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Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

Review of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

Tiny Tina’s WonderlandsIf you’re a fan of Borderlands, or just looking for a good dungeon crawler to play, then Tiny Tina’s Wonderland is the game for you.

Although it may seem like a simple reskin of Borderlands 3, there are plenty of new features and improvements that make this game worth playing. The shooting and looting loop is as fun as ever, and the humor is much more consistent than in the previous game.

However, if you’re getting bored of Borderlands’ formula, then I wouldn’t recommend picking up Wonderlands. The structure of the game has barely changed since the original Borderlands, so it might not be what you’re looking for.

If the notion of a “What if Borderlands, but with D&D rules!” sounds strangely familiar, that’s because it does. Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep was a DLC expansion for Borderlands 2 based around the same concept, and this is a near-direct follow-up set after. In fact, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep: A Wonderland’s One-Shot Adventure has just been re-released as a standalone title. It doesn’t matter whether you play it or not; you’ll know what’s going on without playing it.

Of course, let’s start with the basics; Tiny Tina, along with two of her friends named Valentine and Frett, has crash-landed on a planet while waiting for rescue. Tina decides to bring out Bunkers & Badasses, a role-playing game with a lot of weapons that just happens to be set in the Wild West. Tina creates her own campaign in which you must fight the malevolent Dragon Lord, as voiced by Arnett, the voice of Batman from the Lego Batman movie, as a nameless rookie. How do we know he’s bad? He chops off the magnificent, most amazing, and prettiest pony’s head in all of existence: Queen Butt Stallion. The bad guy has to die clearly.

I had hoped that Wonderlands would be more edgy and dark in its humor, avoiding the subjects that the Borderlands series is known for. There’s always been a dark comedy lurking behind the fart jokes and insanity in Borderlands. Tiny Tina, for example, is a hilarious illustration of this; she’s a completely broken kid who had undergone an immense amount of trauma and wound up dealing with it by adopting a mad persona.

Game screen shot 01

Over time, the more tragic aspect of Tiny Tina has been pushed into the background, and in Wonderlands, it’s barely even addressed; nevertheless, despite the coarse humor, there are no curse words. That’s because, unlike all previous Borderlands games that have received an M rating, Wonderlands gets a Teen rating.

Let’s be honest here: an age rating on a video game doesn’t immediately improve the writing and humor. The idea of Wonderlands being rated Mature doesn’t make it any more funny, but it does limit the jokes somewhat. The writers themselves poke fun at it several times, noting that the hundreds of Pirates you encounter drink Soda, not rum. In my opinion, the game does not feel as much like a full-fledged Borderlands game as it does previous entries in the series. It also lacks some of the same trademark humor that has been characteristic of this franchise since its inception. With more cooperative play and less focus on exploring, Tiny Tina’s Wasted Potential is a far better fit for younger gamers than its predecessors were. As a long-time Borderlands fan, I did miss the black comedy and adult jokes in this release. The game is rude and crass, which was where much of my enthusiasm for it stems from.

But the good news is that despite the ESRB’s rating, the writing is far superior to Borderlands 3’s cringe-inducing efforts, although it still falls short of the highs set by its predecessors. The tone is lighthearted and enjoyable, and most of the jokes land favorably, however, there’s a feeling that the writers are just flinging joke after joke at you without giving you any rest. The story is also a little on the self-referential side, cramming in subtle and not-so-subtle references to just about everything from the Monkey Island games to role-playing clichés. It relies on it a little too much, though, forgetting that referring to anything isn’t humorous in and of itself.

Tiny Tina is in top form as the insane, erratic, and loud Bunker Master. Ashley Birch provides the voice of Tina once again, and her role as Aloy in Horizon: Forbidden West was somewhat flat. She puts everything into voicing Tina and would have fooled me if I hadn’t known beforehand that she was playing both parts.

