The melding of tabletop RPG and Borderlands in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands almost feels like a Pimp My Ride meme. “You like RPGs in your RPG-based Looter Shooters?” Because at its core, Borderlands has always been heavily influenced by role-playing games, both the tabletop and video game varieties. The visible damage counters as you unleash a clip or three-hundred into your enemies is a direct nod to the damage counters in games like Final Fantasy, and the Gearbox main offices in Texas have an entire room set aside with what might be the greatest TTRPG set-up I’ve ever seen. Giving Tiny Tina her own Borderlands 2 DLC (which is standalone as of last November) as well as a spin-off game with Wonderlands feels like the perfect encapsulation of the DNA of Borderlands as a whole… and then they added spells and melee attacks.
Cast a Spell on You
The first big difference between this and your ordinary, non-imagined Borderlands campaign is the addition of spells to your arsenal. In some ways, they replace grenades from the mainline series, but they have such a distinct look and feel that they easily differentiate themselves from the grenades you’re used to chucking at psychos. For one, they have a cool-down period rather than a set inventory. You can cast spells to your heart’s content and never need to fill up on ammo like you do with grenades: you just need to let your spells recharge. There are weapons and items that can cut down on the cool down time, and you can link moves and spells together and create all sorts of chaos. I really, and I mean really, liked the way spells add to combat. While there aren’t healing spells per se, there are Dark Magic spells you can cast that feed your hurting and hungry Fatemaker with hit points while doling out damage to whatever fanciful baddie happens to be on the receiving end of your arcana.
I was equipped on my playthrough with a meteor spell that looked as good as the damage it dealt. A portal opened above the head of the enemy I was targeting, from which a torrent of flaming meteors rained down their damage. This would happen while I was also unloading clip after clip into them. It just felt awesome, is what I’m saying.
Hack n’ Slash
But it doesn’t stop with just the spells, either. Melee attacks in Wonderlands are more important than ever before. In fact, they’re no longer last-ditch efforts to cause some up-close damage like they tend to be in most first-person shooters. Melee weapons use the same RNG modular system as the guns, meaning you get different buffs and bonuses depending on the rarity of the melee weapon you find. There are 2-handed swords like claymores, as well as single-handed swords, axes, and blunt weapons like hammers and morning stars. With the exception of the two-handed swords, which have extended reach, triggering a melee attack “glides” you toward an enemy. In other words, you can attack them before they’re in range to attack you. You can therefore approach a group of enemies and chain your attacks together, gliding with deadly precision between them. Depending on your melee weapon boosts, this could lead to bonus effects like decreased spell cool-down. It puts the “badass” in Bunkers and Badasses.
None of the attacks felt like they overshadowed the others, although the guns are still the main draw for Borderlands. Instead, they worked together to make combat feel extremely fast and tight. There’s no clunkiness, or at least, not in the loadout I was given to use. I should point out, I was given something of an OP character to play, something Creative Director Matt Cox told me was done in the interest of letting me try out more types of attacks. In the final version, the mission I played is a little too early to have the level of weapons I was given. That being said, I kind of look forward to building to the level of fluidity I experienced during my preview. When encountering a big old group of enemies, I felt a sense of excitement rather than the apprehension I sometimes felt in previous Borderlands games where I was worried my collection of weapons wasn’t going to cut it. Even the prospect of overwhelming odds feels exciting when you can rain magical grenades from the sky while you fire your ice-imbued rifle at an enemy until they freeze solid, at which point you can quickly glide toward them and shatter them with a melee attack. It’s about the journey, man.
I also got a chance to test out the overworld, something completely new to Borderlands and something I didn’t know I needed in my life. It’s the classic JRPG overworld, complete with random encounters. The encounters are avoidable, so if you’d rather just run the Chibi version of your character to the next area you’re free to do so. But something magical happens when you enter the tall grass… OK I guess it’s not really magical, it’s expected behavior, an unexpected nod to Pokemon. In the tall grass you can encounter camps of enemies and just battle until you’re blue in the face (note: completely possible with the character creator options). But more than just adding a familiar RPG touch to the overworld, those encounters let you grind a few levels if you’re feeling underpowered, making them functionally useful AND true to the RPG theme. Basically they’re self-contained levels and your job is to clear them out through judicial use of murder. Gameplay in the overworld encounters is the same as the rest of the game, just one more of an “arena” scale instead of a fully realized level. It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s completely optional!
I wish I’d gotten the chance to play more, because there was so much to see and do just in the one level I played through during my brief time with Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. The combat felt great, and I’m looking forward to the final game where I can mix and match guns and spells and melee weapons and open chest after tasty chesty. Did I mention you can melee chests to open them now? Well, you can. My biggest takeaway from the demo is Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands feels so very right in so many ways, and I’m very excited for the final game and all its ridiculous fantasy tropes, seemingly endless spell and gun combinations, and opportunities for loot.