Since the doors to No Man’s Sky opened last week I, like many others, have been begging for a VR version of the game. If that’s to happen at all, then it’s likely a long way out. Thankfully, Alice VR was able to scratch that itch at Gamescom this week.
I played through two sections of this new first-person adventure from Carbon Studio. It’s based on – though not a strict adaptation of – Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll’s legendary novel that’s so often mined for inspiration that I’m surprised there isn’t a Greenpeace campaign to save it. It’s heavily narrative-driven and visually impressive, making for a few promising trailers. What I found from actually playing was a game that delivered some stunning sights, though might struggle to separate itself from the already aging genre of gamepad exploration titles.
The first level was set in a desert environment that was quite something to look at. Having survived a crash landing on a strange alien planet (which I didn’t get to see myself) I slowly clambered through the barren wasteland, its brilliant orange rocks towering above me while a merciless sun beat down upon the scene. Up in the sky, I could seen another gigantic planet looming in the air, and I wondered what else I might find up there. It was clearly unintentional, but I was already getting a strong No Man’s Sky vibe from Alice VR.
Mechanically, the demo struck me as very simple. At one point I navigated a small maze, it’s only real obstacles being walls that raised and lowered randomly, disorientating me somewhat. The game was clearly trying to guide me to stumble upon some of its environmental storytelling, which did an effective job. At one point I came round a corner to discover a dead end littered with masks and writing that appeared to be in blood. Later, I would find a skeleton laid out on the rocks, its owner having succumbed to the heat at some point long ago. It created questions in my head about what was going on on this planet, which I’m eager to solve once the game comes out.
You’ll also find audio logs scattered about the environment which provide a few more clues. The voice acting is a little awkward on these; it sounds as if some of the developers and their friends have read off the lines, which is understandable given the budget of an indie title. It did detract from the idea that the world I was on was once home to a diverse, expansive culture, however.
At points I also had to throw apples at targets to open doors. This was done by looking at the apple, pressing a button to have it levitate in front of me, and then pressing another to throw it. As far as VR interactions go, this is about as basic as it gets; I remember doing that exact same thing back in the days of the Oculus Rift’s first-development kit (DK1) and recent games like P.O.L.L.E.N. had me doing the same. With the advent of position-tracked controls this kind of action comes up lacking, and it had me worried that Alice VR would be a decidedly dated experience.
Thankfully, some more intriguing experiences were found later in the demo. I got to roam the desert wasteland in a buggy, which hinted at bigger things to come and, in the second level, I was able to shrink down in size and pass through smaller gaps (though I don’t think I was meant to go through some, which clipped me outside of the environment).
That second level is set inside the game’s deserted city environment, which is left feeling intentionally cold and alien. There’s an eerie silence to the atmosphere, and I first encounter a robot repeatedly banging its head against the surface of a crate. This level of weirdness has me intrigued to find out what else Alice VR has hiding around the corners of its city.
There were also grav ramps that allowed me to navigate walls and ceilings as well as the floor. These were surprisingly comfortable to transition across to, and I got an unnerving feeling of vertigo as I walked up some walls. That said, walking on these ramps didn’t really add any fundamental new mechanics to the game; I’d like to see some Neverout-style mechanics at play but I don’t think we’ll get them in the final product.
What’s key to Alice VR‘s success is its release date. The game’s due for release in October on HTC and Oculus Rift, likely getting in before the launch of Oculus Touch. Hopefully it represents the last of an old but appreciated genre of gamepad games that gave us our first steps into virtual worlds, because it doesn’t really feel like it will cut it in the post-position tracked controller world.
If that’s the case, then Alice VR could be a great swan song for a dying genre.