Tiny Tina's Wonderlands review: A dynamic adventure that's as nutty as its namesake

PHOTO: Gearbox Software

With a hop, skip and a bunny full of explosives, it's finally time for us to set foot into Tiny Tina's Wonderlands, hosted by none other than the Borderlands' resident explosives expert.

Building on the immensely positive reception that developer Gearbox Software received for Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep in Borderlands 2, the team decided to go one step further and scratch the itch that the community never knew it had.

Much like its predecessors, Wonderlandsis an action-packed looter-shooter that combines conventional Borderlands gunplay with the ad-hoc fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons (or in this case, Bunkers and Badasses) and healthy doses of hilarity every step of the way.

At the time of writing, the game has been here for about a month and already it has seen a surprising number of developments. Among other things, the community has been quite vocal about the game's weapon balancing and the post-game offerings, all of which will be factored into the review as we go along.

Sights, sounds, and spells

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Aesthetically, the apple doesn't fall far from the Borderlands tree.

Wonderlands still features the same cell-shaded characters and environments that we've come to love, though, of course, the key difference lies in the medieval fantasy backdrop rather than the sci-fi flavours of the Borderlands games.

In general, the developers have been very playful when it comes to world design and aesthetics, but they've also poured an impressive amount of detail into it. 

The world, and by extension the game is like Tina herself — it's full of weird, crazy, and even random additions, such as erasers placed as makeshift bridges in the Overworld or having Brick flit about with fairy wings.

But in the midst of this apparent silliness, make sure not to miss the gorgeous desert temples, underwater shipwrecks, and majestic forests that surround you — it's hard not to be impressed at how well the team has been able to bring Tina's world to life.

Wherever you look, the Wonderlands are always very vibrant, energetic, and visually engaging, making it easy for players to get into the groove, especially when encountering the medley of interesting characters the game has on its payroll.

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Complementing the visuals is writing that's truly worth a mention. There are many games out there that are capable of making players laugh through witty or cynical dialogue, but Wonderlands is one of the few I have played that can do it and make it feel authentic at the same time.

In other words, the comedy is natural, and though the narrative does pull a few cliches out of its pocket from time to time, the amazing thing is that you're never really bored by it.

Of course, smart writing is nothing without a talented cast to pull it off, and I'm not just talking about Ashly Burch, who voices Tina, here.

If you've checked out some of the teaser trailers for the game, you'll also know that the likes of Will Arnett (Bojack Horseman), Andy Samberg (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and Wanda Sykes (Evan Almighty) are on the list as well, so it's quite star-studded as far as rosters come.

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And, might I add, they've done an impeccable job. Samberg fundamentally gets to keep the sass that has made his Brooklyn Nine-Nine character so iconic and apply it as Valentine, Arnett's Dragon Lord is basically a big softie at heart who's just unhappy with his lot in life, and Sykes helps to keep Valentine in line as the rational, straight-talking robot Frette.

Granted, I do feel that the shorter narrative doesn't allow for as much character development as I would like, but it's such a fun journey that this doesn't really dent the mood. 

Additionally, having Ciaran Strange return for the role of Paladin Mike is a pleasant surprise. 

After all, you'd never have expected that the streetsmart, foul-mouthed barista-turned-Atlas commander Lorelei was also a nerd who played Bunkers and Badasses, but if anything, it just highlights how amazingly well Gearbox has been able to stitch its extended roster of characters together into one cohesive universe. 

Once upon a Fatemaker

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The Wonderlands also deliver in terms of gameplay and combat. There's a lot more diversity now, both in terms of the game mechanics as well as customisation.

For example, not only are you able to change larger details of your character like body size and facial features, but you're even able to select different speech patterns and change the styling on different sections of your armour, so you can truly make a Fatemaker that's uniquely you. 

After you've done that, your subsequent journey as the Fatemaker is technically similar to a real-life D&D session with your friends. On your quest to defeat the Dragon Lord and save the kingdom, you'll level up your character, collecting better guns and equipment as you go, so it's quite literally what we love about Borderlands gameplay and then some. 

It's still punchy, slightly ridiculous, and as an added bonus, I feel you don't expressly need certain Legendaries to do well anymore - Epics and even Rares can be excellent even at higher difficulty tiers in Wonderlands, which benefits more casual players that don't appreciate the grind much.

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As for spells and melee, I've thoroughly enjoyed these additions because they bring a huge breath of fresh air to the otherwise recycled looter-shooter format.

Spells basically replace grenade mods and I like that they're much less static than the latter. Instead of throwing a grenade out and just watching the sparks fly, you'll now have to charge up your spells or channel them, which can be done while you're firing your weapon. 

Not only does this make the gameplay feel much more proactive and frenetic than it used to be, but for what it's worth, it looks much cooler as well. As for melee weapons, they're no longer just a side gig or part of an Action Skill.

