Review: Alice Dreams Tournament

In recent times, the rise of online gaming has all but phased out the local multi-player experiences of yore. I'm sure I'm not alone when I reminisce about hours spent playing Golden Eye or Mario Kart 64 on the Nintendo 64; or long periods taking turns on PGA Tour Golf on the Mega Drive. As a kid growing up through the 16, 32 and 64-bit eras, multi-player gaming was all about getting together with a group of friends or siblings and battling it out in front of one TV with a single console and multiple controllers plugged in.

The Dreamcast represents one of the last major consoles to feature four controller ports as standard, and the inclusion of a modem makes it a system that truly straddled the eras where playing with others became an oxymoronic experience with gamers connected via the internet as opposed to being sat on the same couch. Obviously, there are still plenty of games that offer local multi-player play modes but these days it's seen as a unique selling point or gimmick rather than a standard feature. Enter Alice Dreams Tournament, an independently developed Dreamcast exclusive that borrows heavily from the Bomberman series and is all about recreating the local multi-player sessions of old, but with a modern twist.
The final look of Alice Dreams Tournament.
Alice Dreams Tournament has a pretty interesting development history, so we'll start there. The game we see today actually started life as an end of level mini-game in a totally different project, titled simply Alice Dreams. Entering development back in 2003, Alice Dreams was a 2D side scrolling platformer based loosely on the Lewis Carrol novel Alice in Wonderland, and at the end of each stage the player could unlock a short bonus game if certain parameters were met. One of these bonus stages involved a simple Bomberman-like multi-player stage that was only ever intended to be a hidden extra, but it quickly proved popular and was turned into its own game - Dynamite Dreams.

It was with this blueprint that developers Julien Desquenne and Nicolas Pochet launched a Kickstarter to get Alice Dreams Tournament turned into a reality; and the project quickly reached its meagre €8,000 target, finishing with a total of €28,000 from 374 backers (full disclosure - one of those 374 backers was me, along with several others from the Junkyard team).
How the earlier Alice Dreams game looked.
It's a great story and you can read the full history of the game here and the find the Kickstarter project page here; but let's get down to business. Alice Dreams Tournament is finally finished and many backers now have the game in their hands, so how does the Dreamcast's latest new release measure up? Let's go through the looking glass and find out...

First things first. Even though I have mentioned multi-player gaming heavily in the intro to this review, Alice Dreams Tournament is fully playable if (like me) you have no friends. There are several play modes that can be enjoyed by the solitary gamer, including a high-score attack mode and a multi-tiered championship style game where various rounds must be played against AI enemies in an effort to accrue points on a leaderboard. There's plenty here for the lone gamer, and make no mistake. For me, the most rewarding and addictive mode is easily the score attack.

In it, you are tasked with clearing as many stages as possible with your bombs as waves of AI enemies spawn. Some of these enemies are totally benign and will pass through you as you drop your bombs all over the stages and create huge chained explosions; while other enemy types will kill you on contact, thus reducing your lives counter. If the timer runs out or all your lives are lost then it's game over and you are offered a QR or alphanumeric code. This code can then be entered into the Alice Dreams Tournament website (or scanned with your phone) and your effort will appear in the online leaderboard. A cursory glance at this leaderboard will also reveal that multi-player attempts at this score attack are allowed, but in practice playing with two or more players actually makes things a little trickier as you not only have to avoid the deadly enemies; you have to avoid your teammates' blast radiuses too.
As you can probably tell from the screens, Alice Dreams Tournament takes more than a few cues from Hudson's previously mentioned Bomberman series. Games are played on a static 'board' made up of a grid that will protect players from blasts. Blasts are activated by dropping bombs as you go, and dropping several in close proximity will amplify the reach and radius of the explosions. These explosions are basically your main means of attack and defence, and are used to kill enemies, destroy destructible walls and open chests which yield power ups of varying flavours: speed ups, extra bomb capacity and bomb power etc. You do also have a 'road block' style item that can be used to temporarily block a path and corral certain enemies into a pen, ready to be offed using carefully placed bombs. In truth, Alice Dreams Tournament plays, for all intents and purposes, like a verbatim clone of its inspiration. This certainly isn't a criticism though, and the old adage of 'if it ain't broke...' has never been more justified than here.
What really sets Alice Dreams Tournament apart though, is the sheer number of game types, the lovingly crafted locations used, and the ingenious use of the Dreamcast VMU. First - the locations. Everything from school classrooms, to ancient temples, to fairgrounds is used as a back drop to the battles in Alice Dreams Tournament. At first, you probably won't notice the insane amount of detail littering the sides of each area; but once you take an explosion to the face and are forced to sit out until your 'cool down' timer allows your character to respawn, your eyes will be drawn to the charming animated roller coasters flying by, or the attack planes zipping across the screen.
These details don't affect the gameplay at all, but they are a really nice touch and overall the aesthetic of Alice Dreams Tournament is a joy to behold. The game's assets and art were all created by graphic designer Nicolas Pochet and really give the world of Alice Dreams Tournament a consistent and beautiful appearance. It's in keeping with this variety in the stages and character designs - most of the playable and non-playable characters are takes on characters from Alice in Wonderland (and robots, for some reason...but why not?) - that the variety of play modes is a perfect extension.

