Virtual reality is a fitting medium for adventure games. When the atmosphere is right and the scene is set, you start to think about the world in a way that taps deep into your reptilian brain, the same one that thinks “I exist here. Everything here is important to me.” When done right, you’re just there. This is where I took issue with Alice VR. At moments I easily snapped into the game’s mysterious adaptation of Alice in Wonderland with all the requisite futuristic set pieces of any sci-fi adventure worth its salt, and at other times felt stuck inside of a conventional PC game that didn’t respect me as a VR player.
Alice VR Details:
Developer: Carbon Studio
Available On: Oculus Rift, Vive and PC (Steam)
Reviewed on: Oculus Rift
Release Date: October 27th, 2016
Note: I was given access to both the Rift and Vive version of the game via Steam, but was told that only the Oculus version would be playable for review purposes at the time of this writing.
Due to an unexpected malfunction, you’re awoken from cryosleep by your spaceship’s AI and told that you have to go to an uninhabited planet below to retrieve fuel, liquid graphene, and get the ship back on course. On your travels through the ship’s various compartments to reach the bridge, you run into a number of tutorial-level puzzles.
This is where you first encounter the game’s matching puzzles and even a gravity-bending maze that shifts the whole world around you—only a preview of what’s to come.
Dropped off on the planet’s surface, you’re faced with a dilemma: find enough liquid graphene in the uninhabited city, or never leave. Just outside of the city, your adventure begins.
The story is a loose adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and although there’s no White Rabbit character to follow, AliceVR invokes Carrollian interludes of surrealness with the help of a mysterious green gas that you pass through on your way to the city center.
This is where the game begins to play tricks on you. Is the reality you’re inhabiting genuine? Does anything you do matter in these bizarre waking dreams, or are they just temporary bouts of madness? Yes and no. No and yes. These moments are by far my favorite in the game, which tops out at around 4-5 hours of gameplay if you go straight through and forget all the collectibles and aren’t too fastidious with the game’s many audio logs.
The story isn’t just a scene-by-scene adaptation of Alice though, and there are plenty of surprises to encounter as you meet some, (but not all) of the universe’s iconic characters like a robotic Cheshire Cat, a Mad Hatter AI, all the while following signs emblazoned with a White Rabbit symbol.
While sometimes circuitous, level design is fairly straight forward, and mostly tends to lay out obvious tracks for you to follow. Find a shrinking machine, shrink, go through a tunnel, return to normal size and pull a lever to open a door. Presto! You’ve opened a door to the next level.
You almost don’t have to listen to your companion AI, or care about the constant flashes of ‘NEW PRIMARY OBJECTIVE’ that haunt you every time you enter a room. If you do forget where you’re going though, you can look at the last primary and secondary objective on the menu screen.
Puzzles vary between extremely easy to medium difficulty.
The game’s use of Unreal Engine is mostly competent, however outdoor scenes can sometimes be rough around the edges. In a VR headset, you get an up-close look at a game’s art assets, and set design can really fall flat on its face if you reuse too many of the same plant, or get lazy with how a rock wall appears or disappears. This is sadly the case in AliceVR, although it’s redeemed somewhat by the game’s well polished indoor spaces.
I still couldn’t shake the feeling of an inconsistency in the world of AliceVR. Scale, while seemingly correct on the PC-version, feels random in the VR-version—and to be clear, this is taking the shrinking and growing mechanic into full consideration, as you spend most of the game interacting with the world in a 1:1 size ratio. Like Goldilocks, set objects in AliceVR like chairs or a the occasional skeleton are either way too big, or too small, and it leaves you feeling like some parts of the game were designed outside of a VR headset.
That said, at times visuals can sweep you off your feet, but it’s hard to reconcile the clear disparity in the game.
Voice acting tends to be melodramatic, but in a game that prides itself on its reality-shifting storyline, somehow the weirdness of the audio logs fits. Of course, your companion AI is flat and robotic, and like all robot protagonists (I call them nanny-bots), you have to listen to her to find out what to do next, where to go, etc.
And I should say that I’m not a delicate person in terms of simulator-induced motion sickness. I, like many seasoned VR enthusiasts, have ‘VR legs’. But that doesn’t make me bullet proof, so this is where the review (and the game) gets a little uncomfortable.
Remember that gravity-bending maze I mentioned earlier? Yeah. I’m not a fan. Plain and simple, I wish it weren’t in the game at all.
Walking up a wall in VR, i.e. abruptly changing what your reptilian brain considers the fixed horizon, is nothing short of stomach churning. Oculus’ own Best Practice Guide state:
“Avoid visuals that upset the user’s sense of stability in their environment. Rotating or moving the horizon line or other large components of the user’s environment in conflict with the user’s real-world self-motion (or lack thereof) can be discomforting.”
This of course isn’t a law, and Oculus isn’t a ruling body, but the observation stands.
If the mechanic were ancillary to game’s puzzles, I wouldn’t be nearly so miffed, but why a VR game would want to punish its players with a whole room of wall-walking pathways—making it a primary mechanic in the later half of the game—I just can’t understand. To be brutally honest, I had to get out of the headset and finish the level in PC mode. And that’s something I’ve never done.
My last grievance comfort-wise with AliceVR is the lack of ‘VR comfort mode’, or snap-turning, with the only three options being either play standing up, in a swivel chair, or use yaw stick-turning. Some people don’t like snap-turning, but if you’re playing the Oculus version, you’re likely to be sitting down at a desk, and full 360 swiveling with a cable isn’t the most comfortable.
Comfort-wise your mileage may vary, but I would definitely rate AliceVR as ‘Intense’, and for a walking simulator, that’s a shame.
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