It’s a bold move for Gearbox Software to spin an entire game out of a 9-year-old DLC, but Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, and its high fantasy setting, is a welcome change from Borderlands’ apocalyptic future.
Wonderlands builds on the foundations of Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, a 2013 Dungeons and Dragons-focused DLC for Borderlands 2 that saw its vault hunting protagonists dragged into an absurd game-within-a-game.
The series’ beloved princess of explosives, Tiny Tina (voiced brilliantly by Ashly Burch), returns to serve as Wonderlands’ chaotic dungeon master and omniscient narrator. And, like any good DM, she holds only a loose grip on the adventure, leading to all kinds of mischief and mayhem.
As proven by the well-received DLC, the setting for Wonderlands is an excellent fit for a series that embraces silliness. Goblins, instead of goons, spout Borderlands’ typically irreverent dialogue, and you’ll spend your time punching mountains of cool guns and gore out of dragons and trolls instead of masked psychos.
Join a revolution
In our preview, we visit Mount Craw, an optional zone in Wonderlands stuffed with side missions, collectibles, and challenges. One questline concerning a workers’ revolt organized by the ‘Goblins Tired of Forced Oppression’ - try not to groan at the acronym - courses through a particularly striking ice zone, which treats you to misty vistas, waterlogged castles, and grungy caves.
Icy tundra isn’t new for Borderlands fans, and Mount Craw is not a far cry from the environments seen in the rest of the series. Still, the cel-shaded art direction blends well with the spectacle-heavy fantasy environments of Wonderlands, making most combat arenas memorable. There are plenty of reasons to rip on the Borderlands series, but it's hard to ignore the pleasing consistency of its art style, which has been gorgeous for three console generations and looks better than ever here. Small details, like dice roll chests and stained glass decals on vending machines, will ground new players in this quirky world without alienating fans.
Wonderlands’ guns feel powerful and work thematically thanks to smart fantasy augmentations, such as the ring of runes that activate an ancient grenade launcher. Our only issue was parsing what weapon was best to use; weighing up the many statistical considerations was more time-consuming and hair-splitting than ever. Regardless, Gearbox’s flair for weapon and creature design shines in Wonderlands, with only a few alien-looking guns feeling like they could be holdovers from Borderlands 3.
Touch of class
Wonderlands will feature six classes and a character creator system at launch, a first for the series. Alas, for the demo, we could only play as the Stabbomancer or the Graveborn. The Stabbomancer was least impressive; focusing on stealth skills, melee, and critical hits, it evokes too many similarities to Borderlands 2’s assassin, Zer0. The Graveborn is more exciting, offering powerful abilities that sacrifice health to deal damage. It is a much better fit for the D&D world. Some of the new spells have fancy third-person animations, but ultimately, they don’t overcomplicate the core combat. The skill trees are also still slim enough to make you feel like you’re specializing in a way that could be valuable within a co-op troupe.
We can’t say for sure because our Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands preview was single-player only - a shame as Borderlands shines brightest with friends in tow. That, and the lack of access to the much-marketed game board overworld and campaign, makes it hard to get a sense of Wonderlands as Gearbox wants us to play it.
While the difficulty balancing was fair, some of Wonderlands’ quest design and bosses felt better-suited to co-op, but we overcame the challenge by playing tactically. While we died plenty of times because there was no one to pick us up, the ‘Death Save’ mechanic lets you self-revive if you kill an enemy while downed.
A little less conversation...
While the goblin worker’s revolt questline was entertaining, Wonderlands is at its best when skewering the busywork of D&D and formulaic video game side quests. In one mission, we were given the cookie-cutter optional approach to a mission - intimidating, attacking, or charming a hardy goblin - and, thanks to our seductions, ended up with a tough green-skinned bodyguard who would kill anyone who dared attack the source of their affections. Not your average end to a side quest.
Wonderlands won us over with moments like those, but its wordiness concerns us. Jokes are good, so long as they don’t keep us away from combat too long. Lengthy back and forth conversations gave too much opportunity for our guns to cool. That said, we felt appropriately called out when our character quipped that “Somewhere, somehow, someone was looking away from a big screen to look at a smaller screen,” while we were scrolling through Twitter on our phone.
At times, all the chatter can be confusing. Wonderlands is ostensibly a game of D&D played by the Borderlands characters somewhere on Pandora. So, as well as direct conversations with characters in Wonderlands, you’re also hearing overworld narration from Tiny Tina and quips from characters sitting with her around the tabletop, and your character, too.
We weren’t playing the story campaign, and Gearbox may handle the chatter better there, but the disparate dialogue sources don’t always mesh well.
Our time with Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands showed it has all of the fundamentals of a good Borderlands game and many stylistic changes to rejuvenate the series. Our demo was full of cool moments, such as dropping a meteor on a monster or trying to open a gun chest only for it to grow teeth and chase us around a cave. And, for those of you looking for a reliable new co-op adventure, this one is shaping up to offer plenty of familiar fun when it launches later this month.
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands is launching on PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PC, PS4, and Xbox One on March 25.
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Jordan Oloman is a journalist and documentarian with experience across the pop culture/tech spectrum writing reported features, reviews. news, guides, op-eds and more for a wide variety of outlets. He is also an affiliate streamer on Twitch and have previous experience in scriptwriting, podcasting, game consultation and creating video content.