A trip down the virtual rabbit hole
I’m starting to realize just how hard it is to review virtual reality games. Technically, writing anything is tough, especially when you are expected to make a persuasive point and connect the dots for a reader who might not see (or care to see) the same pattern you do. In standard reviews, I can sort of assume a lot of things about a game that I might not be able to assume when that same game is being played on a VR headset. Player movement is a great example. Or accessing the inventory. Or firing a weapon. Or… really anything, actually! I don’t always get to work through the subtext of a story, or even really discuss the quality of the experience using the same benchmarks as traditional, flat monitor gaming. It’s just too damn easy to get caught up in the basics. It’s like re-learning long division.
That’s the struggle I’ve been having with myself over Alice VR. It’s a good, solid VR game, made by developer (Carbon Studios) that knows how to make VR content. I had a lot of fun playing it, and you’ll be able to determine that from this review. But I can’t shake the feeling that I like Alice VR precisely because of how long it’s been since we threw those traditional benchmarks out the window. To be honest, it’s a victory for any VR developer if they can get their game working without making the player sick. Alice VR meets that criteria (for me, anyway), but is that reason enough to call it a good game? Would I fixate so directly on player movement in any other first-person non-VR game? Probably not. But ultimately, I’ve determined that it’s simply not fair (or realistic) to expect virtual reality and 2D gaming to reach parity any time soon. And the simple fact of the matter is that when a developer is able to cover their bases and make the foundation of their game immersive and non-destructive, the effect for the player is arguably more exciting than experiencing well-executed game mechanics in a traditional desktop game.
Does that make sense? What I’m trying to say is that Alice VR gets a lot of things right, and it makes sure you know that early. You are Alice (yes, Lewis Carroll’s Alice), but you’re not in Wonderland any more. You’re on a space ship (say what?), and you’ve got a strong urge to get off of it. From there, your journey begins. Once you’ve left the ship, the game’s environment changes drastically. A vast planet, at turns whimsical and foreboding, fills your field-of-view. Soon, you come across a vehicle that resembles a cross between a dune buggy and the Mars rover. Driving the speedy transport multiplies your movement speed (especially when shifting into second gear), so now that vast expanse of land and rocks actually seems traversable. Once you get to the business of inspecting everything, Alice VR really starts to reveal itself. Audio logs lie tucked away off the main path, and each one you come across details the strange events taking place all around you.
Alice VR weaves a broad story that draws ample inspiration from the famous literature we are all familiar with. A disembodied voice gently guides Alice from checkpoint to checkpoint, until we encounter a grinning acquaintance that requires little introduction. The Cheshire Cat—transformed into a shiny, floating robot—greets the player and offers a tip. You’ll meet up with him several more times, and there’s always a good reason to chat him up. However, the narrative suffers when it attempts to stray too far into plot points and character decisions that don’t jive with Alice (or her Wonderland). You’ll find yourself collecting canisters of graphene and other various collectibles pretty frequently. Sure, the game explains why you are doing this, but it doesn’t do a great job explaining why Alice would be the one doing it.
There’s a strong kinship between Alice VR and a number of early releases on past platforms. The early levels reminded me of a Playstation Portable title from about ten years ago by the name of Coded Arms. There were few standout experiences in the months following the PSP’s launch, and I remember heading off to college that year slightly disappointed that my brand new handheld was lacking quality content. Then I picked up Coded Arms at a nearby store and loaded it up. I quickly realized I was playing my first true handheld first-person shooter. The enemy AI was terrible, and the player movement was far too slow, but still! A portable FPS in my very own hands! I loved it.
Alice VR brought out a few “handheld FPS!” reactions from me. Much like the temptations of its titular main character, the game consistently found opportunities to play around with both size and scale. My understanding of Alice in Wonderland and various related literature made those experiences simultaneously familiar (in that they referenced an event from the story) and mind blowing (because that’s how I’d normally describe trying new things in VR). An inviting treat with the words “Eat Me,” for instance, led to some intense giggling, as I gleefully shrunk and grew in size. And in virtual reality, the effect becomes exponentially more convincing. When you’ve spent as much time as I have playing VR content, you’re well aware of what works and what doesn’t. Alice VR’s devs are aware of those guidelines too, and you can tell that they know what they are doing right from the beginning.
The same can be said for those quieter, more contemplative moments. When a VR game implements any type of puzzle-solving, I’m always excited. There’s something really special about using your understanding of spatial relations to physically manipulate a Rubik’s cube, or to re-position a large crane over a key item—and these important moments are simply lost in the abstraction of a controller or keyboard. Alice VR doesn’t just do a good job presenting puzzles to the player; it knows exactly how often the player wants to complete them. Every challenge ultimately led to opening a new environment, or triggering a new event.
To be clear, none of these gameplay elements are particularly groundbreaking to anyone familiar with RPG’s and other exploration-based experiences. But virtual reality forces us all (devs and consumers alike) to hit the reset button and explore new ways of implementing them. At the very least, Alice VR just needed to do a serviceable job making their giant open world run well at 90 frames per second, and given my familiarity with how many VR games don’t meet even this basic criteria, I’m very impressed with Carbon’s execution. I didn’t have the opportunity to try Alice VR when it launched about a month ago, but based on conversations between players on the Steam forums, it sounds like the game didn’t perform particularly well for the first week after release. I did not personally experience any game-breaking or nausea-inducing frame rate issues, though I suspect this has to do with some recent patches that have been released by the developer. My graphics card is no slouch, either (GTX 1080), so that could have had something to do with it.
While it may have encountered the same launch issues that plague so many other independently-released VR titles, I have a hunch that Alice VR is going to come back in a strong way. Carbon Studios has created the largest open-world virtual reality game that I have experienced to date, and they centered it around a historical literary character that provides a wide array of referential material. While the overarching narrative might leave you scratching your head, you won’t care all that much. You’ll be too busy gawking at the beautiful world laid before you.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Klabater ; Developer: Carbon Studios ; Players: 1 ; Released: October 27, 2016 ; MSRP: $24.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Alice VR given to HeyPoorPlayer by the game’s publisher.