Shoot Your Way Through a Tabletop RPG Session with Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

Games Reviews
Shoot Your Way Through a Tabletop RPG Session with Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is an intriguing convergence of RPG systems and shooting mechanics in a delightful world with mostly pleasant characters, though whether it accurately reflects tabletop roleplaying will be up for each player to decide. It’s a fun game, but mileage will vary depending on individual tolerance for the Borderlands house style, from aesthetic to sense of humor (though it veers more cuddly and less edgy this time around) and level scaling. While it’s by no means polemic, it’s got a point of view that will keep it from being forgettable, while mostly trending positive with a narrative about overcoming trauma and loneliness.

Having just come off a year-and-a-half first-timers Dungeons & Dragons campaign, I found myself frequently comparing my real-world table-top RPG experiences with those of my player character. The premise of the game is that Borderlands series regular Tiny Tina (the prolific Ashly Burch) oversees a game of Bunkers & Badasses with newcomers captain Valentine (Andy Samberg) and the robot Frette (Wanda Sykes), as the player (“Newbie”) joins the party while the Dragon Lord (Will Arnett) interlopes.

The Bunkers & Badasses game board serves as an overworld through which players are connected to the various settings and landmarks, but also where players can discover quests unique to overworld mechanics and get into encounters in the tall grass or avoid those encounters by smacking away foes with the melee button. The bobblehead representative of the player character and NPCs as well as that melee encounter-counter contribute to a humorous tone that feels somewhat adolescent, but is mostly more accessible rather than obnoxious. While I didn’t fall out laughing too frequently, I chuckled or smirked more than I rolled my eyes. The variety of available quests—easily compiled on your way through Mount Craw seeking a bard to bless your boat, or in Tangle Drift exploring the consequences of a magic beanstalk—gives the player access to all sorts of storytelling. While sometimes it can be unsophisticated, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is much more Fable than South Park, and sometimes, like in the quest “Twenty Thousand Years Under the Sea,” it’s surprisingly emotionally effective, if not altogether shocking.

On the topic of access, there are three difficulty settings, as well as options for things like aim assist, snap-to-target, and the ability to change reticle colors, as well as toggles and size settings for closed captions and subtitles. What is confoundingly lacking is general text size settings. If you’ve got, say, a 32” TV and you have less-than-perfect vision, it might be hard to make out some tutorial instructions or menu and inventory text, especially on horizontal split-screen. This seems like a wild oversight in a game that is clearly attempting to be inclusive.

That drive for inclusion extends to the wealth of character customization options, such as personal pronouns (which default to they/them) as well as makeup options (as producer Kayla Belmore alluded to in her interview with Paste earlier this year) and pitch modulation for six voice styles. The character body types aren’t even gendered, referred to instead as “this one” and “that one.” There’s a good variety in human skin tones, as well as fantasy tones and textures. Hair styles could be a little more fleshed-out, specifically kinkier hair textures—Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is decidedly worse than Cyberpunk 2077 and somehow better than Elden Ring when it comes to Black hair. Much as in real life, I’m content with dreadlocks, but more ambitious players won’t be recreating Jon Batiste or Lil Nas X in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. At least an effort was made here; it’s merely found lacking. Nevertheless, players unlock additional aesthetic customization options as loot as they go throughout the game and can completely recreate their character’s appearance at any time by returning to the hub city.

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is gorgeous to look at—a captivating combination of vibrant colors and cell-shading that’s fun to shoot through, climb over, or explore in photo mode. Gearbox Software have come a long way since the original Borderlands helped popularize looter-shooters, and the premise of this game allows for castles to burst out of thin air and geography to be remade according to the narrator’s design. That isn’t completely random or player-propelled, but it looks nice anyway. Moreover, it’s a fun and diverse world to explore. The Wonderlands comes from taking simple concepts like skeleton pirates or a giant beanstalk and twisting them to reiterate references or spin into totally new directions.

