Gearbox’s move into full on D&D parody is a love letter to pen & paper RPGs…with guns. A brilliant voice cast and excellent use of Tiny Tina make Wonderlands an absolute winner.
When I previewed Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands (Wonderlands from here on), I thought it was a decent enough Dungeons & Dragons reskin of Borderlands. It felt as though it may have started as DLC for Borderlands 3 before growing beyond that scope and becoming its own thing. And that may have been the case, but to write Wonderlands off as just another Borderlands DLC is unfair.
Sure, initially, it’s hard to get past the similarities. It is — sort of — set in the same universe, uses the same visuals and (some of) the same characters and it very clearly uses the same basic gameplay mechanics. But, after playing for a little while, you do begin to notice the differences.
Subtle at first but gradually more noticeable until you feel that while Wonderlands is most definitely part of the Borderlands family, it’s its own thing. And that thing is awesome.
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands Review
Like Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep before it, Wonderlands is a depiction of the events of a game of Bunkers & Badasses (the in-universe version of D&D) with Tiny Tina (Ashly Burch) as the Bunker Master, Valentine (Andy Samberg) as one party member, Frette (Wanda Sykes) as another, the Dragon Lord (Will Arnett) as the antagonist and you, the player as the Newbie, aka the Fatemaker. Right away, Gearbox makes great use of the game within a game setting, having Tina change things on the fly to better suit the game and making commentary on the nature of playing games and what the situations those games depict actually mean. I was surprised by the depth of the storytelling, especially considering the number of corny, dad jokes and lame/funny Borderlands puns were on display.
Gerrit of Trivia, the Ditcher for example.
That being said, while I’m not opposed to Borderlands humour and tone, I found it was actually far more suitable and worked far better in Wonderlands than it ever had before. Perhaps because the storyteller, in this case, is Tina, a teen we know and love and also understand has a wounded soul. With Tina behind the wheel, Gearbox can get away with terrible jokes and even poke fun at how bad they are by having Valentine and Frette react flatly to Tina’s attempts to make them laugh and vice versa. All three leads do an incredible job with their respective roles and they play really well off of one another. Andy Samberg, in particular, is a delight for the sheer delight in his voice whenever anything happens. When Valentine got excited for pirates, I got excited for pirates because of Samberg’s voice acting.
Arnett leans more into BoJack Horseman territory for his portrayal of the Dragon Lord, but to say more would spoil too much. Just know there’s far more to the Dragon Lord than meets the eye and as the end drew near, I wasn’t sure if he actually was the bad guy, even as I loaded into the final boss fight against him.
Wanda Sykes’ Frette is a great foil for the manic energy of Burch’s Tina and Samberg’s eager Valentine. More content to think the situation through and throw shade at Valentine, Frette is often a refreshing change of pace which is needed to break up the otherwise, fairly full-on energy of the storytelling. Together, all four characters and respective actors absolutely deliver, as do each and every member of the supporting cast. It’s rare for a video game (especially) to not feature at least one character you can’t stand to hear from, but Wonderlands manages it. I could just sit and listen to Tina, Valentine and Frette play Bunkers & Badasses for hours.
The basic plot of Tina’s game of Bunkers & Badasses (and therefore the main plot of Wonderlands) is that the Dragon Lord has stolen the Sword of Souls and is threatening to use it to enslave the world. The heroes, at the behest of Queen Butt Stallion, head off on a quest to stop Dragon Lord and save the world. The metaplot, which takes place almost entirely through voiceover, is about Tina, Valentine and Frette and why they’re playing the game. And then, there’s an overarching metaplot that encompasses everything. There are multiple layers to Wonderlands’ storytelling and Gearbox should be applauded for how they’re told and how they’re never confusing. Each of these three intertwined, yet quite different, stories is clear and well-told, despite occurring at the same time as the others.
Being set in a fantasy world, also allows Gearbox to go wild with the settings, enemies and themes. Not that Borderlands and sci-fi have ever been restrictive. Wonderlands just seems to let the developer stretch some different creative muscles and maybe even scratch and itch. It’s very clear from the depictions of everything in Wonderlands that the devs at Gearbox are big fans and tabletop RPGs. Wonderlands runs the gamut of fantasy settings including forests, swamps, deserts, medieval towns, dungeons and more. But it’s more than just the locations and enemies, it’s a knowledge of tabletop games and how they work that makes Wonderlands so great.
A perfect example is a side-quest that happens late in the game. When you pick up the quest, Tina excitedly tells the party how happy she is because she’s worked so hard on the quest and can’t wait for the players to see what happens. Once you arrive at the location of the quest to speak with Merek, the NPC, your eyes are immediately drawn to a character in a big blue hat named “Blue Hat Guy.” Both Valentine and Frette comment on him and his hat right away and refuse to believe Tina when she tries, in vain, to explain he’s just an NPC in a blue hat. From that point on the entire quest is derailed as you chase down Blue Hat Guy, hitting him and attacking him for being suspiciously unsuspicious and for not giving you any straight answers. I won’t give the quests ending away, but I was laughing out loud the entire time. Anyone who’s ever played D&D or any pen and paper RPG for that matter will have been in this very situation. DMs will especially get a kick out of it.
