Review | ‘Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands’ nails the feeling of playing Dungeons & Dragons, warts and all

I have spent over 3,500 hours in the universe of the Borderlands franchise. From the excitement of the first two games to the myriad sequels and spinoffs that range from amazing (“Tales from the Borderlands”) to mediocre at best (“Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel”), the franchise has had its ups and downs. Among the franchise’s brightest moments was the D&D-themed “Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep” downloadable content for “Borderlands 2” — which bore the distinction of being the most critically acclaimed DLC for the series’s most critically acclaimed game. “Wonderlands” is the successor to that DLC in almost every way: the fantasy world, the funny and creative writing, the interesting new weapons and gear. But this time around, the idea is more fleshed out and the integration of D&D has a greater impact on the game itself.

When it comes to D&D, “Wonderlands” goes all in. The hallmarks are all here: Your Strength stat reflects your critical damage, your Constitution reflects your character’s health and so forth. The game fits in all the terminology you might throw around during a night playing with friends, but with a Borderlands twist. This extends to the gameplay as well: “Wonderlands” takes the Borderlands frame and builds on it with D&D elements. This includes character customization, six available classes instead of the four that are standard to Borderlands games, a revamped melee system and the reintroduction of spells.

As a newbie (the game’s term, not mine), you’ll start by making your character in an in-depth customization tool new to the Borderlands franchise. Where all previous Borderlands games had players selecting from a roster of premade characters, “Wonderlands” gives you full control: Choose your race, fine-tune your musculature, even pick a backstory that adjusts your starting stats. Then, after some party backstory introducing you to bunker master Tiny Tina and fellow players Valentine and Frette, you are dubbed the “Fatemaker.” Tina, Valentine and Frette will talk to you throughout your game, acting as your virtual D&D buddies. Although some of the comedy hinges on familiarity with previous games in the franchise, “Wonderlands” still makes many jokes that both D&D veterans and curious new players are likely to find funny.

The gameplay is traditional Borderlands. You level up by killing enemies with your weapons, and the stronger the enemy, the more experience you get. As you go through the cities and caves in the game, killing powerful enemies and finding specific chests grants you better loot. Where the mainline Borderlands games have shields, “Wonderlands” re-skins them into “wards” to fit the fantasy theme. Instead of class mods and buff items, you have magic armor and rings that increase your class skills and give you benefits like health regeneration and flat damage buffs. And instead of just a default punching animation, the game introduces a new equipment slot for melee weapons, ranging from swords and axes to morning stars and even baseball bats. Where previous Borderlands games had items or builds that prioritized meleeing your enemies, this makes it a more ubiquitous feature — even if only specific builds can maximize its potential.

As for grenades, that slot in your inventory is now entirely used for spells, something that was introduced in the “Borderlands 2” DLC. Back then, those spells were just rare grenades that functioned like popular spells from D&D lore; “Wonderlands” turns all grenades into spells, by contrast. There are spells for each elemental damage type in the game, and they range from exciting incantations for shooting elemental daggers to more utilitarian ones, like barriers that negate damage and hurt nearby enemies.

After the first mission, the game introduces the Overworld, a massive world map on which a miniature of your character scrapes about, the game’s way of leaning further into the tabletop aesthetics of D&D. The process of finding dungeons, shortcuts, sidequests and enemies is all a big part of leveling up and progressing the story in “Wonderlands.” And when the story ends, the game offers Chaos Chambers, a “Hades”-esque, randomly generated sequence of dungeons to grind and provide players with plenty of loot outside of the many quests within the world.

From a gameplay perspective, the additions of spells and a revamped melee system work great with the six available classes. It gave me the feeling of looking at a character sheet alongside the D&D “Player’s Handbook,” wondering what kind of builds I could make. The Brr-Zerker — a class focused on frost damage and spinning like a Canadian Beyblade into enemies — was a default build that I still enjoyed. Trying out the Graveborn class and getting a Demi-Lich familiar in-game who both helped me attack and healed me in combat was super useful in boss fights. Each class has its own skill tree, with two options for what your action skill (e.g. the spinning Brr-Zerker move Dreadwind) can be. Plus, as you level up, the introduction of multiclassing, another D&D mainstay, means that you can mix two classes of your choice to make a unique build.

Tina, Valentine and Frette all play a role in a larger, layered story about Borderlands. But the narrative also opens up to be about D&D in general: What makes the game unique, what conflicts can arise within parties, and how can those challenges be overcome and resolved? There have been plenty of times in my D&D career when specific issues arose. Ones like the play styles of friends clashing, or a dungeon master forcing a party to work with a non-playable character who the players don’t like or treat the way the dungeon master intended. Even the stigma of playing in a group that fractures and having that feeling affect your future D&D games — all of those issues are touched upon in “Wonderlands.” It’s the side of D&D that sucks. But if you want to honestly showcase a hobby, you have to be transparent about both its good and bad sides.

In that way, “Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands” is the closest any game developer has come to recreating Dungeons & Dragons. There are plenty of games that share similar combat mechanics to D&D. And the main story in “Wonderlands” is linear, even if it doesn’t feel that way. But what “Wonderlands” focuses on — and nails — is the feeling of actually sitting around a table playing D&D: moments of chaos when a dungeon master has mere seconds to improvise a way forward for their players; times when teams throw a good plan out the window, but it all works out in the end; the fiery arguments that might overtake a group of friends just trying to have fun; the feeling of knowing what jokes will land with your dungeon master and which ones won’t. That’s what makes “Wonderlands” a true D&D game.

When you’re playing “Wonderlands,” you’re playing a “Borderlands 3” spinoff with fantasy elements. But, crucially, you’re also experiencing what it’s like to be part of a D&D group — and the many twists and turns that come with it.

When “Wonderlands” goes live, I hope to play it with at least one member of my D&D party — maybe the one who moved away, who my friends and I can’t play with in-person anymore. In “Wonderlands,” at least, I know we’ll get to relive the feeling of hanging out at his place, making some fun character builds and rolling the dice.

Michael Czar is a freelancer writer covering gaming and esports. His esports writing has primarily appeared on Upcomer. You can follow him on Twitter @weivywastaken.

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