Alisa game review: A nostalgic trip down memory lane
- Alisa is a survival horror game that deliberately harkens back to the dawn of the first 3D survival horror titles
- It wears the inspiration from classic titles on its sleeve but does a few new things to keep it interesting
- It's brutally difficult, so be prepared to face some pushback
Alisa is a rare sight. It’s a game that deliberately harkens back to the dawn of the first 3D survival horror titles like Resident Evil and Silent Hill and visually looks the part. The game looks like it could run on the original PlayStation console and in fact, the Belgian solo-dev, Casper Croes, even modded a PC to look like one and used this to great effect at conventions.
A blast from the past
Everything about the title brings back memories from those early 90s survival horror games, including the pre-rendered backgrounds, the short embedded cutscenes, and the 4:3 resolution. It looks pixelated, sure, but not in such a way that you’d think it was a modern 3D title with a lazy filter slapped on.
Sadly for some, including myself, but at the same time an aspect that many would adore, is that it also uses gameplay mechanics from those days. Yes, I’m talking about tank controls and fixed cameras.
One thing I don’t recall from those days, however, is that once you’re in aiming mode, you also have to aim up and down. And swiftly maneuvering your character around the game world, creating distance, and aiming at the proper position and height of your enemies will be vital to your survival.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an aiming system quite like this. If your gun has a large range, you can shoot enemies off-screen, as long as you can position your aim well enough. The orange reticule icon next to your gun (as seen in the screenshot above) indicates that your shot will hit. (though it’s not 100% accurate)
Enter the dollhouse
But before we dig deeper into the gameplay, let’s set the scene. Alisa takes place in the 1920s and you play as a special agent tracking down a criminal who has stolen something valuable. You’re in a train and agents are getting dropped off at different stops.
This intro serves as a way to get to grips with the tank controls I’ve mentioned earlier, but in a setting without combat. While this does help you figure things out, the glacial pace of the opening scene makes me think it might have been better left out or replaced completely by a cutscene, not unlike the way the first Resident Evil drops you in the mansion at the start of the game.
At the end of the intro, you get knocked out and you wake up dressed in old clothes, all alone in a creepy house full of mechanized dolls.
It’s a refreshing take on the age-old zombie enemies and it leaves a lot of room for creative enemies to encounter. There is quite a large variety of them that you’ll have to face during the game even, and they all pack quite a punch.
I won’t spoil any of the major story beats here, but I can share that there are interesting boss battles to overcome and alternate ways for some of them to play out, depending on your actions.
Like a true Resident Evil homage, there is also a lot of puzzling and exploration to be done. A lot of the doll house’s doors are locked and you’ll need to acquire keys by solving puzzles, defeating bosses, or exploring every nook and cranny of the creep house.
Using items feels dated, but appropriately so. If a door is locked, you’ll need to open the menu in front of the door and select the correct key from a keychain. The animation on this is a rather nice touch.
The puzzles themselves are also pretty well-done. From a letter block puzzle that asks you to spell out a word that is hinted at a few rooms away, to placing gears in a doll or arranging books on a shelf.
They’re fun distractions that shake up the main gameplay and rarely cause frustration, though there was one-timed puzzle that leads to certain death if you fail. Upon success, you’ll be rewarded with another Resident Evil meme reference that I could really appreciate though (other than the one in the caption above).
Looks and sounds authentic
As you’ve been able to judge by the screenshots included in this review, the game looks the part. You could easily mistake it for a game released in the late 90s, with the only difference being that a full team of developers worked on those titles and this was made by a solo dev from Belgium.
Having Limited resources breeds creativity however and that’s why even some of the voice acting was done by himself and his girlfriend. It sounds a bit campy at times, but it’s endearing and adds to the charm. Again, much like the first Resident Evil game (I’m drawing a lot of comparisons but for all the right reasons)
Prepare to face some pushback
Fighting the controls isn’t the only hurdle you’ll need to overcome. Alisa isn’t afraid of throwing multiple foes at you, each with their own attack patterns and it’s often best to just run and avoid them instead of defeating them all.
If you do decide to kill an enemy though, you’ll be rewarded with Toothwheels. Not cogs, not gears, Toothwheels. I like how that sounds in English, especially because it’s the literal translation of how we call it in Dutch.
They serve as the game’s currency and you can buy ammo, medkits, or new weapons and dresses with them but the latter ones don’t come cheap so you’ll have to save up money first.
This may sound easier than it is, but there are a limited amount of enemies that appear, and even saving costs you.
The merchant selling these to you is called Pol, a funny-looking and sounding hand-puppet that appears in holes in the wall across the victorian mansion (makes you wonder what’s at the other end of the arm) and he’s not here to do you any favors.
I’ve only found two locations where he appears and they are far and few between and he WILL run out of stock, so you better make those medkits count.
And with that comes a confession…
I haven’t beaten the game
This is rare for me. I have a personal rule where I have to beat a game 100% or at least have seen the credits roll before I attempt a review, but sadly, I’ve saved myself into a corner.
Just like the limited amount of ink-ribbons in old Resident Evil titles, I’ve spent too many resources on killing all the enemies, saving too frequently, and buying upgrades too soon. I now find myself between a rock and a hard place: with only a sliver of health left and 0 medkits available, I have to either face projectile firing enemies in the garden maze, or try and defeat a giant trident-throwing squid lady, ironically also hiding at the end of a maze.
But there is hope!
Casper has been updating the game non-stop. There is not a week that goes by that the game doesn’t receive a quality of life update, for instance: he just added the option to have modern controls instead of the tank-like ones and it’s now way easier to dance around bosses and avoid getting hit.
With time, I may revisit this game (possibly on consoles if he manages to port it) and with the newfound resolve, I may be able to see the credits roll yet.
Normally this is where I put the How long to beat and complete header, but I don’t really have an idea.
While the version I played can be considered a full release, the game is still being worked on so completion is not an accurate concept, yet a good player should be able to see the end in around five hours I think.
With all my backtracking, failing, and retrying though, I’m 8 hours in and only at the halfway point. Luckily I feel safe enough to make my judgment for this particular build.
Final thoughts on Alisa
- Looks and plays exactly like a 90s survival horror
- Fun puzzles and addictive exploration
- Impressive result for a solo dev
- Perhaps a bit too punishing
- Not 100% finished yet at the time of writing
Final Score: 3.5/5
Alisa is the perfect title for people who are nostalgic for the late 90s survival horror titles. It does interesting things with the old concepts and while its visual style perfectly mimics releases from that time period, it stands on its own and never feels like a cheap knockoff.
The difficulty is a cause for concern however and it’s the main reason I haven’t been able to beat the game. I’m confident that in time, and with even more updates on the horizon, this will soon be a thing of the past, and people who prefer to turn it down a notch will have the option to do so.
Alisa is available on all PC platforms and can be bought for €15 at the Steam store.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on a Windows 10 PC. Steam review copy provided by the developer.