The core shoot and loot gameplay loop is simple enough, elevated by combat skills, class-specific feats, and the magic of procedurally-generated guns and melee weapons. A player could, for instance, have a Clawbringer-class character with a Mjolnir-like hammer as their class specific special while their wyvern companion has its flame breath augmented to occasionally shoot lightning bolts, fire bolts, or both, in addition to throwing that hammer to create a lightning area-of-effect attack. You could have a melee weapon that has a frost damage bonus as well as the Vampire trait that restores health and ward points. And all that amid squeezing off bullets from a rifle, pistol, shotgun, submachine gun, or heavy weapon. Traditional RPG attributes like strength, intelligence, and the like determine the power and likelihood of critical hits, as well as the cooldown period for spells and skills. Later in the game, players can even multiclass, granting them the opportunity to add the demi-lich of the necromancer-style class as a second companion or the spinning spirit blade of the Stabbomancer, just as an example.

On one hand, these sorts of combinations remind me of my Tiefling Paladin (he also had dreadlocks) casting successive hellfire and divine light magics before dropping his greatsword on undead worms, but it also makes me think of how game designers can create mechanics to substitute initiative order and party-combination attacks with a one-player wrecking crew. The game’s opening substitutes a traditional party with a single character aided by two advisors. So, in comparison with a real TTRPG, the protagonist is going it relatively alone, more like contemporary ARPGs. Having party members suggest your next action is annoying enough in regular circumstances; I’d hate to have backseat drivers for a standalone arc. However, one of the biggest selling points of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, much like its Borderlands predecessors, is that it’s ready-made to be played with others; so, besides Valentine and Frette’s commentary, players can experience comradery through co-op either online with up to four players or split-screen, with two people on PS4 and Xbox One or up to four people on PS5 and Xbox Series S and X.

Another quirk of applying the Borderlands universe to a tabletop game is that weapons retain branding while assuming proc-gen RPG naming conventions. Because it’s Tiny Tina’s game, there are guns aplenty, coming from brands like Hyperius, Dahlia, Blackpowder, and Torgue; because it’s a fantasy setting, some of them have ice, fire, poison, or dark magic (leeching) effects, as well as varying in design from looking like conventional firearms to advanced crossbows to futuristic energy weapons. Some of the designs are quite ornate, but what’s compelling about the choice is that it demonstrates Tina reflecting the consumerist-militarist culture of her universe, which in turn reflects that of the real world (or at least the U.S.), where Glock, Colt, and Beretta are household brand names. Regardless, shooting a treacherous Elder Wyvern with a submachine gun called Nightshade of the Peak or supporting a goblin rebellion with an assault rifle called Creeper of the Breeze is very fun, especially because of the untold combinations of weapon attributes. Conversely, following an NPC through a quest design where they take no aggro and do no damage while I fight their battles for them does feel annoying on a meta level, besides the nerdy complaint that it doesn’t reflect my TTRPG experience.

My introduction to proc-gen items and level scaling was Raven Software’s X-Men: Legends, which was also where I was first introduced to the phenomenon of characters talking if you’re idle. It’s cleverer there than in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, where doing too much selling at a store might make Valentine complain about you not going off to save the world. Those stores, by the way, offer a pittance for your goods—something like a 15:1 ratio as opposed to the 2:1 ratio you might find in some other games; between that and the preponderance of weapons, armor, and accessories you’ll come across in the world, weapons become a rare buy, where you’re more likely to spend money expanding your backpack. The inventory, meanwhile, is almost too simple in the way it’s designed to be navigated. You can set it to sort by “Type,” but that just means things are grouped on the list rather than being able to look solely at pistols, sigils (spells), etc. It’s by no means game-breaking, but it could be more efficient. And if you just want to look at your character, with their sword on their back, rifle in hand, standing on a pedestal like a hero forge miniature, you must scroll down to an empty slot; there’s no toggle to just look at the character without them being covered by an item description.

I experienced minor bugs—after one four-hour run the camera seemed to fall behind the analog stick; after another, the quest log wouldn’t load in the menu, despite still being able to switch through quests in the main HUD. The first was a minor inconvenience, the second a little more concerning but not overwhelming. Hopefully they get ironed-out in patches.

Despite my criticisms, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is a fine reintroduction to the looter-shooter space, drawing on multiple RPG heritages to make a fun, if somewhat adolescent, experience. It might be more fun to play than to listen to, but it’s far from intolerable. In fact, a good time should be had by all party members. The combination of ranged and melee weapons with magic, special skills, and companions like a tiny dragon make for frenetic and exciting gameplay in a colorful, surprisingly engaging world.

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands was developed by Gearbox Software and published by 2K Games. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X version. It’s also available on the PlayStation 5, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.

Share Tweet Submit Pin