Nobody ever said homage was easy. Few things are more difficult than capturing the blend of innovation and limitation that gave us so many classic games in the 1990s. It’s even harder to imagine the idea of threading this needle so well that you come out with a game that is indistinguishable from the era while retaining its own wholly unique identity. If you asked me to name a game that reached this impossible goal, I may have come up empty-handed a week ago. However, within one week of having their game in my hands, I can confidently say that Casper Croes has done the impossible: with Alisa Developer’s Cut.
Survive the Dollhouse
In Alisa Developer’s Cut, you play as the titular character Alisa. Alisa is an elite royal guard who winds up spurred into an eerie mansion while on the job. Players will come to learn of this mansion as “The Dollhouse”. The setup is a welcome cross between Alice in Wonderland and Resident Evil. The Dollhouse contains a variety of locales, with an even wider variety of enemies populating them. As a survival horror game, your goal should be clear from here: explore and survive.
Alisa herself is equipped with a growing arsenal of upgrades. Various weapons and dress types are scattered throughout the game to aid the player on their journey. The Dollhouse, the doll-like enemies you encounter within, and the weapons you use to fend them off provide the foundation of Alisa‘s design. Of course, each of these aspects has been polished and improved for Alisa Developer’s Cut.
Most notable is the inclusion of “Toothwheels”, a currency that rewards defeating enemies. “Toothwheels” are used to gain any number of the above-mentioned weapons and other upgrades. Most survival horror games tend to dissuade you from encountering enemies. Alisa encourages it and makes victory all the more rewarding.
Living Up to the Hype
Alisa bills itself as a nostalgia-filled trip to the survival horror classics of the 1990s. Honestly, that may be selling the experience short. While imitation would’ve satisfied the hearts of many fans of survival horror, imitation wasn’t enough for the developers behind Alisa. Alisa Developer’s Cut takes cues from all the greatest hits and manages to create an experience all of its own.
Of course, Alisa does wear its influences on its sleeve. However, it never uses these influences as a crutch. Rather, it infuses the foundation of 1990s survival horror with its unique aesthetic. Alisa feels like a game you could walk into and pick up from a store back in ’98, but I would never mistake Alisa for another game in the genre.
Alisa does have it all, though. From the gameplay mechanics to character tropes, to the setting itself. Alisa Developer’s Cut makes use of “tank controls” common to games of the genre and era, as well as a fixed camera angle. It has an eccentric shopkeeper and a super-powerful roaming enemy straight out of Resident Evil. The Dollhouse is a setup as ingenious as any of the classic 90s games Alisa is borrowing from. Likewise, rather than being limited to a mix of demons or zombies as is common to the survival horror genre, you instead contest with uncanny dolls and killer clowns. In this way, not only is The Dollhouse a well-designed labyrinth to explore, but the dangers within feel uniquely fresh compared to Alisa‘s inspirations.
Retro Problems Require Retro Solutions
This exploration of retro tropes comes with a slight caveat. While Alisa brings out the best of 90s survival horror, it also brings along a few mechanics unfamiliar to those who aren’t already huge fans of the genre. The “tank controls” and fixed camera angle mentioned before are perfect examples. To new players, they may make movement and combat seem slightly weighty at first. However, the game does more than a decent job of helping the player adjust.
For tank controls, the prologue of the game gives more than enough time to learn the ropes of movement. Aiming may still take a bit of time, but the game isn’t too unforgiving in the early enemy department either. The fixed camera angle is a standout as far as pleasant surprises go. While in another game a fixed camera angle may spell jarring cuts that render any challenge unfair, there was no such issue with Alisa Developer’s Cut. Instead, the fixed camera angle allows for the game to truly flex its stuff when it comes to level design. Each location you enter has its points of interest marked extremely well. You can always have a good idea of when you have taken in everything a room in the Dollhouse has to offer. In situations where depth perception may cause an issue, the level design compensates with concise but unobtrusive guidance.
Of course, Alisa Developer’s Cut has its fair share of challenges to offer. There are puzzles galore to solve as you explore the uncanny labyrinth that is The Dollhouse. The difficulty really shines within the game’s status as a survival horror. No matter how you slice it, enemies are tough. The resources needed for taking them down and recovering health are both scarce. However, this again shows the craft that went into each aspect of the game. While cash and health may both seem in tight supply, the game rewards the player with each for performing combat and exploration respectively. This creates a delicate balance where you always have just as much as you need. Keeping an eye on your short supply and slowly refilling it at nearly the same rate you lose it. There’s no better way to describe survival horror than that.
While Alisa may remind you of fond memories of playing Silent Hillor Resident Evil, don’t be fooled. Alisa goes the extra mile far beyond nostalgia. While players new to survival horror may need some time to adjust, Alisa makes up for this with outstanding level design and a rewarding combat system. Likewise, existing fans of the survival horror genre will find that Alisa Developer’s Cut goes above and beyond to bring back the magic of classic horror. Whatever your experience with survival horror, I can assure you that Alisa Developer’s Cut is an experience you won’t regret.
Alisa is now available on PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox X|S, Nintendo Switch, and for PC via Steam.
This challenging throwback brings all the magic and suspense of 90s survival horror - and then some.