Game screen shot 02

Tina is likely to be as divisive as ever. Her wild behavior, loudness, and tendency to end every statement with a YELL can be quite charming and amusing, or totally irritating. Her voice plays a crucial role in the Bunker Master’s job of narrating activities and even altering the planet in front of your eyes. If you found her annoying in the past games, you may wish to skip Wonderlands entirely or just lower the volume. However, if you’re one of the many people who find her distinct brand of insanity charming, this game is for you.

Valentine and Frett are secondary characters who appear in and out, parodies of D&D players. Although Valentine isn’t the brightest knife in the drawer, he is a fan of the idea of being a hero, and he is more guided by his emotions than Frett, the Robot. These two reconciling their two very different approaches provides a great lesson for all D&D players: there’s a time for rules and a time for winging it.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Wonderland’s narrative, and I especially liked the Dragon Lord, who gets a lot of words and backstory. Arnett seems to be having a blast voicing the character, and it shines through in all of his lines. What I’m trying to say here is that the tale accomplishes its purpose; it provides a bare minimum of plot explanation for everything while also eliciting a chuckle or two, such as when Torgue violently destroys the entire ocean.

The artists and animators who have stretched their abilities and raided the color box appear to have benefitted from the D&D concept. The settings are vibrant, colorful, and full of fascinating views of ransacked pirate ships or villages that have been lifted into the air by a magic beanstalk. There are several interesting elements in the levels, as well as some enjoyable opponents. Enemy variety is insufficient for the game’s scope; basic skeletons make up the majority of it.

The game surprisingly ran well on my Ryzen 4800 and the aged but still kick-ass GTX 1080. I had everything turned up to maximum, and I didn’t notice any significant framerate drops. The only problem I encountered was stuttering in windowed mode, which the game would occasionally switch to when first starting it up.

This is a Borderlands game through and through, with all the same drawbacks and strengths as its predecessors. This ends up being just as much of a liability as it is a benefit because, on the one hand, the shooting is still lots of fun and the weapons feel fantastic to use. After that, you’re probably going to die a few thousand times over. It is highly unlikely that you will survive the entire campaign on your first try (or even attempt). But hey! You may still have fun with a game like this if you put in the effort, and I’ll show you how further on. What awaits during your journey through Unholy Heights? There are thousands of skeletons and pirates and other cannon fodder who will happily charge at you with all the intellect of a goldfish attempting to solve a math problem, eager to be shot down amid a barrage of colors, explosions, and special abilities. There are still mountains of guns to loot and analyze. There are still heaps of pop-culture nods, dumb jokes, and nonsense for you to read and chuckle with.

Given the plethora of fantasy cliches, I was a little disappointed that Gearbox stayed true to their guns. In fact. You could be fighting goblins, climbing beanstalks, and battling an evil Dragon Lord while wielding an assault rifle or a shotgun, in general. A few weapons get a little more glamorized, such as pistols with crossbow parts or a shotgun with a bubbling cauldron of crystals, but I believe there was much more space for Gearbox to go creative and embrace the fantasy element rather than sticking to the franchise’s usual style. A handheld trebuchet that shoots flails perhaps?

The guns are still enjoyable to use, and they’re well-balanced. There is no longer a way to improve weapons, so if you find something you like, it will certainly be discarded after an hour or two, but with so many different gun models shot at your face, you’ll undoubtedly discover something else to fill the huge hole in your heart. Then wielding that boomstick to kill stupid opponents is satisfying, stress-relieving fun.

The new spell system adds a little bit of variety to the mix by swapping out grenades for spells. You may loot a wide range of magic abilities, such as meteoric fireballs or intense auras, in this D&D reskin. It’s not like these additions provide much gameplay value; it’s simply another ability with a Cooldown. However, throwing out spells is still enjoyable, and when combined with your class’ specialty, it provides you with lots to do. If you pick the spell-casting class, you can really hurl magical projectiles quickly, and even equip two spells at once.

