Ever had one of those days when you fall down a hole and wake up in a small room surrounded by talking animals? Having been through a similar experience 10 years ago in American McGee's Alice, you'd perhaps imagine that young Alice would have learned what happens when you quaff strange green liquids. And yet, here she is, chewing the fat with talking animals like she's just bumped into some old pals on the way to the shops. It's those talking animals that you play as in this action adventure as you explore Underland, solve some engaging puzzles, and do battle with both undemanding enemies and an uncooperative camera.
Based on Tim Burton's recently released movie adaptation of the classic Lewis Carroll novel, the game has such moments of unhinged irreverence that come thick and fast, but falling down a rabbit hole is the least of Alice's worries. Defenceless and seemingly hapless in her ability to remain an appropriate size for any length of time, she has to somehow fend off the Red Queen's army, as well as her slavering Jabberwocky, to avoid capture. But with the aid of an eccentric bunch of anthropomorphic allies with special skills, she goes off in search of the deadly Vorpal Sword to put a stop to the queen's nefarious plans once and for all. Your role in the game is of protector and chaperone of Alice, switching between characters to solve puzzles or swat away enemies along your journey. Initially accompanied through the vibrant fantasyland by McTwisp, the time-slowing rabbit, and Mallymkun, the sword-fighting dormouse, your animal collective eventually expands to a four-strong party. This party ends up including the optical illusion specialist, the Mad Hatter, and the master of invisibility, the Cheshire Cat.
Whenever the game leaves you to explore the world and solve puzzles, there's a pleasantly engaging vibe to it--aided in no small part by intuitive, self-explanatory controls. Basic movement is assigned to the control stick and character swapping to the C button, which ensure you aren’t overburdened by complicated controls. To activate your all-important abilities, you simply point your reticle at the object you want to manipulate via the Wii Remote, select the appropriate character, hold down the Z button, and perform the required physical action. Telekinesis, for example, is initiated by motioning in the appropriate direction to haul an object away, while manipulating time has you frantically twirling the remote around in little circles until the hands of time come to a halt. This will allow you to stop evil trees and giant mosquitoes in their tracks. Although the rather basic nature of the early puzzles might feel unnecessarily simple for many gamers, once your character roster starts to fill up, the levels become pleasantly taxing. After a lightweight opening that lasts a few hours, the game gets its stride with a succession of thoughtfully designed sections that force you to combine multiple skills to solve a single problem.
But as much as your admiration for the more puzzle-oriented gameplay grows as the game progresses, your overall appreciation is held back no end by the alarmingly dull fighting system. Designed to halt your progress at regular intervals, a procession of the queen's merciless Red Knights regularly pour out of portals, with the intention of dragging poor Alice off into some kind of otherworldly hell. Taking the form of armour-clad playing cards, these bizarre underground denizens certainly look the part, but they fight with all the determination of tired wet lettuce.
With your resident dormouse apparently a master swordsman with a weapon the size of the average sewing needle, you simply run up to these sluggishly predictable opponents, mash the A button repeatedly, and dish out the pain until they politely fall over. Whenever Alice happens to get dragged into the void by one of these cardboard curmudgeons, it's rarely much of a problem. You wander up to the void, tap B a couple of times, and get back to the button mashing until you've dealt with the prescribed number of enemies. Within the opening hour of the game, it become painfully obvious that this basic button mashing tug-of-war between Alice and the Red Knights is all there is to this distressingly undemanding combat. Sure enough, several hours in and it never develops into anything more than repetitive attrition to break up the journey. The fights get longer, with the enemies beefing up their defences with shields, but for the most part, this is video game combat at its most basic and boring.
Adding to the growing sense of disappointment are the visuals. Particularly distressing is the fact that the Wii version unwisely tries to mimic Tim Burton's visual direction rather than going for the strikingly beautiful cartoon approach favoured in the vastly superior DS game. With a poorly optimised 3D engine struggling badly to keep the game's cutscenes running smoothly at almost any point in the game, you'll regularly wince at the game's performance issues. But a few dropped frames are far from its worst crimes. The variation in quality between the human and animal character rendering is, at times, bizarre. The poorly depicted Mad Hatter and Alice are an absolute travesty when placed next to any of their animal cohorts. Their voices are also lip-synched so badly that you'll probably wonder what language they were actually synched to, which only compounds the matter. Sometimes, it's simply a scene-to-scene quality variation because certain sequences look imaginative, vibrant, and beautiful. But then, they'll suddenly get garish and ugly in a way that makes the game look blatantly unfinished.
There's also the often abysmal voice acting. While you might not expect Johnny Depp to reprise his Mad Hatter role for the video game, the least you can hope for is someone with a working knowledge of the required accent. At times, it's hard to tell what on earth Depp's stand-in was going for as he veers from a clipped English accent to a gruff Scotsman--often in the same sentence. It's unintentionally comical but merely adds to the half-baked feeling that the game provokes in far too many areas. The soundtrack from composer Richard Jaques admittedly gives the game a much-needed veneer of professionalism, but it's really only papering over the cracks.
It's perhaps unsurprising to learn that the game's multiplayer features are limited to local co-op, but even that fails to add anything to the package. With horrific camera issues, you either have to stick close to your companion or put up with having the game teleporting you back to the frame. After a few minutes of abject frustration, you'll be desperate to get back to tackling it alone again.
With many engaging puzzle interludes, Alice in Wonderland evidently had the potential to be an engaging experience that did justice to the licence. But somewhere along the line, it lost its way with dire button-mashing combat turning much of the gameplay into a tiresome, repetitive trudge. With glitchy visuals, a badly optimised engine, and pointless co-op adding to the game's woes, Alice in Wonderland is a real missed opportunity.