Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands doesn’t really get started until the end. The best part of Gearbox’s new loot-shooter is an endgame mode called Chaos Chamber. It is both a total bummer and, ultimately, for the best that you can’t unlock it until you roll the credits, as, take it from me, doing so has genuinely tarnished the rest of the game. Now, whenever I boot up Wonderlands, all I wanna do is re-run Chaos Chamber.
As you probably know, the game is a spin-off of Gearbox’s popular Borderlands shooters. It’s set entirely in a version of Bunkers & Badasses (a tabletop role-playing game with fantasy elements). Your goal is to defeat a villain named the Dragon Lord (voiced wonderfully by Will Arnett), restoring balance to the land. Classic D&D stuff — if you look past the fact that this make-believe realm is ruled by a unicorn named Butt Stallion.
Once you defeat the (disappointingly easy) Dragon Lord and roll the credits, you’re called back to Brighthoof, the main hub city. You sit through some typical post-game fare — “press X to unlock new feature that would’ve been really nice to have 10 hours earlier” — before getting summoned to Queen Butt Stallion’s castle, where the Dragon Lord is sentenced to live out the rest of his days. That’s where you find the Chaos Chamber mode.
Chaos Chamber is an endlessly replayable mode that takes the two core verbs of Wonderlands — that’d be “shooting” and “looting” — and does away with the rest. You’re tasked with fighting your way through a series of spaces with increasingly challenging battles, culminating in a boss fight. At the end of each room, much like in your favourite roguelites, you can choose what prize awaits you upon clearing the following chamber. Some rooms take you to a chest. Some take you to a buff, which lasts for the rest of your run. Others take you to the Dragon Lord, who can implement parameters that ramp up the challenge but allow you to earn more crystal shards.
Those shards are key to how Chaos Chamber works. As you progress through a run, you can spend them on various buffs — boosting your gun damage, spell damage, reload speed, shield capacity, things like that — with each buff costing twice as much as the last. You could also spend 50 shards to turn the next chamber you enter into an “elite” room, giving enemies more health. (Pro-tip: This is always worth it, as every enemy in an “elite” room will drop even more shards.) Or you can save them for the very end. If you do survive to the end of a run, you find a room lined with statues corresponding to each classification of gear; turn over 500 shards to a specific statue and you get a bunch of loot of that category, at least one of which is often a gold- or legendary-tiered piece of gear — the highest rating in the game.
Over my 20-hour-ish run through Tiny Tina’s campaign, I found three gold weapons and one gold class mod. After completing just four runs through Chaos Chamber, my inventory looked like…
It’s Borderlands distilled to its very essence, stripped of all the nuisances and carry-on baggage. No confusing maps. No backtracking amid imprecise platforming segments. No blatantly referential, if admittedly quite funny, one-liners. Just bright colours and fun weapons, and waves upon waves of enemies to use them on.
But Chaos Chamber also introduces the one thing sorely missing from Wonderlands’ main campaign: an actual challenge.
I’m sure this isn’t the case for all players, but somewhere along the way, my Wonderlands character grew a bit too big for their britches, to the point where the game’s ceaseless parade of firefights played out as rainbow-coloured stopgaps between story beats.
As a Clawbringer (you get a baby dragon friend) mixed with a Spore Warden (you get a weird mushroom humanoid friend), I’m accompanied by two creatures who not only run train on enemy crowds but can also revive me when I die. My cooperative partner — a Graveborn crossed with a Spore Warden, which combines to result in the delightfully named Morticulturist class — is similarly accompanied by two little beasts, and similarly invincible. By the time we hit the game’s final third, we pretty much entirely stopped dying, even on the highest difficulty. We defeated the Dragon Lord in, oh, two minutes. We did the same for the requisite boss-before-the-final-boss-who’s-supposed-to-be-tougher-than-the-final-boss. It’s not that Borderlands games need to be challenging per se, but some resistance would’ve been nice, y’know?
Chaos Chamber offers plenty of resistance. When you’re starting out a run, you can opt for a “Chaos Trial,” each completion of which allows you to unlock new ranks of an additional difficulty mode called Chaos. (You can apply Chaos mode to any part of the base game as well.) At the first level, enemy health is increased by 25%, and stats like the amount of damage they deal or the amount of gold and XP you earn are boosted by 4%. At the second level, enemy health is increased by 49%, while the other stats go up by 8%.
There are 20 levels.
I still have a lot of Wonderlands left. My menu is currently packed with side-quests that need mopping up, and I’d like to mess around a bit with my alternate characters to get a sense of how the other four classes work. Next week, the game’s first expansion, “Mirrors of Mystery,” is due. I feel like I’m missing out a bit — most of this stuff seems legitimately engaging — but every time I boot up the game, I ignore it all in pursuit of an insatiable craving for one thing: chaos. Highly lucrative chaos.