Down the Rabbit Hole review
Few other works arguably embody the paradigm of fairy tales as much as Lewis Carroll’s seminal Wonderland saga. Given its boundless display of imagination, propensity toward the fantastical and the improbable, and its sheer ability to transplant us into a whole different reality, it seems logical that such a setting would be ripe for a foray into the virtual reality space. Cortopia Studios’ Down the Rabbit Hole does just that, giving us a charming and gorgeous VR adventure that whisks us into its subterranean world, even if it struggles a bit with making our brief visit feel wholly satisfying.
The game opens on a midnight forest, as a voice-over reveals that what we are about to experience is a bedtime story told off-screen by a grandfather to his granddaughter. As if on cue, a young girl, our as-yet-unnamed heroine, appears and enters a cabin in search of her pet, Patches. While searching inside, she comes across a trap door and proceeds to tumble down a deep hole, in the process giving our adventure its title.
The player’s input is twofold. The first is controlling the girl herself, steering her where you want her to go using normal gamepad controls and having her interact with the environment at the press of a button. The second sees you assume the role of what is essentially a disembodied spirit floating in the center of the rabbit hole, with its curved subterranean walls encircling you on all sides. Events happen all around you, small chambers within the tunnel walls lighting up as the heroine enters as if someone had switched on a lamp within. It’s like a mix of a dollhouse and an ant colony, interconnected and encased underground but viewed from the outside looking in, populated by...well, not ants but by the miniature-sized inhabitants of Wonderland.
I played the PSVR version using the PlayStation 4 DualShock controller, which involved interacting with the environment using a floating orb of light created by the controller’s light bar. As this light collides with objects, you may get a cute or helpful animation or sound (the splash as your orb dips in and out of the waters of a lake is a nice touch). Occasionally you’ll knock an item loose that you can then maneuver the girl over to and pick up.
It’s unclear what the line of separation between your two personas here is. Maybe your disembodied form is a force of nature – Lady Luck herself? – who serendipitously knocks keys off of hooks for the girl to find and tips oversized tea kettles to make them spill their contents. On the other hand, you might also be an incorporeal extension of the girl herself, as a few puzzles – for example, unlocking treasure chests – pull you into a first-person view so you can physically manipulate the chest’s dials.
As the story unfolds, explorable locations fill in the space all around you and continue to expand downward into the hole, making your slow descent to the final area located at the bottom of the shaft. It soon becomes clear that there is no real geography at work here: scenes are arranged above, beneath, and beside each other as space permits, with no regard for actual spatial sense, occasionally connected via magic transporting mirrors. A teacup lake shrouded in misty clouds appears several floors below a forest clearing; a castle and surrounding hedge gardens are found at the very bottom of the rabbit hole, despite their wide-open and boundless skies. (Though, to be fair, the source material had a similarly disjointed spatial sense, so this isn’t necessarily the developer’s shortcoming.)
Down the Rabbit Hole offers a mix of familiar characters and places with brand new creations. As such, its connection to Carroll’s novels is rather solid. It’s an original story – the protagonist isn’t even Alice, after all – but the feel of Wonderland and its denizens is captured quite faithfully. You’ll run into old faces like the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar, and the Queen of Hearts. The heroine’s initial fall down the hole sends her straight through the roof of the White Rabbit’s house, scattering the carefully stacked pile of invitations to the Queen’s party he was meant to deliver. You break it, you buy it, so it now becomes your job to collect the invitations that have floated all across Wonderland and deliver them to the Mad Hatter in the palace – oh, and of course continue the search for your missing pet.
The narrative impetus here is pretty flat, and the entire journey can be completed in about two to three hours, with maybe an extra hour or so tacked on for those who want to go through the trouble of finding every single lost invitation, though doing so doesn’t offer any rewards beyond an extra trophy and is more difficult than it’s worth. Along the way you’ll solve a series of puzzles opening up the path forward, with each location featuring one main puzzle sequence that must be solved.
