Disney movie + video games = turgid pap. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? But forget thoughts of Hannah Montana and Up, for things are changing rather rapidly at the moment. We’re already soiled-pants-excited by Warren Spector’s upcoming Epic Mickey, and we’re pleased to report that at the moment the Wii and DS adaptations of Tim Burton’s upcoming – and stunning-looking - Alice in Wonderland movie are very promising indeed.
Not just “good for a film license”, you understand. Just plain good in their own right. After a dearth of decent games for lovers of Burton’s delicious gothic wonderments (Batman Returns was a long time ago), we might finally have a couple that do their inspiration justice. And here’s why.
Despite being made for the two least powerful consoles on the market, Alice's visuals are actually a rather high point. These games are slick and graphically inventive productions, with the Wii version in particular taking great advantage of the film's bloomlit, colour-saturated looks atmosphere and strikingly off-kilter production design. But the DS version is just as interesting in a completely different way.
Above: The DS version might lack the realism, but it has stacks of character
If you’re a Burton fan, you’ll be aware that he's an illustrator and writer as well as film director. His off-kilter and deeply expressive black and white art was the inspiration for the DS game’s art style, and having seen the game running we think it works very well indeed. It’s simple and clear without being dull, and it's also incredibly atmospheric, blending the slightly creepy and the highly endearing with relish.
You won't be playing as Alice. At all. This might seem like a fairly innocuous decision (if a slightly odd one), but it’s actually a very good idea. Most movie-to-game adaptations are hamstrung by having to stick to the film’s action, tying the player to the main protagonist while the richness of the supporting cast is lost.
Above: It looks so striking you don't even need a "for the Wii" caveat
Between both versions of Alice in Wonderland, you’ll play as the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, the March Hare, the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat, and are tasked with protecting Alice throughout her journey. Both games are pacey action-puzzlers and both allow you to switch out characters on the fly depending on who is the best to tackle the current obstacle.
Above: It's amazing what you can do with a rich palette and some soupy light
All the characters have their own unique abilities, covering the likes of time manipulation, shifting perspective,and using invisibility. It’s an approach that makes for constantly shifting gameplay, a satisfying but non-frustrating blend of action and thought, and stacks of personality.
As Justin recently proved, there’s nothing wrong with appropriating a few ideas as long as they’re good ones, and Alice looks to be a masterclass in blending the right tried and tested mechanics into a tasty gameplay brew.
Above: Inside that rabbit beats the heart of a Viking warrior
For starters, the core gameplay on both formats is a healthy mix of both Yoshi’s Island and The Lost Vikings. For those of you not au fait with your SNES history, what that means is that you’ll navigate the environment with a computer controlled Alice in tow, simultaneously protecting her and clearing a path for her to progress through. Just like in Yoshi’s Island it’s not the end of the world if Alice finds herself in danger, as you’ll have a generous countdown within which to finish off what you’re doing and rescue her, and mercifully, there’s none of that soul-destroying baby yowling this time around.
Above: Interior environments have the right blend of grandiosity and madness
As we mentioned above, different puzzles will call for different character abilities, and you can switch and even combine different skillsets at will, just like in Blizzard’s classic Norse-em-up. And this is where things get cool. The Mad Hatter’s perspective meddling allows him to flip around the levels in the 2D DS game and work away in what was previously just a background. Even better, in the 3D Wii version it all gets a bit Echochrome, as he changes his viewpoint to line up objects and merge them together, for instance building a complete bridge out of broken detritus. And he has a brilliant attack whereby he looks at an enemy through his fingertips and squishes them, in what is no doubt a tribute to the classic Kids in the Hall gag.
Above: The flower might be pretty, but gates that big mean only one thing
The ever-late White Rabbit understandably manipulates time, in a kind of Braid-lite way, with shades of the Bayonetta and the upcoming Singularity. We haven’t seen anything as complex as the temporal mind-benders littering Tim’s existential adventure, but swiftly shrinking organic obstacles and rebuilding scenery is a smart way of keeping up the stimulation without slowing the pace.
Above: The DS game ups the atmosphere with smart monochrome colouring
The Cheshire Cat can turn things invisible and visible, essentially removing objects from the world or providing hidden puzzle objects, while the Barbara Windsor-voiced Dormouse can go Yoda with a whirlwind combat approach in the Wii version. A game that lets us play a cockney ninja rodent? We’re in. Throw in some strikingly surreal visuals in both versions – our favourite bit so far is throwing half a treasure chest in a river to create a full one with its reflection, before pulling it out and opening it – and we could well be onto a rare licensed winner.
These games aren't the customary case of licensed games bashed together by a bunch of weary press ganged devs. Their creators are bringing a whole lot of enthusiasm and creative thought to them. But that promise doesn't end with the developers. Tim Burton himself has provided ideas, design philosphies and support throughout the project, but recognising that games aren't film, has let the team run completely free in their own direction. Film director vision and developer freedom. Sounds like the best of both worlds.
Above: Spear or not, in three seconds that mouse is going to sick him
And game music nerds will be pleased to know that the legendary Richard Jacques is on soundtracking duties. He’s worked on everything from Mass Effect to Super Smash Bros. Brawl to Headhunter to Jet Set Radio to Ecco the Dolphin on the Dreamcast, and his inventiveness and ear for atmosphere should bring a great deal of good to the listening table.
Right now, we're yet to go hands-on with Disney's Alice games, but after extensive demoing and lengthy chats with the developers, we're definitely keen to keep an eye on them. If all the ingredients come together right, we could have a couple of licensed games here with rare imagination and flair, and that might actually live up to their inspiration come their release next month.
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