Melee now has its own equipment slot, and you'll wield everything from axes to swords to fish (yes, fish) during your journey across the Wonderlands, allowing you to chain attacks and swap flawlessly between spell-casting, gunplay, and melee combat.

This means that combat as a whole is now amazingly (almost hilariously) fluid regardless of what class or gear you're using, so well done, Gearbox.

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Multi-classing is where players can really start to diversify their builds, though it's hard to say if it surpasses the conventional multi-tree system we're used to. Although you start with one out of six different classes, you can choose a second one at a later point during the campaign, allowing for five different variations for each class.

This is a huge change as it's basically the same as combining two different Vault Hunters, but in exchange for the increase in build diversity, each class is only provided with one skill tree to invest in.

Plus, you can opt to re-spec the secondary class at any time once you clear the main narrative, so don't worry too much about which one you select at first. 

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Speaking of skills and levelling, Gearbox has also added in conventional RPG stuff like stat points and character backgrounds, both of which I feel are a slight misplay on their end despite scoring 100 per cent for flavor.

It's mostly an issue with the balancing, honestly — some backgrounds, like Village Idiot are flat-out better than the rest from a practical standpoint due to the significant increase in Critical Hit damage (even some Spellshot builds use this!), as well as the fact that Dexterity doesn't quite matter if you're going to be aiming for weak spots in the first place — it is a shooter, after all.

In short, it's quite counterintuitive despite being a flavourful addition, and Gearbox should definitely review it down the line.

Happily ever after?

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The last point on the checklist concerns Wonderlands' end-game offerings, which is arguably where the game's biggest flaw lies. To put it simply, there's a relative lack of an "end-game" as we know it. 

First of all, unlike the mainstream Borderlands titles, there is no True Vault Hunter mode or New Game+ equivalent in Wonderlands, so once you hit the maximum level threshold of 40, that's where your character is going to stay, at least until Gearbox decides to increase it.

Coupled with the fact that the narrative is relatively short, you'll quickly run out of anything really interesting to do beyond grinding to the current maximum Chaos Level of 35 in the Chaos Chamber.

This system is kind of like Borderlands 3's Mayhem Mode albeit with less exponential power scaling, while the Chaos Chamber is a repeatable dungeon that's usually made up of seven stages.

Players have three lives to complete the run, and during the process, they can collect crystals from defeated enemies to exchange for loot afterward. Additionally, they can also opt to complete side objectives or enable different modifiers to make the run easier or more challenging. 

To give credit where it's due, the drops are generally quite generous, especially at higher Chaos Levels, and I love that you can select what kind of loot you want as well, making Wonderlands much less grindy than its predecessors.

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Although it certainly is unusual to have a Borderlands title without TVHM, another potential issue here is arguably one that Gearbox has yet to actually solve throughout the entirety of the franchise, so it's not exclusively a Wonderlands problem.

Given that enemy health scales up greatly as you ascend through the Chaos Levels, it also means that there's less and less wiggle room for fun builds to do well at higher tiers, and chances are you'll end up having to plug in a meta build and min-max at C35 or thereabout.

Of course, the loophole is that you're not forced to play at that tier (duh), and surprisingly, there is a lot of leeway even within the meta builds due to the different Enchantments you can have.

To provide a comparison, it's worlds apart from Borderlands 2 where you literally had to fire the Grog Nozzle at everything to play the game at OP8, but nevertheless, the problem remains somewhat there, lurking in the background.

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Still, this doesn't mean you can't have any fun with more unique builds — it's just that they won't match up as well, and since Borderlands is the kind of franchise that focuses on making players feel somewhat overpowered by the end-game, this can be a deal-breaker for some folks. 

As such, despite the fact that the team has done a better job of scaling the content (and equipment in general) than before, with the current lack of an end-game, not to mention that the first DLC offers middling rewards, Wonderlands, as it is, isn't quite able to make full use of its advantage over the previous games.

After all, better scaling doesn't really mean anything if a repeatable dungeon is the only significant thing you can do after clearing the campaign and side quests. 

Quest complete

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In spite of all this, the game is still immensely enjoyable, and no, it's not just because I'm already a big fan of Borderlands. I find that many shooters these days pour way too much effort into developing a PvP fanbase that they tend to overlook the appeal of a solid single-player campaign and experience, which is where this game excels.

I will concede that Tiny Tina's Wonderlands isn't quite able to match up to the mainstream games in terms of plot complexity or end-game diversity, but if it's any consolation the developers definitely have a lot of room to grow the latter.

In other words, I think it's still worth buying if you're looking for a game that's dynamic, entertaining, and gorgeous all at the same time. Between the hilarity of the writing and the gunplay-induced adrenaline rushes, there's also an odd sense of homeliness that permeates the atmosphere.

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In other words, you're playing a game with your friends for no other reason than because it's fun, and that, if nothing else, perfectly captures that spirit of conventional tabletop gaming and camaraderie that they're going for.

This article was first published in Hardware Zone.