Welcome to the Wonderlands: reinventing the ‘Borderlands’ formula in ‘Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands’

We chat with Gearbox Studios about how Tiny Tina’s Wonderland is taking the realm of Borderlands into new, uncharted territory

The new Borderlands spin-off game, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands got its first gameplay trailer at Sony’s recent PlayStation Showcase. The packed trailer gave us a glimpse of Gearbox Software’s imaginative and zany fantasy shooter, which promises to tap into the world of tabletop role-playing games, JRPGs and more influences from across the genre.

Who wouldn’t want to know more after that? We spoke with Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands’ creative director, Matt Cox, and senior producer, Kayla Belmore. They told me that the idea for the project went all the way back to the Borderlands 2 DLC expansion, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, which saw motor-mouthed explosions expert Tina running a tabletop RPG campaign in Bunkers & Badasses, which is Pandora’s version of Dungeons & Dragons.

“We were inspired by Assault on Dragon Keep to take that tabletop vibe of a ‘game within a game’ into its own standalone thing,” Cox explained. “For us, I think the potential for a fantasy looter-shooter is so much more than a DLC.”

He wasn’t over-selling the team’s ambition, either, as Wonderlands is absolutely rammed full of new gameplay mechanics, character customisation options, tonnes of weapon variety and much more. It’s definitely a far grander experience than the team could have achieved in a DLC expansion, so in many ways, this game is all about the members of Gearbox cutting loose with their wild ideas and injecting their own love of RPGs into the Borderlands formula.

In the early days, the project leads at Gearbox got into the groove by playing several rounds of the real Bunkers & Badasses tabletop game by Nerdvana, although Cox pointed out that none of the storylines the sourcebook will feature in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. That experience and the team’s genuine love for tabletop RPGs and fantasy video games helped them kick-off what looks like a deep and wildly imaginative new entry to the Borderlands series.

The biggest change in Wonderlands is the new character creator. “The first part is your character’s aesthetics,” Belmore explained. “You can customise your face, you’ve got a couple of body types to choose from, your voice, your personality, so there are lots of ways to customise how your character looks. We also have six player classes to choose from and later on you can choose a secondary class, which are all completely independent of how your character looks and have their own skill trees.”

In true RPG style, Wonderlands even has all-new character stats, such as strength and constitution, which players can level up using ‘hero points’ to give them a boost, like more health or reduced spell cooldown time. The new melee combat system also helps with character buffs, such as returning a sliver of health or gun ammo after every second hit, so you can get into a nice, fast-paced rhythm of shooting, melee strikes, buffs, magic and class skills to really just jazz during each enemy encounter.

Speaking of melee, Cox and Belmore pointed out that while gunplay is the main focus of the Wonderlands combat loop, you’ll have a wide range of melee weapons to help you hack and slash your way through bad guys, such as swords, blunt clubs, axes and two-handers, which can now be found alongside firearms in loot chests and as enemy drops.

Tiny Tina's Wonderlands
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. Credit: Gearbox Software

Guns have also been injected with a fantasy twist thanks to new parts, such as crossbow attachments and magic-infused barrels, although the team was keen to point out that, unlike previous Borderlands games, they were focused on the quality of these new weapons, instead of the sheer quantity.

“I’d say ‘a lot’ is a pretty safe estimate for guns, spells and melee weapons,” Belmore laughed. “This time we’re more focused on expanding all of those systems, putting more depth into spells and melee to compliment the guns. So there’s no specific number of weapons off the top of my head, but there’s going to be a lot of variety, different rarities and dozens of legendaries that you’ll be able to find.”

Whether you’re playing the campaign solo or in four-player co-op mode, Gearbox wanted to give you the vibe of sitting with your friends while playing a tabletop RPG. In the ‘real world’ your character is sitting around a table with Tina and her friends, Captain Valentine and Frette. Once you jump into the fantasy campaign world, you’ll hear them talking and bickering over the gameplay and you’ll be regularly blindsided by Tina’s unhinged approach to running the game as Battle Master.

“Tina really wants to run a good campaign,” Cox said. “On the drop of a dime she will change things to her chaotic whim or when she feels necessary, and we even got a glimpse of that in the trailer, with the beginning shot of that idyllic castle, with its green spaces and village, which then quickly turns into a fiery hellscape. In the actual game, that’s Tina doing that.”

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. Credit: Gearbox Software

Belmore explained that you’ll even see elements of Tina’s carefree nature in the all-new overworld map, which was inspired by games like Final Fantasy and other JRPG titles. “It looks like a tabletop RPG map,” Belmore added, “right down to Tina leaving some cheese snacks or a soda can on it.”

“It should absolutely invoke the feeling of playing on one of those big tabletop tables,” Belmore continued, “and you can explore it with your little game piece version of your character, which actually reflects all of the customisations you’ve picked for your first-person model. You can also see your friends’ pieces on it when you’re playing in co-op.”

Adding to the JRPG style even further, the map is also full of random encounters. For example, every so often you’ll see an enemy pop out from a patch of grass and if you touch it, you’ll quickly jump into a small first-person combat battle where you can earn loot, experience and other rewards. You’re free to return to the overworld map at any time during first-person play and use it to travel to other areas, tackle side-quests and try your hand at some special encounters. Even at this early stage, it’s clear that Wonderlands will have a lot of stuff for players to see and do.

tiiny-tina-wonderlands-credit-gearbox
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. Credit: Gearbox Software

Cox explained that Gearbox is currently fine-tuning and re-balancing all of the game’s many different systems on a daily basis to make sure that everything, from character movement to combat mechanics, is as balanced as can be. The gameplay shown so far looks incredibly slick, with that trademark punch and speed that Borderlands is known for.

Belmore also wanted to give some closing props to the game’s art team, which was responsible for all the zany and fun fantasy concepts that should help Wonderlands stand tall on its own, independently of the core Borderlands series. Their hard work is the reason you’ll be fighting giant hermit crabs that have pirate ships on their backs and deadly sharks with legs, among other imaginative things we’ve yet to see.

Injecting the looter-shooter format with a high dose of off-the-wall fantasy influences looks like a recipe for success, but we’ll know soon enough come Spring.

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is out March 25, 2022 for PS4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and Windows PC.

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