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Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary Review

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Alice has left Wonderland in chaos. She might have found a way home, but everyone else has to live with the consequences of her actions. A new Queen of Hearts has taken the reins, but the Kingdoms of Spades, Clubs and Diamonds are eyeing the Heartlands greedily. The White Rabbit, Cheshire Cat and Caterpillar have tried to find a new role for themselves in the resulting mess, and everyone fears that Alice is going to drop out of the sky, snickersnacking them all to Wonderland Heaven.

This game of thrones is a fantastic backdrop for a spot of visual novelling and faction-management. It’s a festering pot of political intrigue, as the four kingdoms of Wonderland all bicker and position themselves to be the de facto ruler of all four. Where Alice Madness Returns used Wonderland to air themes of mental health, Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary aims for realpolitik. 

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You play the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts’ PA. It’s the day that three representatives from each kingdom visit the Land of Hearts, to discuss four separate matters: war, the use of magic, trade and the opening of borders. The discussions are going to span four days, so you have to act as their day-planner, determining whither the twelve different representatives spend their time. 

Visual novels have been dabbling in timetable management for some time now. On Xbox over the past few years, notable examples have included C14 Dating, Roommates and Flower Shop: Summer in Fairbrook. The visual novel scenes that you view are often determined by where you choose to spend your day. More ambitious visual novels have even rammed in some resource management, as you keep tabs on Sims-like stats that go up and down depending on whether you overdid it at the gym, or spent enough time relaxing. 

Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary is in the same category, but tears up the rulebook. Instead of managing your time, you are managing everyone else’s. You are effectively playing the role of ‘speed-dating organiser’, as you partner up kings, queens and ambassadors from differing houses to see what happens. And while those other games use the timetabling as a kind of time-sink and distraction, Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary builds the whole game around it. You do nothing else but matchmake. 

Full marks to the UI team on this one, as the interface could have been confusing and undid the whole shebang, Imagine a kind of seating chart, with six different activities available. Tennis, Falconry, Jousting, High Tea, Music and Croquet are all available as a backdrop for some chinwagging. Your job is to allocate two people to each. This is complicated by each person having hidden likes and dislikes. The King of Clubs, a boisterous flirt, doesn’t like High Tea, thank you very much, but the prim and ditzy Julie absolutely adores it. 

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This is just one factor that might determine who you pair with who. After each day, you have to report back to the Queen of Hearts, and she will threaten to sever your head from your shoulders if people dislike their activities too much. Although, it should be noted that this is always an empty threat: we made the mistake of thinking that there was a Game Over screen for Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary, but you should be reassured that we never found one.

Another factor is who you pair with whom. People’s feelings towards each other are completely hidden from you. Some people are related; others are having affairs; while others boil over with hatred. Having these people in the same room can lead to fireworks. Sometimes, it can feel like you’re playing that fox-chicken-seed crossing-the-river game from school, as you carefully pair people for the maximum effect. Luckily, a journal populates with your acquired knowledge of each person, and that journal persists over multiple playthroughs. 

There’s another factor, too. The Queen of Hearts wants you to ensure that the votes, one each day, pass the way she wants. She wants war to end, magic to continue, trade to proceed and borders to come down. Who knew she was such a libertarian? But for this to happen, minds need to be changed. Pairing convincing people with those they have leverage over is a strong way to ensure that the votes are manipulated to your advantage. 

With so many factors at play, it’s enough to make you dizzy. But as you play Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary more and more, another factor comes into play. And this is where the brilliant achievements factor in. Because pairing people starts to reveal some secrets. Each person has at least one thing to hide, and you can poke and cajole that secret through different pairings. Sometimes, pairing the same people over and over again will lead to an emotional eruption of some kind. Other times, you have to carefully think about a sequence of pairings that will lead to the secret coming to light. And the achievements give you a strong hint of every last secret, so they act as a roadmap to some of the more exciting stories. 

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To be brutally honest, while we are visual novel fans, we’ve never much liked the timetable management examples of them. Especially on replay, they can feel like they’re makework, and there’s never a swift way to skip past them. The worst examples don’t really show any consequence: no matter where you position people, the same things happen every time. 

Well, we’ve finally found a good example of one. Hallelujah! Because Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary is fantastic – a modest stroke of genius. Rather than resort to resource management or makework, it uses the timetable to turn Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary into a Choose Your Own Adventure. YOU are determining how the story develops, based on your pairings. And the branching is enough to make your mind boggle. Even now, we have a third of the achievements still to unlock, simply because we can’t conceive of who we might pair to get there. 

Not since Return of the Obra Dinn have we presided over so many pieces of paper with notes scratched onto them. There should really only be a certain number of permutations, as there are only six activities and twelve people to allocate, but – through some wicked alchemy – Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary manages to subtly tweak events to create thousands of potential options, and hundreds of different events. 

There’s nothing quite like the feeling when a spark of inspiration leads you to pairing two people, only to see things play out exactly as you hoped. Someone drops a hint that they’d love to open a library someday? What happens if you pair them with someone else who likes books? Or someone who might be able to invest? And – would you Adam and Eve it – everything goes to plan, a wonderful story digression occurs, and the achievement pops. Then it’s time to press the replay option and give another sequence a go. 

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Sure, there are flaws. The rewind button has a limit, so you can’t scooch back to previous days and try a different path if things go wrong. The art isn’t to our tastes particularly, with grotesque figures that look like they have tumbled off cheap playing cards (which, now we think of it, is the point), and the voting layer – trying to manipulate people to vote your way – is entirely boring, with topics that have no impact on anything, really, and could have been more inspiring. But we don’t care. Because we have five sheets of A4 ruled paper here, and we’re trying to work out how to make the Jabberwocky win, damn it. 

Think of Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary less as a visual novel, although it is one, and more of a deduction game. Playing this way leads to joy after joy, as you pair up individuals using an astute timetable mechanic with the aim of unlocking one of a multitude of endings. Like an episode of Columbo, you know how things turn out, but it’s how you get there that’s the mystery. 

Now, excuse us while we try to find the choices that lead to Alice returning to Wonderland. There must be a way to do it. 

You can buy Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary from the Xbox Store

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