As for gameplay, Wonderlands uses Borderlands as a template so if you can imagine that, you’re halfway there. Where it differs is in its uses of classes, cross-classing, spell casting and weaponry. Yes, there are guns in this ‘fantasy game.’ Even Tina addresses it early on, simply claiming that it’s more fun with guns. She’s not wrong.
Instead of selecting one of a number of premade characters, in Wonderlands you’re free to create your own character, however you like. There are a huge number of selections to make from face and features to skin tone, hairstyle, voice, pronouns and more. Once you’ve created the Fatemaker of your choosing, you select a class and off you go. At a certain point in the campaign, you’ll get the chance to multiclass, selecting any of the remaining classes. Here’s where you get to be creative and figure out your play style and how you want to interact with this world. Each of the classes has a specific ‘type’ so you know what you’re getting into. The Stabbomancer, for example, is the rogue, while the Spore-Warden is something of a Druid. These two together make one hell of a critical hit machine and this combination has been my chosen way to play. So much so that while I gave the Clawbringer a go, and it was pretty fun, I couldn’t go past the outrageous DPS I could do as the Stabbomancer/Spore-Warden; or as Wonderlands calls it, ‘The Mistdancer.’
With two classes, you gain access to four different action abilities. Unlike Borderlands’ ultimate, these are meant to be fired off far more frequently. And when you combine them with the right skills from each respective skill tree, you can build an incredibly deadly and very unique type of character. My Mistdancer invested heavily in critical hit chance and damage as well as increasing firing and movement speed on dealing damage and getting kills. It means that I move at almost twice the speed of a normal character while constantly hitting crits and turning baddies into puddles of goo.
You are locked into your first class, even once you reach the end game, but you can respec your second class and all your skill and Hero Points once you finish the campaign. Skill Points are used to unlock new abilities and level them up, while Hero Points can be spent on Strength, Dexterity, Attunement etc. Each of these attributes changes a specific stat, so if you want more critical hits, invest in Dex. If you want more powerful crits, invest in Strength. It’s a great way to give players more options and more control over their character. Once you reach level 40 though, you stop levelling up and stop earning Skill and Hero Points. Instead, you start earning Myth Ranks. With each Myth Rank, you gain one point that can be spent across four different groups of stats to level yourself even further. Players are going to be investing a lot of time into their characters and even more so should they choose to play multiple times.
Like Borderlands, the shooting in Wonderlands is absolutely rock-solid. Gearbox has it down to fine art at this stage and just playing feels great. As usual, the guns are a mix of winners and losers, depending on your play style. There are a huge number of combinations of guns too, though you will see similarities as you play. The hunt for that God Roll is still very much an enticing reason to keep playing though and some (not all) of the weapons in Wonderlands are far superior to their Borderlands counterparts. Being a critical hit dealing death machine, I favoured Blackpowder weapons (Wonderlands‘ version of Jakob’s) though all of your favourites are there in one form or another.
This is lucky because 90-95% of Wonderlands is combat. Everywhere you go, enemies will swarm and crawl all over you. The action can and will get incredibly hectic with colours, lights and effects popping off all over the screen. You do get moments of respite but not very often. The Overworld is one such place. Here, your character moves in third-person like a tabletop figurine. It’s a cute way to get around the game and tie it back into the fact that it’s a game within a game. It also allows you to travel between levels as well as dive into dungeons, engage in random encounters and find collectibles. Dungeons and random encounters take place in self-contained arenas that serve as practice runs for the endgame; Chaos Chamber.
Here, you jump into a random encounter and once completed opt to modify it with a curse than makes things easier or harder. Depending on your choice, you might get better loot. It’s a rogue-lite crossed with Diablo and it is absolutely the best endgame Borderlands has ever had. It’s focused and addictive and maddening and very moreish. In addition to the Chaos Chamber, there are other features and mechanics you don’t unlock until after the credits roll. Suffice it to say, Wonderlands, while not technically a “Game as a service,” is one you’ll be able to keep playing long after you’ve defeated the Dragon Lord.
When Borderlands 3 was released, while it was a success, it was starting to feel a little long in the tooth and maybe like the formula had been played out. With Wonderlands, Gearbox has shown there’s plenty of life left in the franchise and done so with aplomb. Not to mention that much of the development occurred from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes the results that much more impressive.
If you’re a fan of Borderlands, you’ll love Wonderlands. If you’ve always been cool on Borderlands, but you’re a D&D fan, chances are you’ll love Wonderlands.
I absolutely adore Wonderlands and my hat goes off to Gearbox for dropping this straight up, instant classic so early in the year. 2022 has already been an insanely good one for gaming and with Wonderlands, it’s about to get a whole lot better.
Our Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands review is based on the PC version. A digital code via the Epic Games Store was provided by 2K.