Playing: Twisted Wonderland

This dream passing before your eyes was hazy.

But there was one moment that burned its way into your memory. 

The sound of clopping hooves scrape across the dirt road reverberates in the dusty air mixed with a faint fog on a cold evening. The night sky, coloured a gradient of violet, surrounds a large white moon. A chilled breeze dances through naked, gnarled tree branches, decorating either side of the road. Lime green flames flicker within small lanterns, threatening to be blown out, adorning the carriage led by two horses and lighting a winding path up to an ominous, tall castle upon a hill. 

The carriage jostles over stray rocks on the dirt path.

It was hard to see at first, but if you focused your gaze at the transparent windows on all sides of the carriage.

You could make out a grand ornate coffin within.

Who could have known that once this dream broke and brought you to consciousness, you would become a student, beckoned by the Dark Mirror’s siren call, of Night Raven College, isekai-ed straight from the comfort of your own world, directly to a place of magic with handsome teenaged bishounen and an uppity magical cat sidekick/mascot? But the even bigger question now was: how was a non-magical person like you to return home?

Welcome to Twisted Wonderland

Scrolling through Tumblr in 2018, one exciting piece of news that stuck with me was learning that Yana Toboso (creator of Kuroshitsuji) would work on a new mobile game using Disney as inspiration. Fast-forward to mid-January 2022, the English translated version of Twisted Wonderland made its home on my cell-phone, but upon opening the app, the one expectation I had for the mobile game immediately shattered into pieces.

…It wasn’t an otome game.

Although the game doesn’t offer the player a chance to romance any of the beautiful boys in the Twisted Wonderland cast, I fell in love with the hard work Toboso poured into the plot, the dialogue, the character designs and the other visuals to create this love letter to Disney and its villain characters.

As someone who has watched and read a chunk of Kuroshitsuji, I felt that Aniplex made a great choice in asking Toboso to take on the project about Disney villains because her beautifully drawn work deals with some dark themes. According to a Twitter thread of an English translated e-mail interview in Magical Archives (July 2020) by @tealisk, Toboso spent 300+ hours re-watching Disney films and documentaries filled with insight from production staff. She used Disney shows inspired by the animation studio’s classic films (including the Descendants series and the Sofia the First series) as well as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s The Avengers as references to create a newly imagined story where several characters from different worlds and time periods exist and interact with one another in a school environment.  

Twisted Wonderland’s story doesn’t have a main character (per say) but features each of the seven houses and its respective students in Night Raven College in each chapter. Currently, the game has three chapters including a prologue. The nameless player character may not have an appearance, but the dialogue Toboso wrote for her reveals that the player can be either a bubbly, expressive or a little snarky, realistic female lead from a cute shoujo manga.

The concept of taking and re-working Disney villains in a magical setting is a fun experience because its characters and the game’s world celebrate the villains for positive qualities, thereby creating a different perception of them. For example, those who have seen the Disney film, The Little Mermaid, Ursula, a crafty sea witch, manipulates a naive young mermaid, Ariel, into giving away her voice and via dubious plotting, forces Ariel’s father, King Triton, to sacrifice himself to save his daughter. In the game, Ursula is praised for being benevolent, helping poor, unfortunate souls achieve their desires.

An interesting idea mixed into Twisted Wonderland’s plot is the overblot concept. Overblot is a condition where individuals take on a monstrous version of themselves from overusing their magical powers and tainting their wands by their overwhelming negative thoughts and emotions. In the Magical Archives interview, Toboso states that the idea for overblot comes from a villain’s final resort to achieving their goals in using “violent means.” A villain is named as such because of “their lack of control over their feelings and the resulting rampage” caused by those strong emotions. In a story inspired by Disney villains, I love how there are no heroes of justice in the story, but self-interested characters whose beliefs clash with one another. What Toboso keeps in mind as she writes the scenarios in Twisted Wonderland is how the fighting between opposing opinions can widen the world of those involved, allowing them to reflect and “gain a little more cunning wisdom.”

