Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Tiny Tina's Wonderlands (PS4) Review

Believe it or not, I couldn't play M-rated games until I was 17.  While some parents were more lenient with what their kids could play, my parents weren't.  In their mind, games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty were how sociopaths were born.

Because of this, I missed out on games like Borderlands.  I had read about Borderlands in various gaming magazines and the premise intrigued me.  A first-person shooter where you collect guns?  That's awesome!  When I finally turned the big 1-7, I went out and bought as many M-rated games as I could, including Borderlands and Borderlands 2.

My excitement waned as I got my ass kicked repeatedly.  I didn't realize Borderlands was both a shooter and an RPG, so imagine my surprise as my level one character died over and over trying to fight level four enemies.  Luckily, I was patient, and once I grasped the game's FPS/RPG mechanics, I was hooked.

Borderlands was the brainchild of Gearbox Software.  The Texas-based developer cut its teeth on Half-Life expansions and PC ports of console games before finding success with Brothers in Arms and Borderlands.  The latest entry, Tiny Tina's Wonderlands, is a spin-off set in a fictional tabletop game.

Story Synopsis
Taking place between Borderlands 2 and Borderlands 3, the game follows Tiny Tina, an explosives expert enjoying a game of "Bunkers and Badasses" with the space pirate Valentine and his sidekick Frette.  "Bunkers and Badasses" is a fantasy RPG, and the player, also the character you play as, joins the trio for a game.

In the world of "Bunkers and Badasses," an evil warrior called the Dragon Lord seeks to rule the Wonderlands.  With the help of Princess Butt Stallion, the Dragon Lord is imprisoned, and all is well in the Wonderlands.  Unfortunately, the Dragon Lord is freed by his skeleton army, and now the player must stop the Dragon Lord before the Wonderlands is consumed in darkness.

Story, Writing, and Characters

Years ago, Gearbox made a DLC for Borderlands 2 called "Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep."  The DLC was a fun send-up of tabletop games and the fantasy genre.  With Tiny Tina's Wonderlands, the developers take the idea of a fictional fantasy board game and run with it.

From a writing perspective, it's better than Borderlands 3.  Well, mostly better.  Borderlands 3 felt like it was written by a 40-year-old who spent way too much time on Reddit.  Tiny Tina's Wonderlands feels like it was written by someone who plays a lot of tabletop games, and I mean that in a positive way.

I love the interplay between Tiny Tina, Valentine, and Yvette.  Their banter feels natural, and it sells the idea this is a group of friends hanging out and having fun.  As the one hosting the game, Tina acts as an unreliable narrator.  When she's not narrating your quest, she's changing the scenery or bending the rules to make things easier or harder.

This leads to some clever sight gags.  A sunny mushroom forest becomes a dank mushroom forest at a moment's notice.  Characters might suddenly turn from evil to good, or be given incredibly elaborate backstories for no reason, other than Tina thought it was cool.

No one in the Wonderlands is safe when Tiny Tina is the game master.

The funniest bits are the interactions with But Stallion.  Butt Stallion is a diamond unicorn and ruler of the Wonderlands.  What makes these scenes funny is how everyone can understand her whinnies and tell the player what she's saying.  Plus, it's not every day you play a game where you get knighted by a diamond unicorn, yet the game plays these absurd moments as straight as possible.

Since this is a spin-off, you don't need intimate knowledge of the series to understand the story.  A few familiar faces like Claptrap and Brick show up, but that's it.  The Dragon Lord, Wonderlands' antagonist, is delightfully smug.  His personality is shades of Handsome Jack, but I like how he's aware that he's the creation of a hyperactive teenager.

As much as I enjoyed the humor, not every joke sticks the landing.  The game loves making pop-culture references and spoofing popular media.  Take, for instance, a mission where you help a tribe of trolls called the Murphs.  Get it?  It's the Smurfs.  The bad comedy would be excusable if the dialogue wasn't so relentless.

Characters are always talking.  It doesn't matter if it's the hero, the villain, the civilians, the enemies, EVERYONE IS TALKING.  Again, there are some genuinely funny moments, but they are drifting around in the overflowing sink that is the game's dialogue.


The best way to describe Tiny Tina's Wonderlands is its Skyrim with Guns.  Take a fantasy game, give the wizards and warriors guns, and you have Tiny Tina's Wonderlands.

For the uninitiated, Borderlands is a looter shooter.  You slay enemies to earn XP and cash, search chests for loot, and complete a lot of quests.  Tiny Tina's Wonderlands is no different.  Yet, when the looter shooter formula is mixed with fantasy RPG elements, the results are fascinating.

Instead of choosing a predetermined character and their class, Wonderlands lets you create your own character and choose your own class.  The character customization is robust.  You can modify their height, hairstyle, gender, voice, etc.  There are six classes to choose from, each with special abilities like being able to summon minions or unleash a spinning barrage of melee attacks.

Each class has a secondary ability, a feature introduced in Borderlands 3.  However, Wonderlands goes one step beyond Borderlands 3 when it comes to character building.  Halfway through the campaign, you unlock the option to choose a second class.  From there, you are free to either continue building your current class or swap to the one you unlocked.  I love how versatile and experimental this new system is.

Instead of three separate skill trees, Wonderlands opts for one universal skill tree for each class.  This makes the classes more focused, in my opinion.

In previous Borderlands games, you picked a class, that was it.  If you wanted to try a different class, you had to start from scratch.  By letting you mix and match how you want to play, it encourages creativity and rewards you with a stronger, deadlier warrior.

