The spine of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books has been well and truly worn out by the many, many adaptations of his works. Whether it’s the much beloved animated Disney film from the 50s, the much less-beloved 2010 live-action affair from Tim Burton, or one of the multitude of other attempts on celluloid or silicon, it probably feels like we’ve been down the rabbit hole enough times.
Cortopia Studios has other ideas though, deciding to craft a prequel VR adventure that dabbles with one of literature’s best known settings to incredible visual effect. It’s just a shame that the writing comes nowhere near to emulating its inspiration.
Down the Rabbit Hole is a classic tale of girl falls down a rabbit hole, meets an anxious rabbit, a grinning feline and a strung-out caterpillar before coming across a grumpy queen who likes to chop people’s heads off. Despite ostensibly being a prequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you won’t be surprised to hear that Down the Rabbit Hole follows the tried and tested story-beats that Carroll wrote 150 years ago, albeit with a few original elements.
Our heroine has lost her memory, though she hasn’t forgotten that she’s ventured down the rabbit hole in order to find her missing pet, Patches. At a few points you’re able to point your lost lady in a particular direction – what type of pet you have, what your favourite colour is, what her grandmother taught you before her death – but it all seems fairly insignificant amongst the dull exposition.
There’s no pace, no drive, and in fact no characters that you’ll have any ounce of interest in. There’s a group of wayward cards who pick on one of their number as he’s a half card, with four and a half joining you on your adventure for… some reason? You show him no compassion whatsoever, only allowing him to join you out of necessity, and there’s no revelatory moment later on where you’ve become the fastest of friends.
I assume he’s only there so that Cortopia can throw some puzzles in your way that require two characters to solve. With the way half cards are treated by whole cards, it feels as though they’re trying to say something about discrimination in modern life, and acceptance of those different from yourself, but the idea is not so much presented as thrown at your feet in the most basic way possible. It feels as though Cortopia think it’s much smarter than it actually is.
Carroll’s world is one of wonder, and while the writers of Down The Rabbit Hole seem to have taken a day off, the visual designers certainly didn’t. The mechanical and visual elements of falling further into this magical kingdom have never looked better, and it’s a truly incredible piece of work.
As you move deeper into the never-ending burrow, your perspective sees you at the centre of the hole, with diorama’s opening up in the walls as you progress. Roots and handles allow you to grip the world and move it up, down and around you, and it’s a real pleasure peering into each of the scenes. It’s an effect you won’t tire of from beginning to end.
While you’re marvelling at the world in front of you, Down the Rabbit Hole puts a number of puzzles in your way as you head towards an inevitable meeting with the Queen of Hearts. These range from ridiculously easy to smart and enjoyable; it’s unlikely you’re going to be stuck for that long with any of them. A late attempt to break into the Queen’s castle involving different gardeners who’ll only perform one set task is particularly good value, but such standout moments aren’t enough to cover for the dull narrative.
The most captivating game mechanic is actually the most basic one – searching for missing invitations to the Queen’s party. They lurk in all sorts of places, rewarding you for scouring each of the beautiful sections and asking you to wave your hands about to knock invites off light fittings or out of trees so your character can pick them up.
You can access each section of the game via the Caterpillar’s mirror room, which handily tells you how many invitations you still have to find in each area, and it’s this one element that might have you loading the game back up again.