Alice Escaped! is a stylish action / adventure Metroidvania with adorable chibi characters in a fantasy setting heavily reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. The most notable characters of the famous English novel are brought back to life by Alice Escaped! as allies or enemies. During your adventures, you’ll get to meet cute chibi versions of The White Rabbit, The Dodo, The Hatter, and obviously The Cheshire Cat, The Queen of Hearts and even Alice herself.
Usada and Kotora are two high-school friends who, one day, while doing their homework in the library, discover a mysterious book that transports them into its fantasy world: Alice’s Wonderland. In order to go back home, the two girls are tasked to find Alice – who seems to be hiding somewhere in this world. Like in most other Metroidvanias, the story itself is not the focus of the gameplay; here too, it acts mostly like a context for the game rather than a narration that unravels bit by bit. However, the characters the two girls meet in their journey are very nicely portrayed. There are also ample conversations as interludes in-between two areas / chapters, or before a boss fight. These, together with the few quests available, are enough to keep you hooked.
Regarding gameplay, you’ll be controlling either Usada or Kotora, with the ability to swap between them as long as you have the required energy. Kotora has a ranged attack (she uses a gun), while Usada uses her hammer to fight enemies in melee. The controls are simple and precise, and your damage builds up as your combo score increases. As you explore the world, complete quests and gather crystals, you will be able to spend those crystals on buying or upgrading abilities, becoming stronger bit by bit. The talent tree offers quite a big amount of upgrades for the girls’ skills, plus some other useful perks that ease the gameplay, such as recovering health over time, revealing on the map the locations of skill crystals, increased speech ability that allows you to unlock more dialogue options and events, lower the damage you take from enemies etc. There are a few bosses in the game, but they are not extremely complex – although they are still fun to beat. They usually have a rotation of 2-3 attack types that you can easily learn to overcome, and their health is gated behind a shield that has to go down first before they actually start taking damage.
The game can be played on three difficulty modes, and there are a few notable differences between them aside from the different amount of damage you do or take from enemies. In casual mode, for example, Kotora tags along with her friend and even does some passive damage when Usada is active. In normal and hardcore mode, spikes instantly kill you, while in casual mode you just take some damage. The difficulty can be changed at any time during gameplay, and there is only one achievement tied to the difficulty setting: defeating a specific boss on hardcore (the rest of the game up to that point can be played on casual difficulty).
The real highlight of the gameplay is the fantasy-tale atmosphere, the beautifully hand-drawn environments and the adorable characters – even the enemies are super cute. The world is filled with vibrant colors, and all areas have a high level of detail. There is a Gothic mansion to traverse, sunny hills and equally dark forests, a huge jumping puzzle on volatile clouds, and probably my favorite type of all: areas with candy-like art that will have you hop on cakes, candy cane platforms and wafer elevators – to name a few (please don’t play these areas while hungry!). The enemies are a good mix of ranged and melee: butterflies, mushrooms, flying books or pencils, shooting flowers etc, and all have some very basic attacks only.
One feature that I really like about the game is the minimap that is always visible on the top corner of the screen (it can be turned off from the settings menu too). The minimap displays the current room in a stylized manner, making it obvious where all the platforms are; deadly spikes and the map void are also shown. This, and the fact that the map is revealed one screen at a time (otherwise covered on the minimap with some fog-of-war kind of thing) makes it quite easy to traverse the world and see which areas you haven’t explored yet. The quest objectives are usually also marked on the map, but the location of the characters isn’t.
There are five possible endings in Alice Escaped! and these depend heavily on the quests you complete and the items you manage to acquire. These are meant to be progressively unlocked, and the game is designed to not allow you to reach the “real” ending straight from the first run. Each time you reach an ending, the game world is completely reset (you will also be able to reset it at any point in time after the first run); you get to keep the items and all unlocked skills, but the fast-travel points are intentionally rendered unusable to make you traverse the whole map again which takes a lot of time. Since the order in which you complete the actions affects the ending you get, you might end up wasting valuable hours on going through one or several game loops only to get to an ending that you already reached during previous runs.
With every reset, something changes in the world (obviously, as long as your previous runs weren’t completely identical). This allows you to acquire that one extra item needed to progress a bit further, as well as collect any amount of skill crystals you want (they also reset) and feed them into your talent tree, similarly to a roguelike mechanic if you so want. Sequentially unlocking the endings is an interesting approach, however I personally find this whole repetition extremely tedious and frustrating, and the game is probably built this way to artificially inflate the playtime. The first run is extremely shallow in comparison to what you can do in the 4th or 5th run, mostly because you don’t yet have the necessary items to unlock most of the areas and not enough crystals to notably upgrade your skills. The conditions for unlocking a certain ending are intentionally hidden to waste even more of the players’ time by having them try a different combination or order of actions. Quite a few variables lead to a certain ending, and these are to be guessed, which costs almost a full run every single time.
Personally, I enjoyed the first 1-2 runs, but starting from my 3rd run, the game already felt like a chore. I did manage to reach all five endings eventually, but that took me a lot of loops (perhaps even more than 12 in total), most of them spent on trying different variations of quests / dialogues etc. Unfortunately all endings are quite unsatisfactory, with 3 of them being exceedingly disappointing. All felt rushed, and apart from maybe the “real” ending (the last one in the unlock sequence), they did not give any kind of closure to the story.
The first run should take you between 6h and 8h, and the game has some degree of replayability given by the non-obvious conditions to reach the various endings. The subsequent runs become faster because you get to learn the map and optimal paths, and I’d say that starting from the second run an average playthrough takes around 1-2h. Two speed-run achievements show the fact that the game can indeed be finished in less than 40 minutes, but this obviously requires some degree of practice with the game and with the map layout. The rest of achievements are awarded for reaching the endings, plus unlocking all abilities / obtaining all the items / revealing all the locked areas etc. Two achievements require you to reach the true ending without unlocking the perks that reduce the damage taken.
In a nutshell, Alice Escaped! is very cute and fun, but please be prepared to replay it several times, with very little difference between runs. If you pick it up thinking it will be good enough to do one playthrough and reach *some* ending, then it’s probably better you stay away from it because that ending will be far from one that gives the story any kind of closure. As long as you don’t mind the necessary repetition to achieve the real ending of the game, then Alice Escaped! can prove to be an excellent choice if you like Metroidvanias with adorable visuals.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a press preview copy of the game, kindly provided by illuCalab via The Indie Game Collective.