Monday, February 24, 2020

Alice in Wonderland for the Nintendo DS: a hidden gem with a few flaws

People have been telling me for years that Alice in Wonderland for the Nintendo DS was one of the dual-screened system's hidden gems.

So, why did I wait until a couple of weekends ago to find out if I agreed with their assessment? Honestly, I dragged my feet on playing this version of Alice in Wonderland up to now because I found its box art repulsive. That's a terrible excuse, I know, but it's the truth. Plus, all that really matters is I eventually pushed my stupid biases aside and gave the game a chance.

Actually, I gave it more than a chance; I finished it--and in three days, no less. What did I think of the seven-plus hours I spent with Alice in Wonderland? The gist is I adored it. It's not without flaw, though, so keep reading if you want the full story on this portable puzzler-platformer.

Five things I loved about Alice in Wonderland

Its art style is surprisingly astounding--Imagine the gothic cartoonishness of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas mixed with the chunky, cel-shaded adorableness of Capcon's Okamiden. That's about what you get, visually speaking, from the DS version of Disney Interactive Studios' Alice in Wonderland. Not exactly what you expected from a throwaway licensed game, right? Me neither. But, boy, did I appreciate the unasked-for effort developer Etranges Libellules put into this 2010 release's aesthetics.

It's no cakewalk--Disney may have published this tie-in to the 2010 film of the same name, which the above-mentioned Burton directed, but it ain't no kiddie game. No sirree. That's not because the few enemies you encounter in Alice in Wonderland are tough to topple, mind you. Rather, it's due to the fact that it's not always easy to figure out where to go or what to do next. On a related note, one of the first things that went through my mind after I started this title was that it would flummox most youngsters. Hell, I think it would flummox most older players, too. I appreciated the challenge myself, but I have a feeling some folks will walk away from it in frustration.

It's the perfect length--One of the main reasons I finally got off my butt and booted up my long-ignored Alice in Wonderland cartridge was suggested it would take me around 10 hours to finish. Anything under 20 hours is especially appealing to me these days, so I was thrilled when I reached this game's credit roll in just over seven hours. If that sounds too short to you, consider this: I'll definitely tackle Alice in Wonderland DS again down the road. Not simply because I enjoyed it the first time around, but because I think I'll enjoy it even more the second time around thanks to everything I learned in my earlier playthrough.

It's more than yet another Metroidvania--At its heart, Alice in Wonderland is a member of the ever-popular Metroidvania genre. But it's a bit more than that, too. For starters, you explore and re-explore the game's multifaceted world map not alone, as you do in most such games, but with a partner (Alice herself) in tow. Also, you don't lead her around as the same character for the whole adventure. At various points, you join forces with three other "guardians" you can switch to whenever you'd like. Even better, each one gives you access to special moves that help you do things like cross gaps, remove obstacles from your path, and see the flipside of a level.

It makes ample use of the DS' touch screen--If you tend to like games that put the DS hardware through its paces, you should love Alice in Wonderland. Pretty much every aspect of this title is controlled via the touch screen. You use it to move the protagonists, fight enemies, interact with the environment, and more. You can even use it to mark interesting locations on the map so you can return to them later. It all works surprisingly well, too--though I'm sure it helps that Alice is a fairly slow-paced game that favors brainpower over reflexes.

Five things I didn't love about Alice in Wonderland

Some might say it uses the touch screen a little too amply--Why? Because you pretty much only use the DS' touch screen while playing Alice in Wonderland. You can't use its directional pad or buttons to control characters or battle baddies even if you want to do so. I can't say that kept me from having a blast with the game, but I also can't say I wouldn't have had an even bigger blast with it if it had allowed me to, say, use my 3DS' circle pad instead of its touch screen to move the white rabbit and his blond, bug-eyed charge left and right.

Fighting enemies isn't much fun--After my first hour or so with Alice in Wonderland, I groaned every single time the background ripped open and baddies poured out of the swirling vortex that tear revealed. The resulting battles never proved to be overly difficult; in fact, I don't remember losing a single one. As a result, I'm not sure why the game includes them--or includes so many of them, at least. In my humble opinion, the overall experience would've been a lot more pleasant if Alice either offered up fewer of such fights or filled them with fewer enemies.

It can be pretty confusing--Alice in Wonderland doesn't always do a great job of explaining how things work. The game's "jigsaw system" is a great example. Early on, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the puzzle pieces I uncovered during my travels. I eventually figured things out, but I got close to throwing in the towel a couple of times before then. I doubt that was the intention of the title's developers.

I wish the jigsaw system had more depth--This system is seriously cool in theory, if not always in practice. As I just mentioned, you collect puzzle pieces as you traipse across Alice in Wonderland's numerous stages. Whenever you come across a new one, you plop it onto the world map. How you connect it to the existing pieces determines which level, or which part of a level, you can access next. Unfortunately, the aforementioned map is small, so you barely get to explore the potential of this intriguing system before your journey comes to an end.

The soundtrack is a real bummer--Given Alice in Wonderland's visuals (not to mention its Tim Burton connection), I expected its soundtrack to be equal parts ominous and quirky. Instead, it's tepid and orchestral. Don't get me wrong, it's far from terrible, but in my mind it's at odds with the overall vibe of this darkly whimsical adventure.

See also: 'Six reasons all the people who suggested I'd hate A Witch's Tale were wrong'