In terms of class distinction, things have gotten a few improvements, owing to the fact that you no longer pick a predetermined character with a fixed class. When creating your own custom character, you may select from six different classes, but you can also adopt a second class later on. It’s not feasible to max out both skill trees since you only have so many skill points available, but it’s a lot of fun to mix and match your skills. Then, near the end of the game, you may swap out the secondary skill tree at any time to play around with it. I really like this alteration to the system because it allows for a lot more experimenting and varied play styles in terms of whether you want to go after elemental damage or buff spells or concentrate on your companion dishing out more hurt.

There has also been an effort to improve the melee combat. You may now obtain new swords, hammers, and axes with their own characteristics and special perks, and the fighting skills have a slew of bonuses for hitting people in the face. Actually, I believe that constructing a totally melee build is feasible. However, that would be a pretty boring way to play because there’s just one button for striking things, so doing so for 15+ hours is probably going to get monotonous. Plus, in a series about stockpiling weapons like some sort of military dragon, why would you want to?

The strict adherence to the Borderlands game template is perhaps the most significant problem with this, as we saw in the first game and which has barely changed in the years since. It’s a little vexing that Gearbox hasn’t advanced their quest-making methods for decades, despite the fact that so many games have come and gone. The story’s writing team does a fantastic job of disguising the tasks with interesting themes or concepts, such as when Tiny Tina is attempting to complete a quest while Valentine and Frett are distracted by an unimportant NPC. These portions are fantastic, and most of the side missions are good, but I found myself growing bored with the same basic structure over and over again. There aren’t any. It would have been nice to include a few surprising pieces or turns to make things seem new and exciting, but there aren’t any. I get the impression that I had a good time playing Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, yet I can’t recall anything in particular.

The new overworld, like the previous games, is constructed similarly to that of classic D&D campaigns. It acts as a connecting link between all of the objectives and is full with ruins and dungeons to explore. Your character’s head becomes a bobblehead; there are shortcuts to discover and even a few abilities that allow you to return and access previously inaccessible locations or collect special loot dice that boost your chances of finding valuable gear. The new Combat Encounters are self-contained arenas full of monsters to fight, essentially condensing the whole Borderlands concept into a few rounds of combat. I enjoy some of the smaller overworld elements, such as fallen Cheetos serving as barriers or soda rivers that neatly convey the idea that the overworld is a genuine D&D map. It can’t be denied that the overworld adds nothing to the game in and of itself; after all, it’s just a hub world with a different camera angle – but I still appreciated its inclusion for what it was.

The shooting and looting in Borderlands have always been its two major pillars. The first game was advertised as containing “millions” of weapons, and that number has only increased thanks to the game’s ability to combine distinct parts to create new bullet-spewing equipment. Most of the time, this implies minor statistical variances and elemental properties, but it’s not uncommon for it to produce interesting results. There are also the new legendary items, such as a screaming Banshee blade or the Queen’s Crey, which can call frost meteors. Hunting down valuable loot, obtaining slightly superior gear that fits your build, and the thrill of a Legendary emerging from a chest are all as pleasurable, gratifying, and addicting as they’ve ever been.

However, when it comes to the rainbow showers of weapons, armors, abilities, and trinkets, I must confess that Borderlands has gone a bit too far. With the introduction of lootable spells, armor, and cosmetics there’s now more gear than ever before coming from foes and chests alike; all offering minute changes in stats. I soon found myself ignoring almost all of it, only pausing to investigate the purples and legendaries, and maybe the odd blue. The rest remained on the floor, like a carelessly discarded handful of Skittles destined to be thrown away. I don’t believe there will be that many die-hard fans who will go through every single drop, but I feel like the typical person would be similar to me and overlook the bulk of it, in order to save hundreds of hours of their life. Perhaps I’ll be alone with this viewpoint, but I think Gearbox needs to reel down the loot a little so that it starts to seem valuable again.

