Gearbox's Borderlands fantasy spinoff is out now, and we have some thoughts on how its developing the franchise.
I love the Borderlands series, even if I don't think part three is the same masterpiece as the first two installations. The absolute highlight I still think is the insane expansion Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep from 2013, where the adventure transitioned into a role-playing one led by Tiny Tina as dungeon master.
So I was really looking forward to playing Tiny Tina's Wonderlands, which is an entire game built on the same premise as Assault on Dragon Keep, but with even more elements drawn from the wonderful world of role-playing games and now fleshed out with elements from digital Japanese role-playing games. In a brilliant introduction, we assume the position of a role-playing game rookie who is so startlingly new to the experience that they have no colour, personality or anything else.
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This, of course, allows me to create myself in what is a much deeper system than we're used to from the Borderlands series. There are six character classes to choose from, as well as the classic role-playing approach of modifying your character's strength, intelligence and the likes. Overall, it's a very good system that also allows you to mix traits in a way not previously possible. Personally, I went for a primal Clawbringer and my partner chose to play as a Graveborn with lots of dark magic.
Half of the classes bring a companion to the battlefield in the same way that FL4K from Borderlands 3 did. This obviously seems to be a system Gearbox themselves are very fond of, but I have to say I wasn't completely sold in Borderlands 3 and the same is true here. This is a series whose battlefields can get downright hilariously intense and beyond three other co-players and a plethora of enemies, I don't think up to four computer-controlled companions adds anything but confusion really.
Well, after the initial presentation of the basics, I'm also introduced to the adventure's main antagonist, the Dragon Lord, superbly played by Will Arnett. One of the big problems I had with Borderlands 3, was that its main enemies were so bland, especially compared to Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2. The Dragon Lord has a personality all of his own, and the gifted Arnett enhances him further to unimaginable heights.
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Tiny Tina herself, as mentioned, is the game's dungeon master and is heard and seen quite a bit throughout the adventure. While the girl can get a bit much at times, it's still a wonderful character that adds to the sense of humour. She constantly tells you what's going on with great empathy, concocts the most macabre things (which you as the player have to put up with) and doesn't shy away from mocking you for questionable decisions. The fact that these are people who have actually spent a lot of time with classic paper/pencil role-playing games themselves shines through several times, and although I haven't played in a very long time myself, there are several things I recognise. Why not let the players redo a failed decision if it's good for the story, how should the dungeon master act when players want to do something completely different from what was intended, and surely it's ok to cheat sometimes?
The role-playing twists and fantasy theme are the main thing about Tiny Tina's Wonderlands. For example, there's an overworld in the manner of old Japanese role-playing games, and even to some extent random battles and the likes. The overworld map is a much more fun way to get between missions and places than using vehicle travel during far too long distances through wastelands. That said, there's no doubt that this is a Borderlands game in fantasy disguise. The fact that you reload your shotgun with magic powder or that your gun shoots arrows doesn't change the fact that gameplay-wise it's completely identical to Borderlands 3. Gearbox has tried to shake up the concept a bit by adding a dedicated melee weapon and magic (which are essentially the same thing as the class features in Borderlands 3), but in the end, even this changes things very marginally.
In other words, if you know your Borderlands, you'll quickly recognise it and appreciate it. Being a Borderlands veteran, while I know how they operate, I do find that the menus are explained far worse and it's not always crystal clear what a weapon or trait does. All of this may sound like criticism, of course, and I suppose it is to some extent, but at the same time I find the series phenomenally entertaining and its action gameplay absolutely top-notch. It may be old by now, but it's still fun to look around and find new weapons and equipment when battlefields are being looted. However, I would like to note the fact that the adventure is unfortunately not very polished. There are simply a few too many bugs and it doesn't run as well as it should. Nor do I find the music to be particularly memorable.
Also, I feel that the humour in the series hasn't been this good since Borderlands 2 (which it certainly still doesn't compare with). I won't spoil the pleasure for you to discover all the fun for yourselves, but there are several pop culture references and parodies that made me laugh out loud because they're just the right amount of clever and are allowed to pass by without the developers trying to rub it in your face - like the fact that the aforementioned random battles only occur in tall grass, which is a neat passing to the Pokémon series.
Ultimately, I think there's a lot that works very well in Tiny Tina's Wonderlands. The Dragon Lord voice actor is absolutely perfect, Andy Samberg and Wanda Sykes also contribute some nice discussion as fellow role-players, the world is fun to explore, the battles are action-packed, there are plenty of secrets to search for, and looting weapons never gets old. But it also feels like a game that would have benefited from being a little more user-friendly and more polished, and that it should actually have had even more gameplay innovations. After all, it's "just" Borderlands in fantasy packaging now, and I think it would have been reasonable to expect more.
7 / 10
Great action. Dragon Lord is brilliant. On-point humour. Loot system still fantastic. Interesting game world.
Lacks anything really new. Unpolished. Not intuitive.