The Timing is Just Right For This Lo-fi Horror Masterpiece
Alisa is voiced by the developer’s real-life girlfriend.
At the start of any year, people seem like they're only waking up. The same is true for video games — anticipation builds up as releases slow down, and, before you know it, you're dropping 60 hours into Palworld just to take the edge off. The timing is just right for a lo-fi horror game that until now could only have been played on PC. Enter Alisa: Developer's Cut, coming to PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch on February 6.
Belgian indie developer Casper Croes first released a demo (which is free-to-play on Steam and itch.io) for the Alice in Wonderland spin-off Alisa in 2020. Around then, he raised over $30,000 on Kickstarter to fund the project before fully releasing the game on PC in 2021. Screenshots of its lo-fi Victorian mansion have since periodically blown up on Twitter. In other words, the few enthusiasts who played the game kept it going for years. Now, it’s about to get the wide release it deserves.
Protagonist Alisa, a special agent hunting for a spy, spends most of the three-hour game stuck in an ornate dollhouse; fans of 1996 Resident Evil will anxiously recognize Alisa's twisting wood staircases, red carpet hallways, and tactile puzzles involving oddly-shaped keys. Through Alisa, which is as much of a slow-moving mystery as it is about defying mortality, Alisa regularly encounters misshapen doll enemies with cracked faces, some of which amble towards her like a lobotomized ex-lover, others that look like true monsters, with excess pieces of porcelain and flesh hanging off their frames like cherries on a vine. The dolls chirp as they approach, so Silent Hill players used to haphazardly aiming at the series' ringing or singing devils will know, instinctively, when it's time to point their guns.
While Alisa is a pious disciple of '90s horror in nearly every way — aesthetic, mood, and mechanics — it makes a few welcome adjustments to the genre's typically cumbersome shooting. You'll never have to pull out some miraculous 2024 aim accuracy, but, as Croes cites Call of Duty as one of the game's sources of inspiration, you might struggle harder than you would with 1999's Silent Hill, which is cool with you spraying bullets all throughout the air. An orange reticle informs you when you're on-target in Alisa, but you can also choose to start the game with aim assist.
After successfully blowing up a whiny baby doll, you receive a smattering of bronze "toothwheels" (a literal translation of the Dutch word for "cog," tandwiel), the game's currency. Bring them to the squawking hand puppet Pol, who will let you save the game and buy new items, weapons, and, my favorite, dresses. Some of these dresses are frothy but modest, like a 19th century wedding gown, while others barely-there and optimized for Alisa's resting hand-on-hip pose. All are capable of modifying your defense stats, or they give you additional perks, like a pleated nurse dress that lets you heal faster.
The Developer's Cut released on Steam as an update in 2022, so you can think of its console versions as simply "the full experience." Compared to the original game release, Alisa's extended version contains more items, cut scenes, endings (there are four), and, crucially, a new game plus. All of these tweaks work to enhance the original game’s mood, a slow-moving, dense brown cloud of gloom.
Unfortunately, some of Alisa will feel dated in less welcome ways. Alisa's bosom, for example, does not operate by earthly physics, but by horny imagination. Movement, as is expected from a game that prioritizes tank controls, is usually stiff and painfully slow. But I can look past all that since Alisa, voiced by Croes' real-life girlfriend, always seems amusingly sleepy as she roughs up her Wonderland. She's capable of anything, even sauntering around Hell as a dress-up nurse. The doll monsters, too, legitimize a girl's play time, turning what we might dismiss as cold plastic into a consequential nightmare. So Alisa: Developer's Cut is the ideal new release for pure honey '90s nostalgia, and for 2024 horror fans desperate to enter someone's dark daydream.