There’s a good bit of creativity and use of the source material inherent in these puzzles: helping a cook complete her recipe, for example, makes the protagonist grow to a large size and become wedged in the house, which requires brewing up a potion that will shrink her back to “normal” size. Elsewhere you’ll have to brush your light orb up against musical flowers in a certain sequence to play a particular song in a forgiving sound puzzle you can reattempt as often as you like, with two simple three- and five-note sequences needed to advance, plus a more complicated seven-note sequence to collect another invitation. Each location also features a treasure chest with a combination lock, or smaller optional challenges that yield the collectible party invitations when solved. While there’s nothing groundbreaking or particularly difficult here, the tasks are engaging enough for a fun little diversion.
The soundtrack too is a good fit for a Wonderland experience, with darkly foreboding fairy tale symphonics complementing the surreal vibe. The voice actors do an equally solid job, and it’s nice that several of them manage to offer close approximations of their counterparts from the 1951 Disney animated feature.
The game isn’t shy about allowing you to get up close and personal with these characters, either. From your appointed place in the center of the rabbit hole, you can use your light orb to grasp onto roots growing out of the tunnel walls and shift the entire subterranean set piece in any direction you want, including putting yourself smack-dab in the middle of the action – imagine picking up a dollhouse, shifting it around on your lap, and pushing your face right into one of its rooms. This invites close scrutiny of the detailed environments (if you want to take a close look around White Rabbit’s living room, or inspect the Clockmaker Mouse’s office, now you can), and even allows you to see small flourishes like animated mouth movements during character dialogue, which would otherwise be too small to notice.
It’s too bad that the attention to visual detail doesn’t translate to the quality of the story unfolding. Characters are fairly chatty on an informal level, but when a full-fledged dialog scene with a legacy character does take place (temporarily zooming you into the girl’s first-person point of view and offering some inconsequential response options), it’s rambling and pointless, no matter how familiar the characters sound. It makes you want to just get on with the business of seeing the sights and solving some puzzles, not sit through the flimsy excuse of a narrative that exists solely to push you from one destination, imaginative though it may be, to another.
This lack of development oddly extends even to the girl herself. She is sort of a blank slate, with the narrator occasionally chiming in to ask his granddaughter (read: you) for input on a specific facet – he wants this to be your story, after all. Early on, you’ll get to decide just what kind of pet Patches actually is: is she a cat, as one might surmise, or the more unusual lizard? A bit later on, you can choose the girl’s name and favorite color, which will then alter her outfit to match your selection. None of these choices have any impact on the gameplay or story, other than superficial ones. This is a missed opportunity; even the multiple endings – which amount to only slightly altered voice-overs while the credits roll – don’t depend on your decisions or how well you did collecting invitations. Instead, it’s based on a final dialogue decision made on the spot, which can easily be revisited thanks to the final checkpoint just before this moment.
The one character that gets a bit more fleshed out, ironically, is the soldier 4-Half, a playing card who is the son of a Four and a Five and is shunned by the Queen’s other guards for not being a full number. He eventually becomes a companion to the girl, tagging along on her adventure and helping out with the odd puzzle. Occasionally he even becomes a playable character that you can switch to and back in order to manipulate items in two locations at once or, due to his being nearly two-dimensional, slip through a narrow crack to access a new area. It’s a nice addition, one that even comes with a bit of payoff near the end, giving him more of an arc than any other character.
Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland is an intriguing setting for a VR game, and this game nails it in the concept department with scenes playing out as if you’re literally stuck within its underground world of imagination. The attention to detail and visual design is impressive in its own right, and it complements the game’s virtual reality sensibilities by letting you maneuver in for a closer look than you might have ever thought possible. Sadly, neither the story running through it nor its characters do much to satisfy, leaving the whole experience – pretty as it is – starved a little for more narrative substance, which doesn’t seem right for such an acclaimed literary property. The puzzles and hidden collectibles make it worthy of a trip Down the Rabbit Hole for a short but sweet time while it lasts, just don’t expect it to carve out much of a lasting impression.
Down the Rabbit Hole faithfully and vividly recreates the roller-coaster feeling of bouncing through Wonderland’s zany environments in VR, even solving some engaging puzzles along the way. Unfortunately, it’s let down somewhat by a lackluster narrative and weak character interactions that could have made the whole experience far more memorable.