The Tim Burton directed Alice in Wonderland movie has divided critics all over the world. Some claim it is a true masterpiece of quirky film making while others sound like they couldn't wait for it to end and the torture to be over. Being a licensed tie-in to what is essentially a kids' film, we didn't have such expectations of the DS game. We thought it would be universally panned, joining the huge pile of other games that kids might enjoy but everyone else thinks are utterly terrible. We were wrong.
Alice in Wonderland on the DS, created by Etranges Libellules, is one of the most inventive and smart DS games for kids we've played in a long time. Rather than simply take the movie and shoe-horn it into a video game, Etranges Libellules has devised a clever little platforming, puzzle adventure game, complete with some really rather wonderful visuals. The goal here is simple: restore Underland back into Wonderland and fend off the army sent forth by the evil Red Queen.
Rather than play as Alice, the young girl follows around the playable characters. While at first you're limited to McTwisp (the white rabbit), you're soon able to switch to Absolem the caterpillar, Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat. These can be summoned on the fly using the on-screen interface, and each controls in essentially the same way. The stylus is used to point in the direction you wish your character to move, with Alice in tow unless you've told her to stay put by tapping on her.
Movement other than walking or running left and right is more or less automatic, with jumping and climbing simply happening should you be pointing somewhere that requires such an action. At times Alice won't be able to reach the same platform as you so will require some assistance (indicated by a cry for help), which is never more than just tapping on her to offer a hand up or something similar.
Should one of your main playable characters have trouble getting past a certain point in a level, it's usually because a special ability needs to be used. These vary from character to character. For example, McTwisp can control time, pausing, rewinding or fast-forwarding it. This allows certain objects in the game world to be altered, such as accelerating the growth of a plant to provide a bridge across a chasm. He can also double jump across large gaps. Absolem can control gravity, Mad Hatter can flip the game world and Cheshire Cat can make parts of the level vanish or appear.
While all of these abilities might sound like they'd make for a complex kids' game, in practice they are very clearly signposted, and the game eases you in to things very well. Early puzzles are little more than tutorials designed to teach you the basics, while later on you'll require more skilled ability usage. The game even includes a handy map marking function, so you can easily identify areas that you need to return to once you've unlocked the required ability.
Combat plays its part too, with Alice frequently under threat from the playing card knights. These enemies will appear out of nowhere and try to take Alice through a portal. You then have a short amount of time to defeat these foes and pull the girl out of the magical gateway before she's taken forever. A few swipes with the DS stylus usually does the trick, and there are plenty of health pick-ups hidden in easily destroyed shrubbery.
In truth Alice in Wonderland is a simple game, with the puzzles unlikely to challenge anyone with years of gaming experience behind them, but it's presented quite wonderfully. The DS isn't capable of reproducing the visuals seen in the recently released movie, so the developers opted to give the game a look all of its own. The result is a fairly minimalist appearance, with highly stylised characters and environment objects. It looks great and is a perfect companion to Burton's crazy world.
Don't expect ico crossed with the mind bending puzzles of Professor Layton, but do expect a well produced adventure game with puzzles that don't make you feel dumb. There's nothing ground breaking about Alice's adventure in Wonderland on the DS, but it's hard not to be taken in by the charming game world and cast of likeable characters. A kids' game that doesn't deserve to be shunned.