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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (476)

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No Man's Sky 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 4/5
Assassin's Creed IV: Bl... 2.5/5
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands 3.5/5
Ratchet & Clank: Rift A... 4.5/5
Super Mario Bros. Wonder 4.5/5
The Alliance Alive 2/5
Catmaze 4.5/5
Turnip Boy Commits Tax ... 4.5/5
Seasons After Fall 3/5
Rayon Riddles - Rise of... 0.5/5
World to the West 4/5
MechWarrior 5: Mercenar... 4/5
Streets of Kamurocho 2.5/5
Aeon of Sands - The Tra... 2.5/5
Greak: Memories of Azur 3.5/5
Yaga 2.5/5
Riverbond 3/5
Bug Fables: The Everlas... 4.5/5
Front Mission 1st Remake 1.5/5
Middle-earth: Shadow of... 3.5/5
Bladed Fury 3.5/5
Ruzar - The Life Stone 3.5/5
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5
Mighty Switch Force! Co... 2.5/5

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Tiny Tina's Wonderlands   PC (Steam) 

Just Like Tabletop…    3.5/5 stars

“Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands” (“Wonderlands”) began life as an “Assault on Dragon Keep”-style DLC expansion for “Borderlands 3”… But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and threw wrenches into nearly everyone’s business. “Wonderlands” suddenly shifted from a typical Gearbox development cycle to being entirely remotely developed. In the process, the project allegedly exceeded its own parameters, thus the powers that be at the studio decided to release the game as its own stand-alone product… with DLC of its own. Unfortunately, the problem with remote development is that everyone is phoning-in their work… and there are large parts of “Wonderlands” that definitely feel phoned-in.

Presentation
Visually, “Wonderlands” doesn’t look appreciably different from other ‘Borderlands’ titles developed by Gearbox. It uses the same faux-cell-shading style with thick outlines to illustrate its bi-polar world in which drab browns and grays are frequently contrasted with garish splashes of neon. Enemy designs are all new, however, seeing as “Wonderlands” is a Fantasy-themed reskin of ‘Borderlands,’ giving us plenty of hilarious pig-like goblins, skeletons of various types, nagas, wyverns, and killer mushrooms, to name a few. While the new enemies are amusing, I found “Wonderlands’” visuals to be some of the most difficult in Gearbox’s history to quickly parse and filter. Enemies – especially the human enemies like bandits and pirates – are all very drab and tend to blend in with environments to the point where I found myself looking for red enemy pips on the mini-map more than the actual enemies in the 3D environments.

Audio is likewise a somewhat mixed bag. The game is fully voiced, and brings quite a bit of star power to the table, not only with the manic Ashley Burch reprising her role as the titular Tiny Tina, but with “SNL” alumnus, Andy Samberg; real-life she-goblin, Wanda Sykes; and LEGO Batman, Will Arnett, filling out the core cast. Unfortunately, that’s about all the game’s audio has going for it. As per usual, the soundtrack is a nothingburger that is easily ignored and/or forgotten, but the real killer is the audio mixing. The game’s sound levels are so cocked-up that I found it necessary to turn up the volume on my speakers, which I normally have at “20” for playing games that I want to hear, all the way to “30” or higher in order to understand what any of the characters were saying. I could not tweak any in-game volume enough to make the voices comprehensible, and I know I’m not the only person who experienced this flaw, as there are multiple Steam community threads about it.

Technically, “Wonderlands” is, as Tina would say, “a’ight.” It’s not rock solid and polished to a sheen, but it’s also not a Bethesda game. “Wonderlands,” once again, uses Gearbox’s proprietary SHiFT network for multiplayer, and it is, once again, much less stable than Steamworks would have been… but SHiFT is launcher agnostic. The MJ Crew experienced a plethora of glitches, ranging from connection errors and getting kicked from the game (then being forced to quit the game and restart Steam to fix the problem), to quests failing to proceed (and having to leave and re-enter the current map OR restart the game to fix them), to weird loot duplication bugs revolving around the Lost Loot machine. In general, it’s obvious that “Wonderlands” was built by its dev team remotely, because it literally feels phoned-in. On top of the plethora of technical flaws, “Wonderlands” deserves to be called out for how abjectly lame its DLC expansions are. There are 4 individual expansions, but unlike traditional ‘Borderlands’ DLC that each add a new area and a number of missions to tackle, along with a self-contained narrative arc, these DLCs are literally just short, 5-room ‘dungeons’ with a couple of cheap, lazy cutscenes as bookends, each of which can be completed in about 20 minutes.

Story
“Wonderlands” takes place sometime after the events of “Borderlands 2” and “New Tales from the Borderlands,” since it features Tiny Tina as a child, instead of the teenage/young adult she is in “Borderlands 3,” and also features Fret, the robot who debuts in “New Tales from the Borderlands.” But, overall, how it fits into the attempted ‘Borderlands’ canon and timeline is very ambiguous.

