People Want Less Borderlands in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands And Way More DnD
Gearbox pulls a trick in the first minutes of Borderlands 2’s Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep DLC (which you can buy here, by the way), that quickly gets you on board. Tiny Tina is the DM for her vault hunter friends in a DnD session. As the player, you’re gazing through the eyes of one of the characters in the universe she’s portraying. However, there is a disagreement over Tina’s creative approach. Why would it be a beautiful day if the Sorcerer razed the town? And what is the significance of the rainbow in the sky? Tina has to make some last-minute tonal tweaks, plunging the planet into endless gloom in front of your eyes.
It’s a grabber of a moment on a visual level, but think about the level of conceptual abstraction its developers just got you vibing with: you’re a DnD character inside another character’s imagination, inside a video game, watching her change your reality in order to appease the suspension of disbelief for her friends, some videogame NPCs.
That new level of fourth-wall breaking and genre playfulness defined the DLC, and made it popular enough to bring us here, to a standalone game. Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands feels something akin to Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel in scope rather than a mainline sequel, but in imagination and tonal confidence it’s way ahead of that butt-stomping lunar diversion. It’s basically a comedy improv class, expressed as a looter shooter.
Spearheaded by a squeaky firebrand named Jar, the local goblins are revolting and it’s up to you to shoot things to further their Marxist cause. That means exploring a Euro-medieval fantasy world infused with Borderlands-isms like fast travel teleporters, vending machines, and boxes full of loot every 4.5 paces.
Strip away the forest glades and olde English-sounding weapon names and you’re still playing within the usual Borderlands template, employing ranged weapons and character abilities on jabbering enemies who spill numbers out of their heads when you shoot them, and running up to switches with quest markers on them and pressing ‘use’ to make the story go forwards via disembodied voiceover exposition. As ever, the magic isn’t just in the mechanical satisfaction of the shooting – still excellent, by the way, and largely unchanged from the last main game – but also in the meaning Gearbox puts on what you’re doing.
I thought I was too old and bitter to care much about some goblins cheering in a cleared out camp as they raise a G.T.F.O. flag in the name of liberty, but I’m happy to discover otherwise. I wouldn’t have expected to find Tina’s scenery chewing delivery so funny for so long, as she pops up to move the story along to her DnD audience. Again, wrong and glad about it.
BORDERLANDS SPINS A GOOD YARN, AND THE DND CONCEIT GIVES IT PLENTY OF MATERIAL TO RIFF ON
Of the two classes I messed with, Stabbomancer feels far and away more satisfying. Unleash their special and they become invisible and deal out nothing but crits for an extended period. Spend some points on minimising ability cooldown and buffing your damage while moving, and you can basically play as a trigger-happy version of Garrett the Master Thief. His other special is a sword you throw out that hovers in place dealing its own melee damage for a while, which wasn’t as fun but does feel Wonderlands-appropriate. And then there’s the massive fireball you can call down from the sky at will, on a short cooldown, when you’re feeling like this whole stealth thing’s overrated.
The Graveborn’s a little more complex to play with. Her special involves sacrificing a bit of health to deal a massive AoE attack, while she’s also got a summon that deals a small amount of damage for her, like Mordecai’s Bloodwing in previous games. Later levels grant additional summons, and one of her skill pools stacks damage dealt with the more summons she has active, so she’s a bit of a traditional DnD ranger-monk hybrid.
These classes, like the missions we played and the loot descriptions, are all thematically cohesive in a way that feels like settling down into an expertly crafted antique chair. You’re in good company with Borderlands spinning a yarn, and the DnD conceit gives it plenty of material to riff on. Tina does a fine job of playing with your expectations and being all post-ironic, which is at least half of why I enjoyed the original DLC so much.
Where it does feel lacking, though, and just a touch mind you, is in committing to the bit. I want my paradigm to be shifted more dramatically and frequently by Tina’s improvised DMing. I want melee weapons to feel more emphasized in this fantasy setting. I want more new features that feel totally out of whole cloth, and more specific mechanically to this setting. Maybe it’s in there and I just haven’t seen it. But despite my undeniable enjoyment with this preview slice, I did catch a sense of Gearbox trying to squeeze the most out of the resources it already has rather than fully committing to fleshing out new ideas.