Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary isn’t necessarily meant to appeal to fans of Alice in Wonderland, I don’t think. It’s a visual novel of political and personal intrigue. I mean, would a game about the national politics behind Elsa’s wedding appeal to Frozen fans?
OK, maybe. Some fans like to dig deeply into canon these days, so here’s the premise for Wonderland Nights. Once a year, the four kingdoms of Wonderland meet to hammer out treaties and policies on magic, national borders, and such. That gathering is taking place and, as the White Rabbit, it’s your job to appropriately schedule everyone’s activities. This seems like just a way to keep everyone entertained, but it runs much deeper. There are alliances to consider. There are affairs to uncover. There’s scheming, deception, and intrigue under nearly every layer, and only by pairing the participants can you uncover it all to push towards the desired results.
That right there is your entire game. Each day has different activities, and you simply match up the characters to participate in these activities. You get a brief bit of dialogue, and anything interesting that surfaces is recorded in your diary. When all of the activities across the days are done, you get an ending based on your results.
So, where’s the gameplay? It actually begins after the first playthrough. Initially, you’re just randomly putting people together to see what happens.
As you start to acquire information, however, you can be more strategic with this. If you want a vote to go a certain way, you can match up a more susceptible character with one who’s more likely to influence him/her to your way of thinking. Got two people who enjoy falconry? Match them up and see how their enjoyment loosens them up. Found two people who don’t like the King of Hearts? You know what to do with them.
It all plays out like a detective story. You seek motivations and secrets and use the pairings to draw them out, learn a bit more, then try again. There are multiple endings, and the plot points are interesting (and sometimes funny) enough to keep the player engaged…for a little while, anyway.
Unfortunately, there are two major elements working against Wonderland Nights. The first is the repetitive nature of the gameplay. There’s little to break up the pattern of pairing and reading, pairing and reading. I get that this is a visual novel, but the open nature of the pairing means that the story isn’t very well told. You get chunks of context that stand separate from the others, then you get an ending. It’s only after you’ve played through it numerous times that the story really starts to flow as a story should.
The second problem is that the voice acting is bad. Most of the characters are portrayed as if read to students by a kindergarten teacher who’s gone through this book two dozen too many times. It’s somehow simultaneously over the top yet without feeling. And it doesn’t help that the recording sounds amateurish, as well. Volumes jump around randomly, some characters echo, and inflection doesn’t always match the situation (or even the previous line). Perhaps the developers spent all of their budget on the artwork, because the game looks fantastic. The boldly illustrated static scenes have plenty of playful personality. I would buy this if it were a book at Barnes & Noble.
However, that combo of issues will likely be enough to dissuade players from pushing through this game more than a couple of times. This means the more satisfying endings will never be reached. Worse, it means you’ll be done within just an hour or so, making this more of a Wonderland Night than Nights. Fans of Alice would be better served to leave the politics to the politicians and spend their time in Wonderland otherwise engaged.