I’m not entirely sure if Alice Sisters is based on Alice in Wonderland or not. It could go either way. One of the Alices can eat mushrooms to grow big or small, which makes the question seem like an open and shut case. Of course it has to be based on Lewis Carroll’s classic text. But the other Alice throws rubber balls to kill enemies, the main bad dude is a demon bat, and the enemies are chickens, crows and other helpless creatures. I’m not sure Alice would have been on board with wanton animal violence.
It got us wondering, mostly because Alice Sisters needs something to make it memorable. It’s lacking a little personality, and a Cheshire Cat or Mad Hatter would have given it some much-needed va-va-voom. And we find it a little weird to take two steps towards Alice in Wonderland, which is in the public domain now, before getting scared and turning back.
Alice Sisters is a platformer where the biggest innovation is that it was built for co-op. Two players can play the two Alice Sisters at the same time, as long as they both stay on the same game screen (no split-screen here). One plays the taller of the sisters, who can chuck a rubber ball at her enemies for a one-hit kill, or destroy blocks with a well-timed bounce. The other plays the shorter sister, who has the ability to shrink, provided she’s nibbled from a mushroom at some point of the level. When small, she can squeeze into small gaps, but she also can’t jump for toffee. Both can bottom-bounce, but there’s the odd enemy that will only accept a ball to the face.
You can probably guess which of the two sisters is more fun to play. The bouncy-ball Alice is by far the better of the two, and it means that one player is lumbered with the duffer, while the other is jumping around merrily, killing any enemies she wants. We don’t really understand why ORIONSOFT have made it so imbalanced: for example, the smaller Alice can only grow small if she touches a tiny mushroom first, so her abilities have to wait until you both find the requisite toadstool. The other Alice gets her abilities right off the bat. And Little Alice’s abilities are situational, only useful when you find a narrow crevice. Tall Alice is useful everywhere.
So, that sucks. It’s less wearing in single-player, when you can switch between Alices at the touch of a button. But the result is that 95% of the time you’re playing one Alice, and only using the other one for 5% of the time. It’s a mechanic that somehow doesn’t work well for either single-player or multiplayer. But ORIONSOFT are committed. They can’t change now.
Designing for BOTH single-player and multiplayer is a challenge that Alice Sisters can’t quite surmount. The level design is the greatest victim to the compromise. Often, the Alices will have two parallel paths, with one Alice opening gates that are blocking the other Alice. That works fine in co-op, where you can both be traveling down your paths individually, but in single-player, it means backtracking, pushing a switch, then backtracking to pass it, and so on. It’s not a satisfying experience, not by a longshot.
But on the flipside, there are long, protracted sections with pixel-precise platforming where you get in each other’s way. When you’re both making the same jumps it gets messy, and you kind of, sort of, wish that the other player would bugger off for a bit. Once again, Alice Sisters falls between stools rather than acing the landing.
The difficulty is all over the shop, too. Bosses are so banally easy that we wondered why Alice Sisters bothered. Flying beasts hover in space for Tall Alice (rarely Short Alice) to leather it with rubber balls. It might swoop on occasion, but mostly one of you is just spamming them cheaply. Then they go down like a sack of spuds.
On occasion, you have tiny, temporary platforms in a long row, with bats flying in your face and a co-op partner getting in your way. It’s one hit kills, so there’s no room for error. It’s in these sequences that we lost a little will to live – just a little – and wished there was a little more of a gradual difficulty gradient. As it stands, the difficulty is as spiky as Sonic with a bad hair day.
Alice Sisters is perfectly capable of chaining together some nice level design and interesting obstacles – a broken clock, and all that. It has a love for sprawling levels with keys on one side of the map and locks on the other, and while that can make for some frustrating map-trotting, it does on occasion create a neat puzzle, as you work out the order to do things. Springboards and balloons are added, which make for more dynamic platforming.
Alas, Alice Sisters isn’t a classic. We can close our eyes and imagine the better game: full of Wonderland references, it would even out the skills of the two Alices to make them both worth playing. The levels would use them equally. But we’re not in Wonderland, and the reality, sadly, is very different.
Alice Sisters is a mediocre little platformer that can’t figure out whether it’s made for a single player or two players in co-op. In the end, it doesn’t work well for either. If someone asks you if you want to play, you might want to check your watch and tell them you’re late for another commitment.