Every step of the way through Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, a D&D-infused spinoff of Gearbox’s cooperative shooter-RPG Borderlands, you think to yourself: this would be so easy to get wrong. The voice acting is exactly one decibel away from irritating at all times. Every joke walks a tightrope between exuberant fourth-wall prodding and juvenile gag. And after copious Borderlands games, spinoffs and add-ons, there ought to be a sense of over-familiarity about turning up at an enemy camp, shooting everything that moves, then watching your foes explode like scowling pinatas, before you hoover up all the loot they drop. But truthfully, there isn’t.
Likable teen psycho Tiny Tina acts as the dungeonmaster in a game of Bunkers and Badasses, the Borderlands universe’s own brand of D&D. You are the fictional fantasy hero created by Valentine, one of Tina’s party of players, putting you Inception-level deep into fictionalised video game worlds: you play an imaginary character, created by a video game character, in a world invented by another video game character. There’s more conceptual abstraction here than those expensive candles with names like “Afternoon Escape”.
The usual sci-fi arsenal of hi-tech sniper rifles, grenades and character abilities like turrets or dual-wielding guns are replaced by … well, all of the same exact things, but now with a very tenuous Tolkien-esque bent. In the opening hours, my spore warden landed on a preposterously satisfying combo of freezing enemies in place with a frost-damage assault rifle, then shattering them with a two-handed sword, while my mushroom companion poisoned any enemies I hadn’t yet smashed into ice cubes.
Tiny Tina, played brilliantly by long-standing actor Ashly Burch, is improvising the entire time, which means that sometimes the world completely changes in front of your eyes to accommodate her whims. Approaching the town of Brighthoof, you’re told it’s under siege, but the scene looks oddly calm; at least, it does until someone points out that it should look more foreboding. Instantly, the sky rains fire, pirate ships pop into being along the coastline, and enemies abruptly materialise, acclimatise and open fire.
In these moments, Wonderlands squeezes its excellent concept for all it’s worth, and if you played the 2013 Borderlands 2 spin-off, Assault on Dragon Keep, in which this world began, it’s all the more impressive that it still feels fresh and surprising. The atmosphere is like sitting around at a tabletop game with Jack Black, in that a good joke always trumps any moments of dramatic clout or traditional storytelling.
Gearbox knows by now how to keep the narrative work light, and leave room for you and your friends to create the fun. The game has a real knack for making you feel like the quarterback of the fight – even if that means a team of four quarterbacks in one coop game, each firing off abilities and spells with wanton abandon. It’ll be hard to go back to the rather more straight-faced Borderlands universe after this jamboree of unicorn queens, goblin miner revolts and lute solos.