I’m sure everyone has heard the old saying that “life’s a journey, not a destination.” That idiom could very well apply to the RPGs we all know and love. The vast majority of RPG stories I’ve experienced boil down to “party of adventurers save the world from a big bad villain,” but what makes them special and memorable are the journeys these heroes take. The places they explore, the people they meet, the quests they go on, the quotable lines they say, etc., are what we keep with us. It is with this in mind that I approach my review of the standalone Borderlands spinoff game Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands.
To answer the million-dollar questions before I get into it, no, you don’t need to have played Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep (a Borderlands 2 add-on that is now available as a standalone entity) nor any prior Borderlands games to enjoy Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. Still, a passing familiarity with Borderlands and Tiny Tina herself helps because there are lots of little nods that series aficionados will get.
The story’s outline is that our ebulliently eccentric explosives enthusiast Tiny Tina and her equally zany friends (one of whom is you, a newbie player) are in a fallout bunker playing a tabletop RPG called Bunkers & Badasses. Tiny Tina is the Bunker Master (the equivalent of a Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons) who sets you off on a heroic RPG quest to save the world from a god-tier villain who gets resurrected every few hundred years. Even with my limited knowledge of Tiny Tina and her role in the Borderlands series, her vibrant personality (which I can only describe as a confetti ball filled with fireworks) sets the game’s tone from the outset and made me excited for this madcap adventure. Most players will finish the game in about 20-25 hours, so it never overstays its welcome. The post-game bonus content is a massive randomized dungeon, so you can keep the mindless carnage going if you want, but I hope to see additional story content for the Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands IP in the future.
The narrative is presented in a stream-of-consciousness style, with Tiny Tina narrating a madcap series of events as you play through them, with the others adding colorful commentary. The banter is cleverly written but is never intrusive and always welcomed. Tiny Tina is an unpredictable Bunker Master, and the various main and side quests she puts you on turn an otherwise standard RPG narrative into a highly entertaining romp. I usually despise fetch quests and grinding in RPGs, but Tiny Tina made those enjoyable for me. I love that Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands presents itself as the vivid imagination of an endearingly buoyant 13-year-old girl who unabashedly lets her creativity color outside the lines. How could I not love a story where the queen my character swears fealty to is a majestically magical bejeweled equine being named Butt Stallion?
The fantastic writing is brought to life by stellar voice acting. As expected, Ashly Burch is par excellence as Tiny Tina, and it was a hoot having her narrate my fantasy quest life. Andy Samberg and Wanda Sykes play Tiny Tina’s other Bunkers & Badasses companions, and they really get into their roles as well. Several other heavy-hitters voice key characters, but the real stars are the various voice actors cast as your player character. Yes, in a very extensive character creation module (which I will discuss later on), players can choose from a variety of voices for their character, and hearing their commentary brings the experience to life.
The music is sparse and nothing to write home about, but that works in the game’s favor. The real meat of the sound design lies in the aforementioned voice acting and crisp sound effects that immerse you into the world and its battles. A Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Cross-tier soundtrack would be a needless distraction from the overall experience. So, yes, this is one of the only times I will say that the lacking music is a point in the game’s favor!
Unlike in other Borderlands games where you play as a preset character, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands has you create your character from scratch, as you would in a tabletop game. Although my experience with tabletop RPGs is limited, my favorite part was always creating my character, and Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands recaptured that joy for me. The character creation module in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands allowed me to painstakingly craft myriad details in my character’s appearance, and it would take me forever to discuss all of those details. Less detailed are the class and backstory choices, but they are amusing and fit well within Tiny Tina’s mindset. Classes have wacky names like “Stabbomancer” or “Brr-Zerker”; you can definitely find one that works with your playing style, and eventually, you choose a secondary class. Also cool is the ability to choose between he, she, or they pronouns for your character. I picked “they” for my character, and while the overarching script is generally good about pronoun choice, some NPCs did refer to my character as “m’lord.”
Borderlands is well known as a first-person looter-shooter series, and Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is no exception. The game has a veritable smorgasbord of firearms to shoot down waves of baddies with and tons of treasure chests filled with goodies. The series is not known for melee combat, but I found it well-implemented and incredibly useful in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. Guns are great (and, yes, guns are fair game in Tiny Tina’s fantasy world), but melee weapons like axes and swords are fantasy RPG staples, and I found thwacking enemies just as fun as filling them full of magic bullets.
