Since the pandemic began, tabletop role-playing games have been having a moment, and actual-play performances of TTRPGs are having their moment within that. By good timing alone, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, the Borderlands spinoff set in an off-the-rails, fourth-wall-crumbling D&D-style campaign, has bullseyed two pop culture trends in one shot. It’s lucky, sure. It’s also pretty good.
It’s also a refreshing reintroduction to the things that made Borderlands such a personal obsession for me back in 2009. When the franchise debuted that autumn, Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski hailed Borderlands as “Diablo for a generation raised on first-person shooters.” Thirteen years later, they’ve perfected that vision by giving the franchise a richly detailed, high fantasy veneer, inside a canonically consequence-free science-fiction wrapper.
In case story matters to you — and if it does, you might be in the wrong department — Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands puts the player in a pencil-and-paper campaign under the direction of Tina, the adolescent munitions expert introduced in Borderlands 2, leering behind the DM’s screen. A couple of transitions, from the mental space of the bright and colorful Wonderlands to the fluorescent bowels of a crippled spacecraft, quickly establish the idea that everyone is role-playing to pass the time until they’re rescued. All of this has anchors in Borderlands 2’s unexpectedly delightful expansion Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep, in which the mischievous NPC also administers a game of “Bunkers & Badasses.”
For Wonderlands, players get Borderlands with an even bigger B&B treatment. While the strangely medieval guns, and their amusing reload animations, play as big and necessary a role as ever, melee attacks really shine as a tactic of first choice, more than a right-stick-click of last resort. Magic spells substitute for grenades and, thanks to your enemies’ instant and constant aggravation, are used much more frequently, and in closer quarters.
It’s a lot of fun. Elsewhere in the Borderlands series, if an enemy made it within melee or point-blank range, I felt like I’d failed in my ambition of being a marksman or an assault trooper. In Wonderlands, they get to meet the broadsword, kama, or morningstar I looted two levels ago. Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands ramps up the mobs’ rush attacks to encourage melee combat, which keeps encounters from breaking down into the kind of improvised cover-shooter stalemates I’ve seen in the first three games.
Still, this is a Borderlands game, which means it’s a class-based shooter, even if all classes can avail themselves of all gear at all times. The difference, in Wonderlands, is that players get to make a dual-class choice after the first third of the campaign. It takes some reading between the lines to understand the classes’ strengths and weaknesses at first. I chose The Clawbringer because, parsing out the class’ base attributes and advantages (not the character’s appearance — that is fully customizable) it conformed to the paladin/cleric standard: lots of muscle, and spell-casting backed by blunt force trauma. The rest of the game’s mirthfully named classes easily revealed their D&D basic edition origins: The Spellshot is a magic-user (or a sniper, if you’re working from a guns assumption). The Stabbomancer is a thief, or an assassin, and so on.
Rather than remaking their build entirely, shrewd players can use their secondary class specialization to supplement their preferred offensive abilities. (And to capitalize on the 10 hours they’ve already spent playing.) . For example, I started as a Clawbringer, added Spellshot as my secondary class, and became a Warcaster. I used the Spellshot’s perk tree to increase the strength of my magical attacks and ammo regeneration, but ignored its special ability — dual-wielding spells, which would have taken the place of the Clawbringer’s overwhelming hammer-smash attack. In other words, I had the option of continuing with my tank-like Clawbringer path (which I did) or switching to a faster-paced, damage-per-second build with the Spellshot’s additional sorcery.
In any case, I never felt like I’d chosen either the weakest, or the safest path, to get through Tiny Tina’s zany and almost incoherent narrative. That said, the game’s major pivots are still governed by a kind of soft-gating, in which you’re expected to be within two levels of a major zone’s average enemies. This can send the player jaunting from a freshly opened part of the delightfully rendered Overworld (an interactive tabletop map, with landmarks improvised from bottlecaps, cheetos, and other debris) back to Mount Craw, or another part that the narrative has completely abandoned, just to rank up enough to move the main story forward.
In the end, though, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands supports a wide-open, asynchronous, and asymmetrical exploration of its story and landscape by admitting, up front, that this is all a module in the hands of an emotionally adolescent sleepover host. Therefore, the overall story is a bog-standard tale of urgently retrieving a MacGuffin to save the realm — but refreshingly liberated from the ludonarrative dissonance of taking numerous desultory side quests. I can linger on any part of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands because in the end, the story is about three friends killing time while their spacecraft awaits repairs.
By not taking its time or its space too seriously, the game leaves the player free to romp, roam, and plunder it likewise. Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands thus breathes new, weird life into a franchise that had become terminally rote, and reminds me why guns-meets-Diablo was the perfect obsession so many years ago.
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands will be released on March 25 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. These impressions were written using an Epic Games Store download code provided by 2K Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.