I’m really not a fan of how the game manages cosmetics. It’s nice that bad guys constantly drop new tattoo designs and colors for your custom character to use. However, it is aggravating to have them take up room in your inventory if you do not remember to go in and open them.  All this in mind, cosmetic collections are a waste of time and money. When you have hundreds or thousands of cosmetics, they take up a lot of room until you finally toss them out. It’s an ill-advised game design that takes away essential inventory space in a game all about hoarding things like a rampaging vacuum cleaner. The obvious answer is that cosmetics should be added straight to your collection. Simple, right?

It’ll take you 10-15 hours to finish the game, and if you want to complete the numerous side-quests and challenges that dot the overworld and major areas, it’s certainly going to be double that. There’s a decent amount of end-game content after that, in which you may participate in the Chaos Chamber fights. These are a sequence of arena fights against a variety of foes, with curses and blessings being picked up between rounds. A currency is gained during the journey that may be used to obtain loot, with new kinds of gear not seen in the rest of the game appearing along the way. It’s a fantastic method to extend gameplay time without detracting from the overall experience.

Conclusion

Borderlands 3 is a fantastic addition to the series, with more shooting and looting than ever before. Although there may be too much loot for some players, the game still offers an enjoyable experience that can last for dozens of hours. The end-game content is also well-done, providing extra challenges and rewards for players who want to keep playing after finishing the story. Whether you’re a fan of Borderlands or not, this game is sure to please.

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands
Overall rating: 3.5 star
Available On: PC, Playstation & Xbox
Developed By: Gearbox

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I saw The Last Jedi Monday night, over two full weeks after its release. Spoilers are ahead but you have already seen the movie. Shut up.

That fact alone should illustrate my level of enthusiasm for Star Wars movies. I wasn’t always like this. I was, like many people in their mid-40s in the year 2018, a passionate fan of the original Star Wars films. Perhaps it’s old(er) age, or perhaps the 2nd Lucas trilogy of episodes I-III were so deflating that they made me stop caring about Star Wars. If Lucas apparently didn’t understand why we loved the originals, what’s the point?

I admittedly was excited about Episode VII, The Force Awakens because, as sad as it id to say, Lucas wasn’t making it. Even that movie, which was universally praised as a return to “Star Wars being Star Wars” I was left feeling somewhat “meh.” Too silly, too jokey, too “wink wink Star Wars fans did you catch that reference we just made! We’re just like you!” It’s was the Big Bang Theory of Star Wars movies. It was also a remake of A New Hope and killing Han was and remains bullshit. You don’t KILL Indiana Jones, he always escapes. You don’t actually KILL Han Solo. You can make us think he’s dead, but you don’t KILL him unless it’s of old age…or maybe Greedo’s son shoots him in the back.

The Last Jedi was better than Force Awakens. I will give it that. But I have a lot of issues with this movie and not just as a Star Wars film. I stayed away from spoilers because I knew I would eventually see it. The only headline I saw was from Mark Hamill who said something to the effect of, “That it not my Luke Skywalker.”

Whoa. That could be really good or really bad, whatever it meant. Turns out, it was pretty damn good. What the film did with Luke was at first jarring — Luke Skywalker has turned into a bitter old man who is so massively depressed he wants to die alone on a rock with these cute little space penguins. Luke’s path makes sense and when you think about it, it makes a hell of a lot of sense. The ordeal of Episodes IV-VI would mind-fuck pretty much anyone, even a Jedi. Then when Luke fails training young Jedi, and fails Han and Leia’s kid, his mind snaps and he retreats into a self-hating mess. Maybe not the ideal Luke storyline, but I can get behind it. And Luke’s end game is also perfect. It’s the hero Resurrection story but without Luke going toe to toe with the dark Jedi. He uses his mind and slips away into Jedi peace-land. Really good.

Outside of the Luke stuff, The last Jedi did very little for me.

