Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland on the Nintendo DS is rather lovely; we thought we’d get that in early before you see ‘Inspired by the Tim Burton Film’ and walk away shrugging your shoulders in indifference. It’s not that we’ve got anything against Mr Burton, but movie spin-offs are on the whole very easy to ignore, mainly because they’re usually not very good. In this instance however, developer Étranges Libellules have crafted a game of rare quality, movie spin-off or not.
The game follows the plot of Tim Burton’s reimagining of Alice in Wonderland – Alice has been summoned back to Wonderland (here renamed ‘Underland’) and all is not well. The Jabberwocky has flipped out and torn the world apart and the creature can only be defeated by Alice, who must take up the legendary Vorpal Sword and strike it down. With four old friends (namely the Tarrant Hightopp aka the Mad Hatter, Chessur the Cheshire Cat, McTwisp the White Rabbit and Absolem the Caterpillar) to guide her, Alice has quite a task ahead of her. That she is pretty much useless doesn’t help matters.
The game can loosely be described as a 2D action adventure with a wonderful hotchpotch of play styles blended together to make an extremely satisfying whole. Initially you take control of the White Rabbit who must ferry a vulnerable and (as previously mentioned) useless Alice around the world. Much like the ethereal Yorda in the classic Ico, you must ensure that Alice is kept under your watchful eye at all times. Leave her alone for too long, and the Red Queen’s guards will do their utmost to drag her into a portal and take her to the Queen…then…(as one would expect) it’s off with her head. This is a tried and tested mechanic, that once again works brilliantly in this setting and you’ll often find yourself madly dashing back to Alice’s side to save her with only seconds to spare.
As you progress, more members of your team become available with each character having their own special abilities. The White Rabbit, for example, can pause, fast-forward and rewind time; the Cheshire Cat can make objects appear/disappear and leap up walls and so on. Using these abilities is central to solving the game’s puzzles, with combinations of multiple skills often needed. As with much else in the game, not all of the abilities available are necessarily that original, but the magic is in how they are implemented and the cadence with which the game serves them up. Acquiring a new ability nearly always opens up new possibilities and new areas to explore, and the sense of progression (both in terms of your characters and your physical progression around the world) is masterfully eked out.
Also masterfully handled are the controls, which make excellent and imaginative use of the DS’s (and DSi’s) many inputs. Movement is primarily controlled with the stylus, with combat being conducted with swipes and slashes (a la Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass). Character changes are also easily activated and menus, maps and goals are delivered with clarity. The DS’s microphone and camera are also put to great use in combat and puzzle solving. Should you manage to smash off a card guard’s armour, for example, a quick blow into the mic will send your foe cart-wheeling off the screen. Certain chests, on the other hand, can only be opened by locating a matching colour in the real world using the DSi’s camera. While this latter example is an optional extra (we don’t all have DSi’s…), both these examples highlight the confidence with which Étranges Libellules have approached the DS’s technology. Let’s put it this way – if you were to replace the cast of the game with that of the Legend of Zelda, Nintendo (and fans of the Big N) would be more than happy to call it their own!
You know a game is doing something right when even its map-screen feels worthy of mentioning but…well…did we mention the map screen…? As you progress through the game, you unlock puzzle pieces which are added to the map, these can then be rearranged, opening up new areas to explore or, more cleverly, opening up shortcuts. Want to get from one side of the map to the other? Simply rearrange the map, and ‘over there’ is quickly brought next to your location. It’s a lovely touch that excellently mirrors the chaos of the original book.
Also extremely noteworthy are the visuals which grab you before you even reach the menu screen – the opening sequence shows Alice plummeting down the rabbit-hole and introduces you to the pristine art-style and the beautiful character animation that runs throughout the experience. Partly inspired by Tim Burton’s own illustrations, it genuinely feels like a story book brought to life on the DS’s screens. Inked in monochrome with subtle washes of colour and flashes of more vivid hues, it captures the eccentricities of Lewis Carrol’s book and Tim Burton’s uniquely twisted stylings and arguably stands shoulder to shoulder with titles such as Okami and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker as one of the most visually striking games we’ve ever played (no small feat when considering the aging platform that houses it).
Underlining the glossy presentation is character animation that is more than worthy of being placed under the Disney name. Alice herself is a particular highlight that, despite her diminutive on-screen size, conveys a wonderful degree of schizophrenia, constantly flitting from wide-eyed bewilderment to carefree skipping to stern-faced concentration. She’s a lovable, freaky, sweet, hilarious bundle of energy that you just want to hug. Or run away from (depending on her mood). The rest of the cast are lovingly designed and each brings an individual personality to the game (Chessur the Chesire Cat’s reveal is one to look out for…as is the White Queen’s..er…’mount’).
So…Alice in Wonderland on the Nintendo DS is pretty much perfect then? Well…yes, it is…while it lasts. Reaching the end of the game doesn’t leave much incentive to replay, and the adventure isn’t the longest ever made. And, if we’re honest, the combat can at times feel a little repetitive, and the puzzles could be a bit more challenging… But that’s nitpicking and ultimately these things don’t matter as come the end credits you’ll be satisfied that you have experienced one of the most enjoyable, memorable and lovingly crafted titles to cross your path. We were tempted to end this review with a Wonderland-themed pun – something about it being one Rabbit hole you’ll want to jump down, or that you’d be Mad as a Hatter to miss it…. but such clumsy wordsmithery would feel out of place when describing such a sweetly compelling title. So, instead, we’ll just say this: Alice in Wonderland DS – flippin’ wonderful.
Have you downloaded the latest issue from GamerZines yet? Check it out here!