Tabletop role-playing games hold a special place in my heart. Growing up, I spent countless summer evenings in darkened rooms hidden in high-flying adventures filled with might and magic. It’s a pastime I miss dearly.
Enter “Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands,” the latest spin-off from Gearbox Software’s “Borderlands” franchise and just the sort of fix this delinquent “Dungeons and Dragons” player needed, even if it arrived in a much different package than expected.
In “Wonderlands,” players find themselves stranded in the titular character’s cave with companions Frette and Valentine. Their spaceship is out of commission thanks to Valentine’s questionable piloting skills and the only way to pass the time is to play “Bunkers and Badasses” — the video game’s version of “D&D” — with Tiny Tina.
Things start out predictably enough: You are the hero, or the Fatemaker, and you have been tasked by — and I’m not making this up — Queen Butt Stallion with saving the Wonderlands from the machinations of the Dragon Lord. Those familiar with the franchise will recognize the crystalline bicorn from “Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep.”
The adventure, however, quickly goes off the rails when the Dragon Lord, Tiny Tina’s most enduring creation, gains autonomy and goes off script to write a new ending that doesn’t involve his defeat at the hands of the heroes. This sets a rolling tale in motion. No spoilers here, but the player enjoys a unique perspective through it all — the antagonist communicates directly with their character de ella while Tiny Tina struggles to regain control of a plot she has quite literally lost.
The writing is weird and wonderful, like in other “Borderlands” games, and perhaps the best it’s ever been.
In the opening act, for example, players come face to face with the Dragon Lord following his resurrection by a minion. Challenged by the player’s character to end things then and there, the Dragon Lord casually remarks that the hero never beats the villain in the first quest, before making what would otherwise be a predictable escape.
“Wonderlands” also lovingly skewers other high-fantasy RPGs including “The Witcher.” In a side quest fittingly called “The Ditcher,” Gerritt of Trivia — a stand-in for Geralt of Rivia — saddles the player with tasks he deems necessary but beneath his status as a fabled hero. Once the busy work is out of the way, Gerritt shows up to proclaim his awesomeness and slay the eldritch creature you’ve (sort of) teamed up to put down once and for all, but he gets pulverized instead. It’s a payoff that’s telegraphed well in advance but is nonetheless delightful to watch unfold.
Players are given a considerable amount of freedom in how to approach the game. There are three difficulty settings — easy, medium and hard — and half a dozen classes from which to choose. Those classes range from up close and personal specialists such as the Stabbomancer and Brr-zerker to long-distance damage dealers such as the Spore Warden and Spellshot. There’s also the Clawbringer and Graveborn, both of which feature companions who fight alongside the player characters.
Eventually, players can select a second class. In my first play-through, I started as a Clawbringer and later added the Spore Warden class. This gave me the ability to toggle between powerful melee and ranged attacks, as well as provided access to two companions — a fire-breathing wyvern and a poison-spewing anthropomorphic mushroom.
“Wonderlands” offers the player a blank canvas on which to create their ideal character. They even start out gray, a reference to the unpainted figurines that are used in tabletop RPGs. Just about every aspect can be customized, including preferred pronouns.
The voice acting is another highlight. Ashly Burch reprises her role as the frenetic Tiny Tina, Will Arnett makes the Dragon Lord more relatable than repugnant, and Andy Samberg and Wanda Sykes lend their comedic chops to Frette and Valentine.
As a “Borderlands” veteran, “Wonderlands” felt instantly familiar. Despite its fantasy setting, the game remains a first-person shooter at its core. This reality is even acknowledged by Valentine the first time the player’s character picks up a handgun thinly disguised up as a crossbow. But the weapons — and there are lots of them — are certainly fantastical, ranging from Ghostbusters-type proton blasters that belch beams of poison energy to submachine guns that rapidly spew rows of freezing projectiles.
Gunplay is fast and fluid and I found it better to shoot from the hip than aim down sights. Taking time to line up a shot often felt too risky, particularly during tougher encounters. This is a game that rewards constant movement and good situational awareness.
The game isn’t without its flaws, however, and inventory management is at the top of the list. Like past entries in the looter-shooter series, “Wonderlands” throws oodles of gear at the player. Sorting through the various weapons, armor and magic items can be tedious, especially in the early going, as your backpack quickly fills up with items. Figuring out what to keep and what to discard slows the game to a crawl.
Some of the overworld activities are also a bit bland. These include enemy encampments and dungeons, which can be farmed for experience and loot but offer the same cookie-cutter experience of fighting off a wave or waves of enemies. There is some added incentive for clearing dungeons, however, as they often provide rune pieces that can be used to unlock perks such as increased movement speed.
Those activities unnecessarily pad out a game that already has a lot to do. The main quest consists of 10 chapters, plus an end-game activity that lets players test their skill in more difficult versions of the aforementioned dungeons. Players can expect to spend 15 to 20 hours playing through the story and dozens more completing the numerous side quests.
“Wonderlands” ultimately captures the flavor of tabletop role playing games in weird and wonderful ways, and while it’s from inventory management issues and some bloat, it isn’t one to be missed, especially if you’re a suffer fan of previous “Borderlands” ”games.
‘Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands’
3 stars out of 4
Platform: Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC
Rating: T for Teen