So apparently Rey is a super strong Jedi with no training whatsoever. Luke’s training consists of a few verbal warnings and the “reach out” technique. After that she can move rocks around like she’s Yoda. I guess her Midi-chlorian numbers are off the charts! Fucking Lucas. This bugged me in Force Awakens and bugs me even more after Last Jedi.

You can take a huge Rebel (sorry, Resistance) cruise ship, send it into a Star Destroyer at LIGHT SPEED and apparently the Destroyer can take that on the chin.

So if the tracker is on ONE Resistance ship, why not have everyone go to light speed in a different direction? “Ok team, you go here, you go here, you go here and they can’t follow ALL of us. Ready, break!”

So Leia was Wonder Woman all along? Her space flying scene was the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen in a Star Wars movie. When she got blown off the ship I looked at Mary and said, “Shit they actually killed Leia…and early.” Then she space walks like Buzz Aldrin back onto the ship. W.T.F. Do not fgive me her “Jedi powers.” No. Stop it. No. No.

Ok so this Snoke guy. What’s his deal? Oh, you don’t know either? I guess you just gotta have that Evil Emperor character and since Vader already tossed the original down the shaft, why not just invent a new one? Makes perfect sense to me. I also hate the First Order in general. Can we not get new bad guys? A new storyline that isn’t a recycle of shit we have already seen?

Ackbar goes out like that? Damn man that’s kinda harsh.

So I guess Finn and Rose take a trip to Space Monaco to kill some run time in the movie and make sure Finster gets his cameo. That entire sequence was a massive filler. This is all they could do with Finn? Total waste.

The more I thought about the movie, as well as Episode VII, I realized why I was so indifferent to these movies.

Timothy Zahn ruined this for me. Thanks Tim. What I wanted were Jedi twins, Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Han & Lando, crazy hermit Jedi Joruus C’baoth, and Grand Admiral Fucking Thrawn.

That’s what I wanted. Impossible due to the age of the actors, I get it. But I will take Thrawn over Snoke/Emperor 2.0 any day.

Occult Chronicles Review

Occult Chronicles Review

Cryptic Comet’s latest turn based video/boardgame hybrid, Occult Chronicles, is a game I should love. Basically it’s a mash up of Arkham Horror, Elder Sign, and “Roguelikes”.

But I can’t stand it.

It’s not because of its crushing difficulty where you can play with an agent for a while and finally feel like you are making progress only to walk into a room that begins flooding with water and since your particular character doesn’t have the proper stat make up – he/she is as dead as fried chicken for no other reason than you walked into the wrong room. Whoops. It’s ok. I get it. It’s part of the “roguelike” thing. The idea is to see how far you can make it before you die. There is a certain degree of accomplishment that goes along with that.

It’s not because every encounter breaks down into a trick taking card game. You see a zombie! “Deal me some good cards, baby!” Sure it gets repetitive and sometimes it feels like the cards are out to get me and I don’t fully understand why Mr. Davis decided to go with the card game as a resolution mechanism but whatever; I can adjust even if I don’t find it particularly compelling.

It’s not because it’s a tough game to get into. Davis’ other games are hardly user friendly either and they are some of the finest turn based games you buy. Would I like it if a spell description simply explained WHAT it did and not some boring mathematical equation telling me how it works in-game? Yes. Yes I would.

It’s not because it’s impossible to play with a balanced agent. If your agent has a low “wands” rating which basically equates to them being scared shitless at everything they see, it’s going to be a tough and rather short trek into the mansion.

It’s not because the user interface is weak – hell all of Davis’ games suffer from this. If you know Cryptic Comet’s games, you know what to expect – more mouse clicks that a game of Diablo. (Ok, that’s not true. But there is a lot of needless clicking in this game.)

All of those things are annoying by varying degrees but what makes me not want to play Occult Chronicles anymore is that there’s no narrative. The game is clearly paying homage to Lovecraft at every turn and yet there is no suspense. Your character is supposed to be an agent – used to seeing some crazy occult stuff and yet you can lose sanity points by failing to open a locked door? Wha?

