Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Etranges Libellules
Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios
# of Players: 1
Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)
When it comes to licensed movie games, the DS usually gets the short end of the stick and that stick usually has a particularly blunt end. With much less memory to work with, movie games squeezed onto the handheld (generally in record time) often show off the handheld’s limitations rather than its strengths. On the other hand, every so often you’ll see games that take what the system can do and combined with more stylized visuals and truly fun gameplay, manage to impress as much as (or more than) the console versions.
Alice In Wonderland does just this on the DS, thanks to developer Etranges Libellules, who also developed the Wii and PC versions of the game. Whereas the absolutely lovely, surreal console and PC versions are based on gorgeously colored, highly detailed imagery from the Tim Burton film, the DS game’s fantastic blend of strikingly (and even quirkier), hand-drawn 2D and 3D elements combined with the multi-genre gameplay make this one of the most surprisingly cool licensed games to date. The game isn’t quite what you’d expect it to be, yet there are more than enough familiar gameplay elements here that keep it entirely accessible to the target audience.
As royally cute as the cover art is, once you see the game in motion and yes, get busy with the stylus action, it’s hard to stop playing. Like the other versions, you’re not directly controlling Alice as the main character. You start out the game with The White Rabbit and Alice in tow and as the game progresses, you meet up with The Caterpillar, Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat. All of your unusual friends have areas of the game designed specifically for their talents often on the same map. It’s here where the gameplay shines and makes this nothing like a straightforward platforming experience. You control the Rabbit for a good portion of the first half hour or so as a running tutorial keys you in on movement, combat and problem solving. He can manipulate time and later, learn a double jump. So most of his puzzles revolve around making things stop, freeze or move faster while that jump helps him cross wide gaps.
As you go through these first few areas, the intuitiveness of the controls and menu system soon become apparent. Personally, I think this one of the most intuitive DS games I’ve played in terms of its learning curve. If fact, while there’s a bit of text in the game, the gameplay is geared so much toward a purely visual experience that you’ll eventually be able to look at parts of a map and figure out who you need to get Alice from Point A to Point B. The game throws a few areas at you where you’ll need to quickly swap out characters to complete multiple tasks, meaning you never feel as if anyone is “useless”. During your time in “Underland” You’ll solve puzzles, uncover hidden treasure and bonuses while exploring a nicely sized collection of stages.
While Alice is regulated to following the selected character, she can also interact with them very much like Yorda in the PS2 classic, ICO. Alice can’t jump too far, so each character has a means of aiding her across wider gaps or up to higher ledges. You can have Alice stay put as well, but don’t leave her alone for too long. The wee lass also has no combat skills, so when the dreaded Red Knights appear to whisk her off in a vortex, you need to get tap-happy with that DS stylus to quickly defeat them. As in ICO, if Alice is spirited away in a vortex, it’s Game Over and a trip back to your last save. Granted, save points in the game are numerous, so you rarely have far to backtrack if you lose Alice. On the other hand, the feeling of defeating the Knights as well as the game’s bosses is quite exhilarating.
It’s the boss battles that really showcase each character’s skills as you’ll need to move quickly in order to pacify some pretty tricky creatures. One early fight has the Caterpillar, who can shift air patterns in certain areas so the party can walk upside down, going up against a huge, toothy beast with multiple attacks. Trying to take it on directly is a bit crazy, but by changing the gravity, you can slam the beast to the ceiling or floor before rushing in to attack it for a few quick seconds before it recovers. Other bosses require a bit more work, but I won’t spoil those battles for you. Let’s just say that the game can be tricky, but it’s never cheap or too hard.
Another fun element is the map system. As you travel through Underland, you’ll need to locate map tiles shaped like puzzle pieces. Putting them together on the map screen in one order will unlock new areas, but swapping certain pieces around opens up shortcuts that can help you get past previously impassable obstacles. The trick is, you can’t place a map piece in you need to move the piece you’re on, so you’re sometimes forced to hoof it to a different part of the map so you can move the piece you were formerly on. I liked this element a lot and hop ELB does something else with it in the future (either for an Alice follow-up or some other type of game).
The visuals and sound production are fantastic. The graphics share influences from Tim Burton’s own art (of course), to Okami (the use of Asian-style brush work in characters and environments) and Patapon (the simple yet exaggerated enemy shapes and usage of black areas) and even a tiny bit of the cartoon-like Zelda games. While the pace of the game a a tad more languid than candy-colored mascot platformers, the use of color, mixture of 2D and 3D scrolling effects and overall “feel” of the game is superb. Richard Jaques’ score is brilliant, slightly eerie and always compelling you to reach the next new area. While the sound effects are minimalist, they work perfectly, especially when Alice needs a boost or shows fear when certain enemies are around.
Even simple things such as the menu system and adjusting options is well thought out and funny. You’ll want to go though all the options and adjust the sounds, microphone sensitivity (you’ll find out why you need that microphone in the game – think teacup boats) and even check out the credits just to see the cute animations. I don’t know if ELB has plans to do a second Alice game, but I’d love to see this art style either in a new Alice cartoon or on T-shirts or some other licensed products. There’s also a bit of hilarious manga/anime stylization in the game, but again, you’ll have to see these scenes for yourself.
As a bonus, the game cart has Disney’s “D gamer” functionality that allows you to create an avatar and connect to the D gamer web site for online fun and games. You’ll also unlock Achievements or gear your avatar can wear in your Collection in by collecting certain items in Alice in Wonderland. It’s a much more kid-friendly mixture of Xbox Live with a dash of Miis in the creation process, but we’ll see if this catches on n the future. Given that Disney games have an automatic user base, I’m sure the service will do quite well. I was going to ignore it and just play through the game, but I relented and cooked up an avatar just to see how well the feature was implemented. It works perfectly fine, bit I’d have loved to have the ability to make my little guy look as if he was drawn in the style of the game art.
As far as negative issues go, well, there aren’t many to speak of. While the controls are intuitive, once in a while the camera will pull back to show a larger puzzle area, making something like a small jump a bit tough to tap out precisely (as in the return trip past the the bathtub puzzle). If you hate lots of backtracking, there’s a great deal of it in the game. However, it’s well-designed backtracking, as you’ll be required to use skills your team hadn’t learned during your last trip through the stage to reach new areas and uncover hidden items. The exploration element of the game is in fact, where the bulk of the fun is, so I’m gathering that those who want to buy the game won’t mind trekking it about from start to finish.
Overall, for a licensed game, Alice In Wonderland is just about as perfect as it gets and so far, one of the best DS games of 2010. It’s long and challenging enough to feel rewarding yet never wears out its welcome thanks to its stellar visual style, combination of familiar gameplay styles and emphasis on exploration. All of these elements equal nothing but pure fun when they’re mixed as well as this. Even if you have the barest interest in licensed games, platformers or normally dislike games geared toward a younger audience, the consistently quirky nature of the game (and its amusing dialog) will have you hooked.