Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands Review: A Delightfully Whacky Spin-Off
I’ve spent countless hours with the Borderlands series. Ever since the first game was released, I’ve found its Diablo but with guns concept intoxicating, with Borderlands 2 serving as the series high-point for me thus far. Despite my love for the series, however, I will be the first to admit that whilst Borderlands 3 was a hugely enjoyable experience, this sense permeated through the entire product that suggested that Gearbox had decided to play it safe. The gameplay was simply a refined version of what had come before, and the story felt like an attempt to capture the same lighting in a bottle that had resulted in the terrific Handsome Jack. Going back to it now, whilst a great looter shooter experience, I still can’t help but feel like Gearbox could have taken more chances in the gameplay and narrative stakes.
And that, in a nutshell, is why secretly, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands has been my most anticipated release in what has potentially been the most stacked Q1 ever. From the moment the trailers dropped, Wonderlands looked like the game I wanted Borderlands 3 to be; a shake-up in terms of settings and themes that the series desperately needed. Thankfully, whilst it doesn’t revolutionize the Borderlands formula, Wonderlands is absolutely the shot in the arm the series needed.
Bunkers & Badasses
Ask any Borderlands fan what they consider to be the high point of the series, and there is a high likelihood that they will respond with Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. An expansion for Borderlands 2, Assault on Dragon Keep, took the looting and shooting of Borderlands and transplanted it into a weird and whacky fourth-wall-breaking adventure set against the backdrop of a session of Bunkers & Badasses, Borderlands version of Dungeons and Dragons.
One of the main reasons why Assault on Dragon Keep was so beloved was the change in setting and tone. Stepping away from the familiarity of Pandora, the main setting for the majority of the series, the expansion was able to free itself almost entirely from the shackles of Pandora and the Megacorporations that dominated the narrative of the mainline games. Wonderlands takes that concept and creates a full game out of it, and as a result, it’s the most daring and fresh the franchise has felt in years.
A Familiar Framework
That isn’t to say that Wonderlands reinvents the wheel. At its core, this is still very much a Borderlands game, and at first glance, you would be forgiven for just thinking it’s the same game you’ve played already, albeit with a fantasy skin slapped on.
Spells, for example, cited as being a new addition to the franchise, largely function the same as grenades which are now absent. Shields become Wards, and even the weapons manufacturers, which fans will be familiar with, make a return here, albeit with a fantasy spin on their names (Hyperion becoming Hyperius, for example).
Perhaps the most frustrating element to carry over from the core series, however, is the UI, which at this stage is feeling hopelessly outdated. It’s effectively the same UI that players have been dealing with since the first Borderlands, and whilst minor quality of life improvements have been made over the years in subsequent titles, sorting through your inventory remains a chore, as does navigating the in-game map, which is as useless as it has ever been. With Wonderlands feeling like the first true Borderlands experience that can stand on its own without the mainline series, it’s unfortunate that Gearbox didn’t see this as an option to also radically overhaul what I truly believe is one of the worst UI’s in gaming.
Familiar But Fantastically Fresh
The fact that Wonderlands’ framework is somewhat familiar rarely impacted my enjoyment of the game, and to be fair, the elements that are recycled are vastly outweighed by how much I enjoyed some of the new ideas on show here.
One of the key departures for Wonderlands is absolutely found in its overarching narrative and tone. The whole concept around actually playing through a session of Bunkers & Badasses with Tiny Tina acting as DM lends the campaign a wonderfully whimsical feeling. The game within a game concept allows for a level of imagination in artistic direction and writing which just isn’t possible within the confines of the mainline games. You’ll find yourself cutting down hordes of enemies in luscious green fields with giant castles looming in the background, before blazing through idyllic-looking villages that soon give way to levels that look as though they have been ripped straight from the mind of H.P. Lovecraft.
I don’t want to delve into any great detail on the level design and art direction for fear of spoiling how crazy and surreal things get, but I feel comfortable in saying that the environments on show here represent a series high. Save for one or two of the DLC areas in Borderlands 3, I felt like I was going through the motions, never really paying attention to my surroundings. That feeling never once bogged down my Wonderlands playthrough and was instead replaced by an eagerness to progress the story, not to see what the plot held in-store, but to see what wondrous creation the art team at Gearbox had up their sleeves for me next.
Speaking of plot, whilst the overarching narrative itself isn’t anything to write home about, how it’s delivered is absolutely on point, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has played Assault on Dragon Keep. It initially seems like fairly standard fantasy fare; evil overlord seeks to lay waste to the world, the type of tropes you have seen a million times before. Adding flavor to proceedings, though, is the fact that this narrative is coming straight from the mind of Tiny Tina as she runs her game, meaning the entire experience is narrated by her and her irreverent brand of humor, changing mission structure and objectives on the fly as she aims to keep her game fresh and exciting.
