Dealspwn Rating: 8/10
Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Étranges Libellules
Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios
Could someone pass the gravy? I’ve got a whole slab of humble pie to eat...
In a recent feature, I ripped film tie-in games a collective new one on the basis that, well, they’re all pretty crap. The one I feared the most? Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Burton’s not made a film of note for over a decade, his constant tinkering with established stories is irksome in the extreme and his visual style is firmly locked in Nightmare Before Christmas territory.
While I maintain I was right to fear the film – it’s shockingly bad and how dare he “reimagine” Lewis Carroll’s classic – I’ve now got my hands on the DS game. The box got opened with a cynical sneer, as the game went in the machine I started flexing my sarcasm muscles... and then two hours later, I was giggling like a schoolgirl and loving pretty much everything about it. Curse you Burton and your game-designing minions...
On the downside, it does take the “reimagining” of Wonderland as the starting point. It’s not Wonderland, you see, it’s Underland: the eight-year old Alice misheard it all those years ago. Now the survival of Underland has fallen on her tiny blonde teenage shoulders. The White Queen is in exile and the Red Queen has become all powerful and left Underland in a mess. Alice’s destiny is to find the scattered pieces of armour, collect the mythical sword, defeat the Red Queen’s pet Jabberwocky, see off her brutal reign and restore the White Queen to her rightful place on the throne.
Don’t fancy playing a whole game as a teenage girl, even if she does get to fight mythical creatures? Don’t worry. You don’t. Alice may lend her name to the story, film and this game but you don’t actually control her. Instead, you’re left in charge of four other characters: The White Rabbit, The Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat and The Mad Hatter.
We’ll get to those in a minute. First of all though, the game’s design needs praising because it’s a thing of gothic cartoony beauty. While Disney are the publishers, the designers are a French Studio called Etranges Lebellule. This means much of the Disney cutesy charm has been shunned in favour of darker, more twisted visuals reminiscent of slick, stylised graphic novels. Everything – from trees to bridges – appear gnarled and threatening in the game’s shadowy, mostly black and white world. There are flashes of colour, which actually serve as visual clues to solving the game’s challenging puzzles.
Something purple? That’s a challenge for the White Rabbit. He has the ability to control time, so you may need to speed things up so that a tree root grows quicker and forms a bridge. You may need to pause time in order to see what’s hidden by fast moving things, or rewind so that, say, the damaged bridge is restored to its former glory.
Other puzzles will require the skills of one of the other characters. The Caterpillar, for example, can reverse gravity, the Cheshire Cat – obviously – has the power of invisibility and The Mad Hatter can bend reality. As you unlock the characters and their abilities, you’ll have to roam back across areas of the map you’ve already explored but, here’s the thing: you won’t mind in the slightest.
A big chunk of why you won’t mind is down to the animation of the characters, particularly Alice who skips happily along behind you. There are times when you will need to go on ahead and explore, so you can “detach” Alice and leave her somewhere. However, leave her too long and she’ll start to cry and, as her wailing attracts the Red Queen’s soldiers, it’s something you’ll want to avoid. It’s also, of course, a particularly near line in time challenges.
Control is all stylus based – or stylus and button / control pad – which is where the game effectively loses full marks. This can be a little clunky, unforgiving if you don’t get the stylus movement exactly right or require the sort of hand contortion mostly seen in shadow puppetry shows. However, the charms of the game as a whole make it slightly easier to overlook such hiccups.
The best thing you can say about this game? It really didn’t need the tie-in. Take away the Burton / Disney connection and you’re still looking at a delightful puzzler with a sense of whimsy that’s an effective tribute to Lewis Carroll’s imagination. It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s good nonsense. And that, my friends, is exactly what Alice In Wonderland should be. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a hat and some humble pie to consume...
- It looks lovely
- The controls are easy to pick-up
- Challenging puzzles that belie its childish themes
- Occasional frustrations with the stylus control system
- Bad luck if you own a PSP rather than a DS
- Unfortunately, it can't quite make the film better by proxy
The Short Version: Finally, a game that exploits the DS - and DSi - to a decent level. It's lovely to look at, enormous fun to play, creative, witty and utterly charming. The fact that it's also faithful in spirit to the original tale is icing on an already very good cake.