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What's the Deal With Disney Twisted-Wonderland?

by Kim Morrissy,

Disney Twisted-Wonderland isn't the first time Disney has collaborated with prominent Japanese game creators on bold new interpretations of classic Disney properties. The most obvious example is, of course, Kingdom Hearts, but there have been other examples over the years: The Grimgar, Ashes and Illusions director and character designer worked on a game to teach programming, and the Air Gear and Bakemonogatari manga artist created the character designs for a (discontinued) mobile game.

And then there's Disney Twisted-Wonderland, featuring characters designed by the Black Butler artist, which will be among the first Japanese TV anime to stream on Disney+.

Disney Twisted-Wonderland stands out among the other Japanese-developed collaborations because of how unabashedly otaku it is. The game is a loose reinterpretation of classic Disney villains who don't actually appear directly in the story. Instead, they're portrayed as historical figures that inspired the original characters and dormitories of a magical academy. This allows the game to put all its focus into its large cast of pretty boys, who have the vibes of the Disney villains but not much else in common. The big appeal of the game is in spending time with the boys as the mystery of the world slowly unravels.

Because of the otaku slant, it's only inevitable that the bulk of early commentary about the game is about the elements that seem incongruous with the family-friendly image of classic Disney, like how the boys have lanky and edgy-looking designs that look at home in a gothic romance. But although Twisted-Wonderland is steeped in otaku culture, it's also deliberately designed to be the most accessible experience possible for non-otaku. You don't need to have played dozens of otome games to get the appeal of this, and I suspect that for many it will serve as a gateway to female otaku media when it comes out in English.

The first thing you need to know about Twisted-Wonderland is that it is not a romance game. The story is, first and foremost, a fantasy adventure. The player character's default name is gender-ambiguous, and the boys don't make any comment about their gender. It is not possible to romance the boys; unlocking their individual episodes is just a way of learning more about their backstories and deepening your friendship.

It's also not a boys-love game. Each character has a shortlist of other characters they get along best with, which makes them perform better together in the combat segments, but any romance is left up to individual interpretation. Actually, a big appeal of the game is watching the guys not get along with each other, because the bulk of the cutscenes show them bantering and bickering. It's the perfect thing to fire up your imagination if you're so inclined, but it's not going out of its way to tease a romance that isn't going to be fulfilled.

Twisted-Wonderland is really good at juggling its moody aesthetics with goofy elements, maintaining a light-hearted and accessible tone. Sure, it's “dark” but it's all tongue-in-cheek. The character writing is interesting because the boys all have their own quirks but also a few screws loose somewhere. Being inspired by Disney villains, they don't abide by conventional morality. They're endearing, but purely on the level of fictional characters. You wouldn't want to actually hang out with any of these guys, but their distinctive edge makes them stand out among the character archetypes they represent.

Technically, Twisted-Wonderland didn't need to be a licensed Disney product to tell a story with a twisted spin on classic fairy tales or Alice in Wonderland. The otome game world is full of popular titles with a similar slant, like Alice in the Country of Hearts and the Ikemen series. But Twisted-Wonderland is able to go one step further with its homages by name-dropping Disney characters and directly referencing locations and events from the films. However, because it's all woven into the original fantasy lore of the setting, it contributes to the mysteries instead of coming across as blatant nostalgia hooks. This game might be liberal with its portrayals, but it's all the more fascinating to a Disney buff because of it.

On the other hand, the gacha elements and tepid gameplay will probably make this game difficult to get into if you're not already used to this kind of gaming model. Veteran gacha gamers will point out that it's a relatively easy game for free-to-play players, and because there's no PvP element, there's no need to think about the metagame. But that ease of progression also means that the gameplay is not very interesting in its own right; the combat is simplistic, and in practice you'll spend most of your time doing the same lesson simulator over and over. The idea is that by subjecting yourself to the tedious grind, you'll feel more attachment to the boys you've raised and will want to roll the gacha for their alts. This is a visual novel first, with some RPG mechanics that serve to artificially inflate the playtime.

I do want to give a special mention to the rhythm game elements, though. They exist as part of the main story, with short dialogue exchanges occurring between the gameplay segments. On a purely technical level, they might feel like a watered-down version of a better game, but there's a lot of charm in the 2D animations, and it's a neat way of delivering story developments like a musical. Although the individual parts of Twisted-Wonderland aren't great, cumulatively they add up to a memorable smartphone game experience reminiscent of the classic Disney films that inspired it all.

The game will get its North America release on January 20, so for those of you living in that region, you'll be able to witness for yourself this love letter to both Disney and otaku culture. Let's hope that Twisted-Wonderland also becomes available in more regions in the future.

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