It results in a wonderfully unpredictable experience. An early game mission saw me approaching an occupied town in an attempt to liberate it, only for Tiny Tina to decide the quest was going too smoothly and required a band of skeleton pirate ships to be spawned in to make things even more interesting. Whilst these types of on-the-fly changes don’t change the core gameplay loop tremendously, you’re still just mowing down waves of enemies, after all, they do change the context within which those combat encounters are taking place in a way that makes each quest feel truly dynamic.
A Cohesive Overworld
Hands down, the biggest shake-up that Wonderlands provides comes in the form of its overworld. Leaning heavily into the tabletop RPG theme, maps are no longer selected from a static menu screen as they were in previous Borderlands titles. Instead, players will explore a pretty expansive overworld as they travel between towns and areas on their way to the next objective.
It’s a lovely touch. Not only does it really bring the idea of you playing as a character in a tabletop RPG to life, but it also opens the door to new gameplay ideas such as optional dungeons which dot the map, and random encounters that can be triggered by walking through long grass. Each of these optional encounters tends to result in a loot chest as a reward upon completion, which opens the game up massively to bite-sized play sessions should you only have a few minutes spare. This is something I really welcomed, and I hope Gearbox retains this idea for future series installments, as up until Wonderlands, this was a series I never felt was rewarding unless I was willing to sit down and put significant time in.
The overworld also helps make the world itself feel more cohesive. One of the longest-running issues I have had with Borderlands games is how disjointed the worlds feel. I never truly felt like I was inhabiting an actual world with a sense of place due to how sectioned off the various areas tended to be. By tying everything together with an overworld, that issue is effectively eliminated, thankfully.
Get Your Character Sheets Ready
If there is one area where I think Wonderlands will prove divisive, it’s in how it approaches character classes. Traditionally, each game in the series has presented players with four classes, each with several skill trees to choose between and spec into. Wonderlands instead offers six classes (which largely follow the typical fantasy archetypes of tanks, stealthy rogues, spell casters, etc.), but each class only has one skill tree.
There is no doubt that this is absolutely more restrictive at the outset and removes a lot of player agency. However, I say “at the outset,” as upon reaching level ten, players are allowed to assign themselves a second character class, giving them access to a whole other tree’s worth of skills, passive abilities, and ultimates.
By the midpoint of my initial playthrough, the opportunities this system presents became very apparent. I started out using the Clawbringer, one of the more tanky classes that also specializes in AoE elemental damage via his hilariously huge hammer. After hitting level 10, I chose the Spellshot as my second class, a ranged caster who has great crit potential. This change opened up an entirely new way of playing that turned me into an overpowered invincible monster that was capable of soaking up huge amounts of damage, whilst simultaneously spamming spells that carried massive crit damage.
With that in mind, I would urge players to not judge the game based on levels one through ten. Whilst previous games in the series would always develop a meta for each class that would dominate the game until the next balance patch, I don’t think that issue will be as prevalent here given the scope for mixing and matching classes. Whilst strong combinations will no doubt surface, Wonderlands feels like it has designed its class system with player agency and flexibility being the primary objectives.
Satisfying Looting and Shooting
Gunplay largely feels the same as it did in Borderlands 3, which is to say it feels great and benefits from the many improvements and refinements introduced there. Guns, of which there are many, of course, feel snappy and distinct, especially when combined with the rock-solid performance mode on Series X where this review was carried out. And, whilst there are quite a few recycled weapons from the mainline entries, there are also so many new toys to play with that it is hard to complain about some reusing of fan-favorite weapons.
Great loot also seems to drop with a frequency I’ve not seen before in a Borderlands title. By the time I was level ten, I had a full suite of purple rarity weapons, the second-highest tier in the game, and by the time I got to the end of my first playthrough, legendary weapons were absolutely pouring into my inventory. Whether this is a positive or a negative for you will depend on the type of player you are. Many players love having legendary weapons be as rare as hen’s teeth, pouring hours into the grind in pursuit of the perfect drop. On the other hand, there are players like me, who don’t have the same time to dedicate to the grind anymore, and so I wholeheartedly welcome this change (assuming it is a change and not a bug with the drop rate).
One other thing I should note is that this drop rate I’m seeing has largely been during campaign gameplay. I haven’t delved much into the endgame Chaos Chambers mode, where I would think the drop rate of legendaries will likely increase further. I will admit this could prove problematic with regards to longevity if the grind to get the best endgame weapons from that mode is over in a heartbeat.
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is a resounding success and is easily the most fun I’ve had with the series since the release of Borderlands 2. In some respects, I actually think there is a case to be made that this is the best playing game that Gearbox has made, so positive are the changes made to the narrative delivery, class system, and the introduction of the overworld. If you’re a fan of Borderlands, Wonderlands is an extremely easy sell. But, even if you’re a lapsed fan feeling the burn after so many years of Borderlands products, there is so much that is fresh on display that I think you owe yourself a visit to the Wonderlands.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available On: Xbox Series X/S (reviewed), PS4, PS5, PC; Publisher 2k; Developer: Gearbox; Players: 1-4; Released: March 25, 2022; MSRP: $59.99; ESRB: T for Teen