Make no mistake, though, this is ultimately a flawed game, and one that becomes significantly moreso the longer you spend time with it, but some of the attempts at elevating what could have very easily been a cheap cash-in effort deserve some major props. French developer Etranges Libellules (I’ll just stick with their ELB logo version from here on out lest Word’s spell checker implode) gets a big pat on the back from me for using the look and feel of the movie to do more than just replicate the actors’ faces.
They also get a rather stern wag of the finger for cramming the most annoying part of the game — the combat — down players’ throats toward the end of the game. I’ll be honest: I gave up. After running into multiple areas with increasingly annoying back-to-back action bits, I just couldn’t take it anymore. If Alice in Wonderland is guilty of anything, it’s taking a basic concept and running it into the ground. The fact that I gave up when you can’t really die means there’s something seriously wrong with the ratio of awesome bits vs. repetitive grind.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a little here. Combat (nearly always against red card knights in increasingly powerful forms) can be a rather interesting affair. As your group of buddies grows — including a trio of mice, the Hatter himself and, eventually, the Cheshire Cat — your raft of abilities available for use in puzzles does as well. Telekinesis, freezing time, manipulation of perspective and more can be tapped in combat, too, but the game makes a point of doling out upgrades (if you can find them, but more on that in a second) that turns diminutive Mallymkun into the go-to girl (er, dormouse) for combat as she’s far faster than anyone else at dispatching enemies.
Fast is good, because it takes a good dozen hits to fell the lowest-tier enemies, and when the game gets into the thick of it, piling a half-dozen enemies into the same area, their strikes from afar can end up interrupting combat with just one target. Since you can’t “die” in the traditional sense (you’ll just disappear and reappear in the same place at the cost of some of the game’s currency, which is beyond plentiful), the combat goes on, becoming nothing more than a button mashing mess. Oh, but there’s an added annoyance to worry about: the card soldiers are constantly looking for Alice.
Yeah, every fight is essentially an escort/protect mission in addition to being a flat, boring bit of button mashing. Should a soldier find her, he’ll scoop her up and take her to one of the increasingly common portals where she’ll be slowly dragged to her doom at the hands of the Red Queen. If it sounds a little like the high tension moments in ICO, that’s probably because it’s pretty much a straight-up clone, except that ICO wisely knew to keep the numbers of enemies fairly low.
Alice in Wonderland, on the other hand, doles out increasingly numerous waves of progressively tougher enemies with ever-rising frequency. Sure, you can use McTwisp’s power to temporarily freeze enemies or March Hare’s telekinesis to rip the shields away from those enemies, but in the end it all comes down to mashing B to deliver as many hits in as little time as possible just to get to the next actually entertaining part.
And that’s the problem: the puzzles in the game are entertaining — particularly whenever the Hatter is involved. In a nod to Echochrome’s perception-is-reality mechanic, what the Hatter sees, the world becomes, meaning a random half-door image on the side of the wall meeting up with another chunk of doorway on the complete opposite end of the room put together suddenly become an entrance to a new hallway. A painting becomes physical and a massive chasm becomes nothing when two frozen strands of string are linked together, causing the canyon’s sides to slam together as if they were never disjoined.
Though none of the puzzles are difficult (this is a game aimed at kids, even if the E-rated title alludes to beheadings and death), they’re both fun to figure out and — this is important — cool to see happen. Most of the other actions in the game (freezing, lifting, tearing and attacking nearly everything in the world including apparently all the missing chests that have ever existed in every game that has come before) are repetitive and a little annoying on their own, but they’re combined in various and clever ways so that they never become completely tedious. Yes, you’ll know right away to use telekinesis to turn a tapestry into a temporary bridge, then use a time freeze to prolong it long enough to use a perspective change to connect the two bits, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to actually do it.
Much of the enjoyment from seeing everything play out so creatively comes down to the game’s visuals. This is a genuinely impressive game, rife with the same kind of gloomy, run-down look and feel of the big-screen Burton remake, and it all runs with only the barest of performance issues (the Red Queen’s castle was apparently a bit too big for the engine or the Wii to handle). Sure, there’s some rather obvious fade-in of object detail and some moody effects like fog fade naturally as you get close, but this also means the game nearly always runs at 30 frames a second and regularly spikes to double that. There’s some very obvious inspiration taken from American McGee’s Alice, what with disjointed chunks of checkerboard platforms and massive swirling vortexes happening at times, but that’s hardly a bad thing.
The voices don’t fare quite as well. The Hatter’s faux-Depp switches from Jack Sparrow to Fat Bastard at extremely weird times, and most of the others either sound reasonably close to the actors for brief moments and like someone else the rest of the time or are just plain boring. Unfortunately, the biggest offender is Alice herself, who sounds so disconnected from what’s happening that her cries for help may as well be the voice actress talking in her sleep. Coupled with the fact that she’s constantly quipping about the powers you’ll use in the game hundreds if not thousands of times and you’ll be sick of her amazement long before the game is over — and this is a maybe half-dozen hour affair.
Luckily, the rest of the effects work is both filled with punch (particularly things like rocks slamming together to form bridges) and spark. Hits, grunts, smacks and footfalls all have plenty of clean pop to them even with normal TV speakers. Richard Jacques’ soundtrack manages to evoke Danny Elfman’s style at times, but it’s also just as comfortable in going its own path — in truth many of the tracks sound rather similar to the American McGee take on Wonderland (sorry, sorry, “Underland” now), but again that’s not a bad thing. They’re somber, just a little spooky and filled with sorrow-filled choral bits — perfect for the tone of the game.
It’s just a shame that all those little clever puzzle moments are sandwiched by utterly throwaway and downright annoying combat sections. The game’s tip from being fairly even in both measures to being seriously combat-heavy ultimately dooms it to the bargain bin where some with more patience than I will be able to pluck the honest-to-goodness clever bits from all that sloppy combat muck.
It’s actually a little frustrating to see a game with some solid ideas end up losing itself in mindless repetition and overuse of some very neat ideas. Sadly, such is the fate of many licensed games, and though Alice in Wonderland comes so very, very close to being something I could recommend to old and young alike, it falls just short of anything but a rental.