’s all about hoovering up items like a rampaging vacuum hoover. The easy solution is that cosmetics should be added straight into your collection. Simple.
The main bulk of the game will take you 10-15 hours to wrap up, and probably double that if you want to clear the various side-quests and challenges scattered around the overworld and larger areas. Once you get that out of the way there’s a decent chunk of end-game content to work through where you jump onto the Chaos Chamber fights. These are a series of arena battles against a mix of enemies, and between rounds, you can pick up curses or blessings. Along the way a currency is earned that you can spend to get loot, with new types of gear not seen in the rest of the game popping up. It’s a decent way to squeeze extra time out of the game, and I can easily see some people spending quite a lot of time chasing the rarest loot.
If you like Borderlands then Tiny Tina’s wonderlands is the best one since Borderlands 2. And if you don’t like Borderlands or have grown tired of its formula then Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is best avoided. I know, I know – saying you’ll like something if you liked the previous version is a cop-out. It’s cheap. But it’s still true, and especially so in a franchise that continues to stick very close to its original design philosophy. At this point, I do think Gearbox needs to start seriously thinking about where they want to take the series, but I can’t lie: I’m probably still going to turn up for another sequel even if it hasn’t changed much.
Categories: Reviews, Videogame Reviews