My favourite character designs in the game come from Ignihyde. Inspired by Hercules’ villain, Hades, their design is linked to Hades’ love for games. I thought it was a genius idea for Toboso to link games to technology, giving birth to an adorable android younger brother and an extremely socially awkward older brother duo. It’s refreshing to see because it’s not an obvious choice. When I think about Hades, I recall how he’s the god of death in Greek mythology, so Ignihyde could have introduced us to goth characters with an obsession with the macabre, the afterlife and the spirits of the forgotten (tying into how the Three Fates worked alongside Hades in the Disney movie). I also like how Toboso made the characters feel cooler and visually striking compared to the other houses by incorporating Hades’ colours in their design – having bright flaming blue hair and piercing golden eyes.  

My favourite house in Twisted Wonderland goes to Octavinelle who are formally introduced in Chapter Three (Part 1) because: 

  • I’m a HUGE sucker for twin bishounen characters, especially when their personalities are inherently different but still complement one another,
  • Their jazz aesthetic is everything. With Ursula dressed in a sleek black dress, it makes sense for Octavinelle to be equally elegant and cool. The characters are super suave and cunning in their cool suits and fedora hats. 
  • Did I mention how this dorm holds this school under their thumb? What a bunch of shadow kings. (They are a bunch I legit would never want to mess with.)
  • Plus, like Ursula, Octavinelle are entrepreneurs, signing contracts (having great rewards and steep punishments) with students and run their own establishment, the Mostro Lounge, on school grounds. #bosshustlers

To make the mobile game more enjoyable, Twisted Wonderland’s gameplay is split into two types: a rhythm game with three variations (named Twistunes) and a turn-based card battle system game (which means, yes, it also has a gacha system to pull for new units). 

Twistunes variations play with how sensitive a mobile device’s touch screen is. For example, one variation is having red and blue circular notes fly onto the screen, prompting the player to tap them on beat, however, the left side of the mobile device’s screen corresponds to blue notes and the right side for red notes. Another variation, in comparison, has only green circular notes appearing on screen and the player needs to tap anywhere on the mobile device’s screen to clear them. What makes Twistunes enjoyable is watching how your overall score can lead to either a good or bad outcome.

The turn-based card battle system can be played or left on auto-mode (should you want to maximize the amount of gaming time you have for a day). The player gets to attack their opponents twice. Battles can have turn limits (usually 5) and have specific conditions players must adhere to if they want to win the fight – either draining their opponent’s health bar down to 0 or dealing more damage compared to their opponent within the turn limit. Element advantages/disadvantages are added in the battle system to spice things up. There are four elements in the Twisted Wonderland battles: Water, Fire, Flora and Cosmic. Unlike the other elements, Cosmic doesn’t have a weakness or strength over the others. Water beats Fire as it beats Flora as that beats Water (I swear, this sentence makes sense.)

After the game’s release in mid-January 2022, there was a period between late January and early February (roughly a week or so) where there wasn’t any new scheduled content unlike other “anime-styled” gacha mobile games I’ve played in the past. The recent release introduced the game’s first event dedicated to a character’s birthday (Cater’s) celebration lasting about a week which increases the EXP garnered for upgrading their unit card as well as increases in generating in-game currency and the player’s level in mini-games outside of the main storyline. In addition, this release also wound up splitting the third chapter into two sections.

I decided to make this point in the review because when it comes to mobile games, especially the gacha types, events are the bread and butter that encourage players to continue working on their units and are continuously released at a speedy rate. I can’t help but think about how we live in a world where most things are readily accessible at our fingertips and the wait between content updates feels so long since we’re living in a binge culture. I’m not upset by any means for waiting for new content to come in because I’m conscious of how Toboso worked with a team to create this mobile game but wore several hats involving a lot of decision-making, being the scenario writer, the designer and the lead artist for Twisted Wonderland.

Honestly, all I have are words of praise for Yana Toboso, Aniplex and Disney, and their teams on collaborating together to birth this mobile game. I’ve waited four years for it to be released to North America and I don’t picture myself deleting it off my phone any time soon.

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