You are out to stop some really evil thing from happening – like summoning Cthulhu. You show up inside a large 2D mansion and off you go, looking for …something. There is no rhyme or reason to what you find in the house and there is absolutely no build up whatsoever. You may find a zombie in the opening room. Defeat it and open a door and you might see a haunted stuffed crocodile. Um, ok. There’s haunted ghost armor across the hall. The next room might have a demon. Hey, sure, why not? After that maybe you’ll fight some wolves, or play chess against death itself. Perhaps you’ll see a ghost butler who wants you to perform a quest which may involve you finding a ghost cook who needs you to find his ghost knife. It’s a house of random evil shit. There’s no suspense, no build up to reveal what is lurking in the house. It’s just a hodgepodge of horrors thrown against a wall. In you go!

After two days of dying over and over and over again, sometimes to a creature that likely should kill me but often times via heroic means such as drowning, going crazy because I failed a sanity test when talking to a “creepy mortician”, or getting trapped into a fight that I couldn’t win or flee from, I’ve cashed in my chips.

I’m done.

Gone Home Review

gonehome_familyportrait

You arrive at the doorstep of a mansion. Your parents recently moved there with your kid sister but you are seeing it for the first time because you have just arrived from your backpack trip across Europe. It’s dark, stormy, and the place looks like it’s been ripped out of a King novel (one of the good ones). No one is home. The lights flicker. The TV is on but it’s just white noise. You enter the house looking for signs of your family.

It’s difficult to talk about Gone Home without venturing into spoiler territory. The game, if you insist on calling it that, is all about the story. There are no controls to speak of, no inventory to rifle through, no health meters, no reflexes are required, your amazing hand eye coordination is meaningless, and there is nary a weapon in sight.

Ah, so it’s an adventure game!

No, it isn’t.

There is no “adventure” here, either; at least not in the typical way we tend to view adventure games. There are no “puzzles” to solve, no riddles to think your way through and no dialogue options from which to choose. If you thought a game like The Waking Dead was devoid of actual game mechanics then Gone Home will feel like a school project.

But that’s part of what makes the “game” work. In Gone Home you are merely along for the ride; a passenger on a ghost train that only reveals itself as you muddle your way through a seemingly abandoned mansion one room at a time.

Is that enough? Is sitting down in front of your PC for two hours (literally) and piecing together an interesting story worth your $20? We like to debate the merits of “value” of a game when discussing its critique and while I still strongly believe that price has no place in the evaluation process of a game, (then again neither do stars, ratings, or any other ridiculous measuring stick) but in this specific case you need to at least know what you are getting into.

Gone Home is short – two hours short, but that’s somewhat irrelevant. More than that, the writers know you are playing a videogame where you are wandering alone inside in a spooky abandoned mansion that looks like it should be a terrifying place to wander around alone – it plays on that emotion at every possible turn. And this is where it’s difficult to really talk about Gone Home without giving anything away, and I do think you should play the game, which is really all a “used to be game critic” can offer, right? I’m glad I played it, but I’m not nearly as happy that I spent $20 to do so.

That said, the writers and designers of this game deserve great praise for their ability to tell an engaging story via spoken dialogue (journal entries), sound effects and music, Post-It notes, and by strategically placing mundane objects around the house that help you slowly piece together what happened to the family that lives there. It’s an amazing achievement that the writers can tell such an emotional story via post cards, letters, and travel brochures. As far as pure storytelling is concerned Gone Home is equal to and in most cases is far superior to anything you see in today’s so-called blockbuster videogames. Of course since the game is all about the narrative – it better be damn good or it simply won’t work.

But I can’t help but feel a little manipulated by Gone Home. Not because of its length or its lack of any real gameplay, but because it knows…the game knows I play videogames and it knows it IS a videogame and it takes that fact that uses it against me; when you strip that away you are left with a sad, emotional and ultimately wonderfully told story trapped inside a mediocre game.