As you'd expect, there are the standard free-for-all and team battles where 1-4 players can duke it out in order to score the most points; but there are a number of highly enjoyable extra modes, many of which make use of the VMU. Colour Battle equips teams with red and blue paint balloons, and the team who covers the most of the environment with their colour wins; while Bodyguard makes one player the target and another the titular bodyguard who can create protective barriers and use bombs to attempt to kill the opposing target while avoiding the counterpart bodyguard. Brain Battle has players doing maths, where sums appear at the sides of the screen and players must choose the correct answer to stand under before the entire stage is destroyed by fire. Assault tasks players with destroying the enemy's armoured target boxes; while capture the flag is - as you'd expect - a capture the flag game where the flag is actually a 'beast' that needs to be returned to a nest. No, me neither. The interesting twist comes when the 'night' variation is thrown into the mix.
Assault and Capture both feature this night mode, and it basically bathes the whole map in darkness, and players can activate a searchlight by bombing the switches at the top and bottom of the map. What's really cool about this is that the VMU screen can be used to see where enemy players and targets are located on a rudimentary recreation of the stage which is displayed in real time on the controller screen. A further mode, called Hide and Seek takes this one step further by allowing one player to remain completely incognito while the other three are highlighted by a spotlight. The player who is 'hiding' needs to stay alive as long as possible and the player who kills them takes their place as the 'hidden' player. It's only by using the VMU screen that you can see where the hiding character is skulking, so relying on the VMU screen is the key to success in this mode.

As stated, all of these modes are playable with 1 to 4 players, with AI making up the numbers regardless of how many human players there are. Naturally, you can turn these off if you want to play with just friends, but it's commendable that there are so many customisation options for the number of players, timers, numbers of points required to win etc.
Alice Dreams Tournament set out to provide a new local multi-player party game for the Dreamcast, and it ticks pretty much every box on this front. Visuals are perfectly serviceable for this type of game and the artwork is of a very high standard. Animation is more perfunctory than anything special, but again is more than adequate for this genre. Music is toe-tapping, and the number of play modes is commendable. One criticism I do have is that the environments can be a little 'sticky,' and by that I mean that sometimes it's too easy to have your character hug a wall and go in totally the wrong direction to where you wanted to go. Doesn't sound too bad, but in practice it can be hear-tearingly annoying when you meant to go 'down,' but you're forced 'right' into your own blast radius that you were trying to get away from. Grrr. Speaking of annoying, the little voice that announces every single menu and highlighted option can grate after a while - imagine Alvin and the Chipmunks giving colour commentary as you cycle through the menus and you're halfway there. However, even with these two minor niggles Alice Dreams Tournament represents one of the best indie games I've played on the Dreamcast.
Games like Sturmwind are far superior graphically, and games like Wind and Water Puzzle Battles offer a lot more in terms of single player challenge. But Alice Dreams Tournament only ever set out to be a fun take on the Bomberman model, and in that respect it hits the mark with quite some accuracy. I'd even go as far as saying that it trumps the actual Bomberman game for the Dreamcast - Bomberman Online - in terms of ease of play, fun factor and variety of game modes.

If anything, Alice Dreams Tournament represents a triumph of simplistic aesthetics and enjoyable gameplay, and proves great things can come in small, affordable packages. Here's another look at Caleb's recent video on Alice Dreams Tournament in action:

Kickstarter backers who chose to receive the US and Japanese styled package versions should have their copies of the game now. Those who ordered the PAL style and collector's editions have reported a delay in delivery but Julien Desquenne has told us that these should be shipped in early May 2017. The game should be available to non-backers through the Alice Dreams Tournament website in mid to late May 2017.

Agree? Disagree? What are your experiences with Alice Dreams Tournament? Let us know in the comments or join the conversation in our Facebook Group!

Further reading:
Alice Dreamcast Tournament Website
Previous Alice Dreams Tournament articles


hoogafanter said...

No online ability at all? That's pretty disappointing...

OneStar said...

The game was a budget title, and exceeded expectations. After so many quick buck and no substance titles from HUcast, this is a breath of fresh air. A labor of love from a dev team from back in the heyday of Dreamcast homebrew.

No online is a shame yes, but you can't argue with the price and the features. This game also offers the easiest and most convenient online leaderboards to date using QR codes. The game was shipped in a very low quality bubble mailer, but it made its way here undamaged thankfully.

Worth the price if you can pick it up in the future.

Tom Charnock said...

I have to agree with OneStar. While online play would have been a nice addition, the vast majority of Dreamcast owners would never have used it; and to lament the lack of something only a handful of people would even bother with is missing the point somewhat. Either way, thanks both for your comments.

DCGX said...

Honestly, I don't think online play is ever expected from a Dreamcast game nowadays. The online leaderboard, though a bit cumbersome, is nice.

I haven't played much of this game, and I suck at it (I suck at Bomberman too), but the breath of modes is amazing. And I absolutely live the menus. Some of the best of Dreamcast, official retail release or indie release. This is a great addition to the DC library, and I'm looking forward to the next time my sisters are in town to give this a go properly.

hoogafanter said...

Just a shame for guys like me who can't get much local multi out of his casual calladooty playing friends... I was really hoping for online. Oh well, I'll still play this eventually...

Tom Charnock said...

hoogafanter - I'm totally with you on that front, I barely know anyone who lives near me who would want to play local multiplayer. That said, ADT is well worth a purchase for the single player alone. The local multiplayer is an added bonus for when you have visitors and you can force them against their will to play haha!

Unknown said...

Just received my PAL copy! Happy!

Tom Charnock said...

Cool! Let us know what you think :)

Unknown said...

Great video review thanks! Please note that:
- the game is available on the shop of the developers here:
- the complete OST (and more -> two unused musics!) is available for pre-ordering at Côté Gamers' website. Description in English at the bottom of the page!

Tom Charnock said...