The controls are stellar. Whether you prefer using a gamepad, a mouse + keyboard combo, or even hybrids of gamepad + keyboard + mouse, the controls are smooth, intuitive, and not once did I have to consciously think about them as I immersed myself in the game. There are plenty of options for alternate key mapping and gamepad layouts, but the well-designed defaults worked well for me. I also loved that I could seamlessly switch between control methods on the fly. The only ding I could lob against the gameplay is that it doesn’t reinvent the wheel as far as Borderlands-style games go, but when a game executes as tightly as this, I cannot complain.
Managing loot, equipment, character stats, quest logs, and location mapping (with some lovely fast travel options) are made easy and intuitive thanks to a nicely designed menu system that both looks stylish and is ergonomic to use. I preferred navigating menus with the mouse and keyboard, but they function fine with a gamepad. Adapting FPS games to gamepads is always a challenge, but Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands does it very well, so both PC and console gamers will have a blast with this one.
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is not an open-world sandbox game. While there are plenty of sidequests to embark on and exploring off the beaten path is encouraged, game progression follows a more linear structure. While die-hard fans of open-world, sandbox-style FPS games may not like this, this progression style suits a longtime JRPG fan like me. Although there is no mistaking Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands for anything other than a Borderlands game, it is very much an RPG and progresses like one, where you traverse an overworld to towns and dungeons/hostile areas. In the third-person overworld, you walk your avatar through hills and valleys to the various towns, dungeons, and other locations along the way. The vivid colors pay homage to JRPG overworlds, while the use of household objects like bottle caps, push pins, or even the errant cheese curl to represent locations or obstacles gives a nod to tabletop gaming. As with the Pokémon games, random encounters do not occur in the overworld unless you walk through the tall grass.
Random encounters? Yes, Tiny Tina includes those in her Wonderlands. When a random encounter is triggered, you find yourself in a semi-enclosed FPS arena where you run around and kill a whole bunch of cannon-fodder baddies and obtain loot. Engaging in battles builds EXP, and sometimes random enemies give good item drops. It is possible to cancel out a random encounter when it materializes on the overworld by pressing the punch button/key (which can also be used in the field to thwack certain obstacles), but doing so does not net you any EXP. Gaining EXP for eliminating an encounter before it materializes would be a nice addition for the easiest difficulty setting (the game has multiple difficulty levels to choose from) to help speed things along for those just playing for the story, but its absence is no big deal.
The dungeons are far larger and longer hostile areas with all kinds of baddies to brawl in frenetic FPS action. Even if you die in a dungeon, the enemies you’ve previously killed stay dead, and you keep your earned EXP, so progression never feels like you’re going one step forward and two steps back. Of course, getting resurrected at the last checkpoint you passed costs a little gold, but it’s literally a small price to pay. I also like the “Death Save,” where if you kill an enemy while your health is critical, you get to cheat death and keep fighting. There is no manual saving, but the game autosaves frequently enough that I never felt the need to take myself out of the action to save.
There is simply no denying that Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands has style oozing out of its pores. Character designs have tons of flair, and even the most basic of enemies look cool, too. The shading used on player characters, NPCs, and enemies looks slick. Whether they’re in your face or far away, they look great. The immersive environments look quite smooth, and several have creative touches that could only come from the brain of Tiny Tina. Of course, we can’t stand around enjoying the scenery too long because the action comes fast and furious, and I experienced no slowdown on my rig.
It is abundantly clear that the creative team behind Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands are massive RPG fans who have crafted a joyous blend of Borderlands mayhem with RPG epic-ness. I loved the story, characters, gameplay, and production values of this game. I should also mention that while I primarily played this game single-player, multiplayer co-op is supported because looter-shooters and tabletop RPGs are more fun with friends. First-person shooter games are not my preferred genre, but after playing Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, I would be game to try out a mainline Borderlands game and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. For making me a new fan of something outside my wheelhouse, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands wholeheartedly earns a spot as one of my favorite games of 2022.