Our titular not-quite-heroine, Tiny Tina, finds herself marooned in a crashed spaceship with the hapless pilot, a guy named Valentine; a droid named Fret, who appears to be acting as the navigator; and a random nameless person – the player – who is only ever referred to as “Newbie.” In order to pass the time and take the group’s mind off their perilous situation, Tina proposes that everyone drop what they’re doing and sit down with her for a rousing game of the Bunkers & Badasses tabletop RPG.

Thus Newbie and the others are thrust back into the world of “Borderlands 2’s” “Assault on Dragon Keep” DLC, only this time with a fully fleshed-out world map and a bizarre new set of rules. Tina wastes no time in presenting her players with an existential threat: A super-powered bad guy known as the Dragon Lord, who, in spite of being one of Tina’s fictional creations, spends the entire game breaking the 4th Wall and directly taunting the players and filling their minds with doubt.

As the team gets stuck into Tina’s game, we all get a much closer look at the girl’s internal psyche. We knew she was messed up from her very first appearance, but in peeling back the onion layers over the course of the game’s 30-40 hour runtime, the extent of her collection of mental illnesses really becomes apparent. Tina is controlling, has abandonment issues, suffers from pre-pubescent gender dysphoria, and is generally a hot mess. However, much like today’s ‘Modern Audience’ for tabletop RPGs, she uses Bunkers & Badasses as a coping mechanism to work through her issues, which is simultaneously heartwarming and disturbing.

In spite of the game’s desperation to be funny, though, nearly all of the writing’s humor falls flat. There are a few chuckle-worthy moments, but between the lack of actually funny jokes and the heaviest-handed Woke messaging from Gearbox to date, I found it hard to enjoy “Wonderlands” from a narrative perspective. The main plotline is at least well written, and ends on a high note, but nearly all of the side content flat-out sucks, and is a low point in ‘Border/Wonderlands’ history.

Gameplay
“Wonderlands” is, for all intents and purposes, just another ‘Borderlands’ with a Fantasy reskin. That is to say, it’s a First-Person Looter-Shooter in which players can team up with up to three friends or fly solo as they blast their way through a large number of sprawling areas from a first-person perspective, while outfitting their chosen characters with random loot that drops from slain enemies, broken environmental objects, or lootable environmental objects (the latter of which, as always, are tagged with a splash of green to make them stand out). However, the idea that “Wonderlands” is more-or-less the same as ‘Borderlands’ really pivots on the ‘more-or-less’ part, as there are more new additions that definitely feel less-than-ideal.

First, and most noticeable of the new features added in “Wonderlands” is the presence of an overworld-style map that connects the various and sundry locations in which the game’s action takes place. This Overworld is rife with just-out-of-reach collectables, breakable objects that hemorrhage in-game currency (gold), side quests, and tall grass (which can spawn random encounters… Tina must have played ‘Pokemon’ at some point). While the game’s main locations are all fully-fleshed-out environments that are just like typical ‘Borderlands’ fare – that is to say, they’re too big and spread out, and the quest content they contain typically requires the player(s) to traipse back and forth across the full breadth of each environment , re-fighting groups of enemies that respawn a tad too quickly… repeatedly – most of the Overworld content takes place in so-called ‘dungeons,’ which are literally just strings of small battle arenas (many of which appear to be recycled from the random encounter arena pool) that players teleport to in sequence upon clearing each one, until whatever loot, prize, or McGuffin pops out of the chest that appears at the end. While I can appreciate the desire for more streamlined quest structure in ‘Borderlands,’ the way “Wonderlands” tries to do it go so far in the other direction that it fails even harder. Even worse, the so-called DLC “missions” are exactly the same as the Overworld dungeons, only with a little bit of forgettable narration that players might be able to hear (thanks to the afore mentioned terrible audio mixing) and pay attention to (thanks to having to deal with combat at the same time).

In addition to the half-assed design of the dungeons from a layout perspective, things get even worse when it comes to enemy encounter designs. Any Dungeon Master (or Bunker Master) will gladly divulge in great detail how difficult it is to design well-balanced combat encounters in a tabletop RPG… and I’m not sure if “Wonderlands’” disastrous encounter design is meant to be a meta joke about what a bad BM Tina is, or if they’re just really poorly designed. Throughout the game’s environments – both the teeny-tiny dungeons and the more-traditional sprawling maps – enemies just kind of pop-into existence wherever they feel like. I found this incredibly annoying compared to most modern shooters that have enemies enter the environment through obvious transitional objects, like doors, tunnels, trapdoors, and all manner of other perfectly reasonable places. Yet, in “Wonderlands,” enemies just *poof* into the map, frequently accompanied by a cloud of pink glitter, and even more frequently behind the player’s character, giving the foes far too many opportunities to perform cheap sneak attacks, since they don’t make any appreciable noise. Then there’s the final cherry on top of the poor encounter design that is randomly-located elemental barrels. ‘Borderlands’ has always had elemental barrels, yes, but they have never been SO deadly as they are in “Wonderlands,” wherein the MJ Crew frequently killed each other by accidentally setting off elemental barrels, blundering into the insanely-long-lasting clouds said barrels leave behind after detonation, or inadvertently walking into the path of a flying barrel that another member of the team punted in order to get it out of their way. Between the nonsensical enemy spawns and murderous barrels, I didn’t actually get much enjoyment out of most of “Wonderland’s” combat encounters.

