I can often take months (or years…) to complete game campaigns, so finishing a campaign just 10 days after a game’s launch may actually be a speed record for me!
While I have played most of the Borderlands series, I’ve never played the Assault on Dragon’s Keep DLC for Borderlands 2 that inspired Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. So I had limited knowledge of what I was in for, beyond that the usual staples of humour, loot, and eccentric randomly-generated-guns would receive a tabletop twist.
This guess was correct, but I found that Wonderlands was a larger, denser, and even funnier game than I was expecting. Unfortuately, it was also a buggier game than I was expecting. But let’s talk about what Wonderlands is aiming for first, before going into specifics.
The context of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is that people inside the Borderlands universe play a tabletop game named ‘Bunkers & Badasses’. After travellers Valentine, Frette, and the Newbie crash their spaceship into a mountain, Tina lets the stragglers rest in her house until they’re rescued… but only if they play ‘Bunkers & Badasses’ with her.
The gameplay of Wonderlands takes place inside that round of ‘Bunkers & Badasses’. You play as the Newbie, who is controlling the main character of the ‘Bunkers & Badasses’ match, while Tina is the bunker master in control of the story, and Valentine and Frette act as the Newbie’s advisors. This structure gives the game chance to experiment with the usual Borderlands style and gameplay, while also leaving lots of room for messing with the fourth wall and packing the game with an even wider range of references and shout-outs than usual. So far I’ve found side-quests that reference media as far apart as The Secret of Monkey Island, The Smurfs, and Don Quixote.
I was surprised to find that Wonderlands is nearly a full-size Borderlands game. My main character reached the epilogue in just over 15 hours of game time. This means that, based on the completion times shown on HowLongToBeat.com, Wonderlands is around 2/3 of the length of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel or 2.5 times the length of Assault on Dragon Keep. Initially, I wondered whether an entire game narrated in Tina’s signature hyperactive style would get annoying, but there is enough interaction between the main trio (Newbie is silent), and enough dialogue from other characters, that players aren’t subjected to 15 hours of unrestrained Tina. In places, recurring characters from earlier Borderlands games even steal the show from Tina.
The plot of Wonderlands is lightweight but interesting, and the campaign isn’t rushed or overly-padded. At times I wasn’t sure if the plot was going to grow into a semi-serious story which aimed to get players thinking about the relationships between the layers of human player > in-game player > in game character, or whether it would just be a wacky adventure that would always choose ‘having fun’ over ‘making sense’. Given that its a Borderlands game, the latter option won out in the end, but the story still works well enough. It also contains some sympathetic moments that give fans more understanding of what goes on inside Tina’s mind.
The framing device of the ‘Bunkers & Badasses’ game creates an extra advantage: variety. This format means the game world can feasibly contain environments with a wider range of different biomes and styles. As a result, this game contains far brighter colours and more vibrant evironments than its predecessors, with much less reliance on drab deserts. This makes Wonderlands the best-looking and easiest to navigate game in the Borderlands family for me. The Overworld (hub world) also looks great, as it conveys the idea of navigating through an in-universe ‘Bunkers & Badasses’ campaign effectively. You can see objects from Tina’s house outside the boundaries of the table, and the map uses real-life objects in a way that feels accurate to a home-made tabletop map. For example, your character unlocks shortcuts across the Overworld map by punching bottlecaps so that they fall over and turn into bridges, while a river is actually soda from a toppled can.
The Overworld is also studded with sidequests that unlock access to more parts of the map, random encounters from enemies hidden in tall grass, collectible lore scrolls, and dungeons that reward players with shrine pieces. Finding all of the pieces for a shrine grants players a specific buff, such as the Shrine of Zoomios boosting your movement speed, or the Shrine of Grindanna boosting your XP gains. As the dungeon names alone demonstrate, the dialogue and narration in Wonderlands uses an entertaining blend of fantasy-speak, Gen-Z slang and general Tiny Tina-brand weirdness. For me, this combination works really well and the language lands much more often than it misses.
Players are incentivised to explore both the Overworld and regular worlds by Loot Dice – sparkling D20s that roll when attacked and add the rolled value to a character-wide loot score. This approach means that the more you explore and find Loot Dice, the more chance you have of finding that elusive orange equipment in every subsequent chest, random encounter, and enemy loot drop. A new addition to Wonderlands is the ability to enchant or re-enchant weapons yourself once you reach the endgame, which should make life easier for players who are trying to make weapons that perfectly complement their build.
Another change is a new set of character classes, stats, and skill trees. ‘Bunkers & Badasses’ uses 5 of the 6 familiar tabletop RPG stats – Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Constitution – but swaps Charisma out for an Attunement stat that governs how quickly you can use your skills. The 6 new classes each have a specialisation – these range from melee combat, to reliance on spells, to companion damage, to a focus on life-stealing Dark Magic – and a choice of two Action Skills.
