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Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands needs less Borderlands, more DnD

Gearbox's return to one of Borderland's best DLC worlds is great fun, but we wanted its titular DM to mess with us a lot more

An adorable DnD-inspired goblin from Tiny Tina's Wonderlands

In the opening minutes of Borderlands 2’s Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep DLC (which you can buy here, coincidentally), Gearbox pulls a trick that immediately gets you on board. Tiny Tina is the DM in a game of DnD for her vault hunter mates. As the player, you’re looking at the world she’s describing, through the eyes of one of the characters within it. But there’s a squabble about Tina’s creative direction. Why would it be a lovely day if the Sorcerer just trashed the town? And why is there a rainbow in the sky? Tina has to improvise some tonal changes on the fly, plunging the world into eternal night before 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.

The preview build made available to PCGamesN features two classes, the Graveborn and Stabbomancer, and a few hours of gameplay that feels like it’s from the first third of the game.

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.

Tiny Tina's Wonderlands Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands Fanatical $59.99 Pre-order Network N earns affiliate commission from qualifying sales.

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.

An overview of a snowy level in Tiny Tina's Wonderlands

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.

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.

A DnD character shooting a mechanical dragon that's breathing fire in Tiny Tina's Wonderlands

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.

Tiny Tina's Wonderlands Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands Fanatical $59.99 Pre-order Network N earns affiliate commission from qualifying sales.