Boss battles, on the other hand, waver erratically between aggravating bullet sponges and pathetic dishrags that are dead within seconds. The difficulty of boss battles seems to scale inversely with how far the player is into the game, with early bosses presenting much greater threats, in spite of not having nearly as many tricks up their sleeves. This bizarre inverted difficulty curve is caused by the way “Wonderlands” has re-invented the traditional ‘Borderlands’ loot system.

In a typical ‘Borderlands’ game, the amount and quality of the loot dropped is fairly static, and depends almost entirely on the generosity in Gearbox’s heart when they built the game, with plenty of hotfixes and minor patches deployed to adjust the drop rates, along with the effectiveness of weapons that are considered ‘too strong’ after the player base gravitates to their exclusive use. In “Wonderlands,” however, the player’s Loot Luck is a bonafide stat that starts out abysmally low, but can be improved by finding the huge number of hidden 20-sided Loot Dice scattered ALL over the game. So, in the early game, getting a Blue rarity weapon or piece of equipment (on the standard color scale of White, Green, Blue, Purple, Orange) to drop is incredibly rare, and players will greatly appreciate the Unique red-texted Blue items they get from doing side quests (many of which are, ironically, some of the best items in the game). However, after collecting a bunch of Loot Dice and wearing an Amulet with Loot Luck as a bonus stat, “Wonderlands” turns back into a normal ‘Borderlands’ game where using anything lower than Purple rarity is pointless.

However, “Wonderlands” is also the first ‘Borderlands’-adjacent game to pollute its Legendary (Orange) Loot tables with absolutely unusable crap. I was the first member of the MJ Crew to get a Legendary drop, and I was super excited about it, until I realized it was a terrible shotgun with so much recoil and such a high fire rate that I literally couldn’t hit ANYTHING with it… a SHOTGUN! Matt, Chris, and I later picked up identical Legendary weapons: The Antique Greatbow… whose Legendary effect is that it’s a standard, crappy Sniper rifle, but it’s worth about 10 times as much gold as a normal Sniper rifle of the same level… provided the player never equip or shoots it (which ruins the resale value, as anyone who has ever seen an episode of “Antiques Roadshow” would know). Yes, by the end of the game, thanks to the presence of Chris and his preternatural ability to find hidden shit in videogames, we all had really good Loot Luck and had tricked out our character builds with all sorts of complementary and powerful Legendary stuff… but at that point we were able to vaporize bosses in mere seconds, unless they had some sort of gimmick and/or invincibility phases.

From a character building perspective, “Wonderlands” is a bit of a mixed bag. Players can choose from a variety of standard Fantasy RPG stereotypes, each with a ‘Borderlands’-y spin. I chose to be the Stabbomancer – the game’s weird take on a traditional Rogue – while the other guys chose the Clawbringer (Paladin), Sporewarden (Ranger), and Blightcaller (Druid), the latter of which is a DLC class not included in the base game. Upon reaching level 20 – the midpoint to the game’s level cap of 40 – players must take a different secondary class. The dual-classing is mandatory, and it’s pretty obvious why: While most ‘Borderlands’ games give each character three or more skill trees to work with on their unique character build, each class in “Wonderlands” only has ONE skill tree, meaning that you get two to mix-and-match upon dual classing.

Characters also have a LOT more equipment slots in “Wonderlands” than in normal ‘Borderlands’ games, with the standard four gun slots being joined by a dedicated melee weapon slot. In addition to the recurring Class Mod (called Armor), Grenade Mod (called Spell), Shield (called Ward), and Relic (called Amulet) slots, players also get two ring slots, effectively giving them two more Relics to work with. Unfortunately, unlocking these slots isn’t based on character level, but is arbitrarily tied to main story progress, so players won’t unlock their full arsenal of slots until actually finishing the main story, and will constantly butt-heads with the limited gun slots throughout the early-and-mid-game. I definitely liked having more slots for more Relic-like items, and I LOVE the addition of dedicated melee weapons to the game, but overall, the changes to “Wonderlands” over ‘Borderlands’ definitely feel like the two steps forward, one step back.

Overall
Oof… we were all really excited to play the latest and greatest project from Gearbox – especially since we’re still playing through the tabletop campaigns included in the real-life Bunkers & Badasses handbook – expecting more of the excellent humor and slightly-off-kilter gameplay provided by the “Borderlands 2” DLC, “Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep.” Unfortunately, the first stand-alone Bunkers & Badasses videogame is far too close to its real-life tabletop counterpart, in that it just feels incredibly half-assed and poorly put-together, is rife with balance and mechanical issues, and has gone so far down the Woke rabbit hole that it isn’t even funny anymore. Still, if you can look past the glaring issues, “Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands” is still a relatively good time with a group of friends. Just make sure you get it on sale.

Presentation: 3/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 3.5/5
DLC: 2/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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