After progressing through around 1/3 of the campaign, you unlock multiclassing. Equipping a secondary class grants you the passive buffs of that second class plus the ability to choose an Action Skill from either class (And yes, if you choose two classes that have companions, you get both companions at once.) Reaching the end of the campaign then lets you freely change your secondary class. While this multiclass system is clever, because it means that you don’t need to make 6 characters to try out all of the playstyles, the current level cap of 40 means that maxing out your main class will only leave you enough skill points to fill in part of the second classes tree.
Character equipment is also made fantasy-appropriate, with magic spells taking the place of grenades and wards replacing shields. By the end of the campaign, a character can equip 11 items: 4 guns, a melee weapon, an armour piece, a ward, a spell, an amulet, and two rings. This means there is a lot of room for stacking modifiers and buffs to incredibly high levels, and for equipping ludicrous combinations of modifers.
Those modifiers will be needed during the endgame, as well as on the higher difficulty levels. Rather than keeping the New Game+ system from earlier games, Wonderlands offers three difficulty levels at the start. I played on the lowest difficulty – Relaxed – which was definitely easier than earlier games but still had some challenging moments during boss battles and encounters with larger groups of enemies. One odd change, which is apparently true even on the Balanced and Intense difficulties, is that ammo crates are everywhere – I never came close to running out of bullets, without buying any ammo refills from vending machines or any ammo storage upgrades. So I’d recommend not buying ammunition upgrades, and saving all of your gold for backpack and lost loot storage upgrades instead.
Reaching the epilogue and unlocking the endgame activity – the Chaos Chamber – shows where the developers intend hardcore looter-shooter players to spend the most time. The Chaos Chamber is an extended version of the random encounter system that can throw any combination of encounters or bosses in the game at players. After each round, you will either get to choose your round type (normal vs objective) or choose to take a Curse that changes the state of play. These Curses also have difficulty levels; an Easy Curse can sometimes benefit players, while a Hard Curse will dramatically weaken the player and/or buff the enemies in return for much greater rewards. During each 20-minute run of the Chaos Chamber, players collect a run-specific currency that they offer to statues during the ending reward portal. Each statue is dedicated to a different type of weapon or equipment, and donating more currency to a statue results in more chance of them coughing up strong loot.
The main draw of the Chaos Chamber mode is that it unlocks Chaos Levels. Chaos Levels are game-wide difficulty increases that result in increased chance of better rewards from every ecounter. (This system is similar to World Tiers in The Division, or the Mayhem mode from Borderlands 3). As you unlock each Chaos Level, you gain more and more chance of recieving Chaotic loot. Chaotic loot can be of any rarity, and its appeal is the improved total stat boost it can provide; a Chaotic item can be up to 19% stronger than its normal version. Reaching Chaos Level 20 unlocks a further type – Volatile loot – which can be up to 40% stronger than its normal version.
While I don’t tend to enjoy the “grindy” aspects of looter-shooters, so I won’t be diving too deeply into the Chaos Levels, I really appreciate that the Chaos mode and Level is an easily-accessible menu toggle. Turning the Chaos mode on/off and adjusting the Chaos Level are simple, and applying changes only requires reloading the specific area rather than reloading the game or leaving and rejoining. Players need to unlock each Chaos Level one at a time by doing specific Chaos Trials in the chamber. While that could be seen as an artificial gameplay-lengthener, it prevents players from going straight to a really high Chaos Level then jumping into someone else’s game and flooding them with high-level enemies. To me, this mode seems like its been implemented sensibly, and it feels like a good way for dedicated loot-hunters to get even more enjoyment out of Wonderlands.
Wonderlands bounces between “Brilliant” and “Disappointing” faster than Tiny Tina’s attention span runs out. So ultimately, it splits the difference and lands in the Cool tier. Sometimes its a practiced refinement of the Borderlands gameplay that’s enlivened by the sillier fantasy tone afforded by its framing. But at other times, it feels like its not quite finished yet. Despite the credits listing a relatively large QA team, it doesn’t feel like Wonderlands was fully tested, especially in co-op. This is even more surprising given that Wonderlands has apparently been in development for over 10 years.
The bugs aren’t usually game-breaking: some are even entertaining. But my experience of playing co-op with friends meant having to work around glitchy information displays at nearly every turn, repeatedly needing all three of us to restart our games so that we could reconnect to each other, frequent lag issues in 3-player sessions, and dugeons becoming unfinishable on my solo world because I had collected their shrine pieces in co-op and so the game couldn’t work out if I owned them or not.
There is a lot to like about Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. The plot is entertaining, the campaign is just the right length for me, the dialogue and the plentiful references are consistently funny, and the Chaos Chamber mode allows for degrees of player-controlled difficulty that could create a lot of replay value. However, the frequent bugs- especially the way that these bugs mostly afffect the experience of playing co-op with friends – mean that Wonderlands currently feels stuck at almost brilliant.