Navigation is another element that's been overhauled.  Fast travel is still an option, but traversing the Wonderlands itself is done by navigating the board game.  It's fun to explore and look for secrets like dungeons, shrines, and shortcuts.  Just be sure to punch any enemies that get close unless you want to get pulled into a random encounter.

Combat is identical to Borderlands 3, but since this is set in a fantasy game, certain aspects have been tweaked. Instead of grenades, you use spells.  Spells vary in their abilities.  Some spells let you cast a bolt of lightning, some let you unleash a barrage of projectiles, some conjure a shield, and others summon a meteor out of thin air.  In addition to guns, there are crossbow variants that deal extra damage.

Melee combat, something of an afterthought in previous entries, is fleshed out.  There are melee weapons like swords, maces, and clubs to find and equip.  Melee is a satisfying alternative to guns and spells.  It's fun to smack enemies around and watch them fly.

Borderlands games are known for their extensive arsenals, and Tiny Tina's Wonderlands is no exception.  Enemies drop loot, chests are filled with loot, and completing quests earns you loot.  Be sure to keep a look out for 20-sided dice, which give you a chance to roll for even more loot.

Loot includes guns, shields, as well as rings, amulets, and tunics that grant buffs like increased gun damage or reduced cooldown for your ability.  A rarity scale determines how valuable items are.  The rarer the gear, the more powerful it is.  Brighthoof is the game's hub.  Here, you can accept additional quests, customize your character, reclaim any lost loot, or buy capacity upgrades.  If you sack is full, you can sell your gear or deposit them into a safe.

That's what we call a loot-splosion.

Going back to combat, the enemy roster isn't the usual bandits, skags, and robots.  The primary enemy is the Dragon Knight's skeleton army, but there are also thieves, goblins, mushroom men, pirates, cyclops, landsharks, and dragons.  Certain enemies are more susceptible to elements like fire and corrosion.  Freeze is the most damaging element since it's capable of slowing down and immobilizing most enemies.

Difficulty-wise, I'd say Wonderlands is on par with previous Borderlands games.  Choosing the right skills and the right guns betters your chance of survival.  If you go down, you have a chance to save yourself by killing an enemy before time runs out.  The combat is fun but repetitive.  For most of the campaign, you fight skeletons and once you've dismembered one spooky skeleton, you've dismembered them all.

My biggest problem with Wonderlands is the side quests.  The side quests aren't bad.  On the contrary, they are cool and take you to places you won't explore during the story.  Plus, some of the situations are amusing, like a mission where you help a villager woo someone by summoning a goblin, dressing it up, and getting it to recite a love poem.

The reason I'm 50-50 on them goes back to the writing.  With how relentless the dialogue is, completing some of these quests felt like a chore.  I wouldn't mind saving a town stuck on a beanstalk if Brick wasn't constantly reminding me about killing the source of the beanstalk.  Your mileage may vary on your tolerance for chattering chatterboxes, but for me, it was nails on chalkboard.

Beating the game took around 15 hours.  Completing the story mode unlocks the option to pick a new secondary class and an arena called the Chaos Chambers.  The Chaos Chambers let you fight waves of enemies.  In between rounds, you may pick modifiers that make fights easier or harder.  Your reward for enduring the chambers is crystals for buying rare gear.

It's not a fantasy game if there aren't any dragons.

The Chaos Chambers will feel familiar to those who remember the Circle of Slaughter arenas from previous games, and I think it's a great way to earn some loot and farm for experience.  If nothing else, you can complete any side quests you missed or hunt down collectibles like scrolls, dice, or marbles.  Borderlands games thrive on replay value, and Tiny Tina's Wonderlands offers plenty to keep you busy.

Graphics and Sound

Visually, the game's art direction is stellar.  I love the look and feel of Wonderlands, particularly the environments.  You'll explore medieval villages, sunny coastlines, gothic castles, and frozen tundra.  There a lot of little details to appreciate, like the pieces of food littered on the game board or how if you look closely in some spots, you can spot other locations far off in the distance.

I played the game on PS4 and while the game ran well, I did notice some texture pop-in when loading into a new area, plus some framerate dips during intense firefights.  Towards the tail-end of the game, I noticed my shields were always at half capacity.  I'm not sure why this happened, but I imagine patches will rectify these issues.

The voice acting is great and features some star power in the form of Andy Samberg, Wanda Sykes, and Will Arnett.  All three do a stellar job voicing their respective characters, and the rest of the performances are good.  The dialogue might be non-stop, but at least no one is phoning it in.

Closing Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by Tiny Tina's Wonderlands.  I expected plenty of looting and shooting, and the game delivers on both.  What I didn't expect was how integral the fantasy element would be.  What could have been a back of the box gimmick is a fully realized component.  After four games of exploring the wild west of space, it was refreshing to explore the Wonderlands.

The gunplay is familiar, but the additions like spells, melee weapons, and expanded character building help set Wonderlands apart and not feel like a copy and paste job.  Building your ideal warrior is made more satisfying with the option to swap between character classes, giving you a greater level of freedom than before.

All these skeletons wouldn't look out of place in Army of Darkness.

The meta-narrative of playing a game within a game means plenty of amusing sight gags and fourth wall breaks.  When the writing is good, it's good, and when it's bad, it's bad.  It's a step above Borderlands 3 because my eyes weren't constantly rolling from the cringey comedy or obnoxious characters, but the endless chatter wears you down.

Despite this, Tiny Tina's Wonderlands is a refreshing take on an established franchise and shows how unfamiliar concepts can be mixed with a familiar idea to create something remarkable.

Final Score: 8/10

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