Eleven years ago on my birthday, American McGee, a game designer introduced the world to his own dark, sinister version of Alice in Wonderland; American McGee’s Alice which developed quite a cult following, along with a fair amount of critical and commercial success. His grim, macabre version of Alice took place a few years after Through the Looking-Glass. Alice narrowly escapes her burning home, only to listen to the cries of her family as they’re incinerated while trapped inside. She then retreats back into Wonderland, albeit not the wholesome and light hearted version we’ve previously known as a coping mechanism. The original game left many questions unanswered, and American McGee and his studio, Spicy Horse finally decided to answer them, while bringing Alice’s story to a close after lengthy hiatus.
Is it worth your time and money to return to Wonderland again, and discover the truth behind the death of Alice’s family? I certainly think so. Madness Returns [which is set exactly a year after its predecessor] opens with Alice mid therapy session with her psychiatrist, Dr. Bumby, who encourages her to let go of the painful memories and guilt she harbors over the loss of her family ten years earlier. The game boasts some really great cinematics, with selectively colored black and white ink sketches not unlike the actual drawings you’d see in Lewis Carroll’s source material. Alice is finally free after spending 10 years in Rutledge Asylum, but is still left wondering about the truth behind her family’s demise. The game’s rendering are MUCH improved over the previous installment, but don’t see their true potential unless you’re playing the PC version, on a very game worthy PC.
Alice is beautifully rendered herself. From her varying range of dresses, to her flowing hair, the character model is exquisite. The costumes in the game are beautiful, and Miss Liddell has a plethora of dresses to choose from, a new one for each area. Her animations are smooth, and her hair has some of the best physics I’ve seen in many a game. Unfortunately, only some of the environments match Alice herself in their aesthetics. The first Wonderland area of the game, The Vale of Tears was rich in color and detail, while one of the later areas; A Samurai themed world later in the game looks pretty unpolished throughout. It’s textures are bland and didn’t seem to have much care put into them, while the colors are extremely pallid. When recreating something like Wonderland, it’s disappointing that the developers didn’t devote more time or imagination to every area, as the source material certainly gives a lot for creative freedom. The immersion, while great in some regards wasn’t entirely consistent either. You might find yourself faced hitting quite a few invisible walls in Madness Returns. What annoyed me the most was the inconsistencies with the walls as well; In the Queensland was able to jump up on ledges in one of the Chess rooms, but unable to in a subsequent room of identical design.
That being said however, I felt that these intrusions didn’t detract from my enjoyment too much; Madness Returns has very solid platforming mechanics without being tedious. On a personal note, I’m actually quite picky about what platformers I’ll dedicate any of my gaming time too; I find many to be clunky and either too redundantly straight forward, or overly convoluted in an attempt to create depth. I found that Madness Returns found a really fantastic balance between the two; the platforming challenges the player is face with felt rewarding, and required some planning, without being frustrating or overly simple. When you do make a mistake, the game’s auto-save feature puts you back right where you died; which prevented the game from becoming repetitive. Madness Returns integrated the lore of Lewis Carroll’s work beautifully as a game experience as well; Alice will have to use her “Shrink Sense” (Shrinking Violets, “Drink Me” Shrinking Potion) to reveal hidden platforms or pathways throughout the level. There are breakable obstacles with her very appropriate Teapot Cannon sub weapon, as well.
In addition to the Teapot Cannon, Madness Returns boasts a creative arsenal of weapons, which can be used in a variety of situations and manners. The signature Vorpal Blade from the first game returns as your primary weapon of choice. Other weapons from the previous installment have been replaced; but with creative and fun counterparts. You get a Hobby Horse for powerful, wide range attacks. A Pepper Grinder, to shoot enemies from afar with; The Clockwork Bomb, which comes complete with a pocket watch detonator, and the Umbrella, which you can deflect projectiles with. Rather than forced rigid combat aspects, players can use any of these weapons to combat enemies. You can choose to keep your distance and take down opponents with your Pepper Grinder, or beat enemies into submission with powerful Hobby Horse strikes. These weapons are of course, only present in the Wonderland portion of the game however, which is the majority of the game. The plot shifts according to Alice’s on goings in Victorian London, centered around the Whitechapel District.
After her release from Rutledge Asylum, Alice is trying to live as normal of a life as she can. Under certain circumstances, she finds herself falling back into Wonderland, which is apparently in grave danger. An “Infernal Train” poses a threat to Wonderland, complete with an eerie, abandoned station in every realm. Alice discovers saving her sanity can also save Wonderland, so she sets out to do so, along with discovering the nature of the train, and what it symbolizes. As Alice ventures through Wonderland’s twisted scenery, she discovers memories revealing hints about the truth behind her families’ deaths, and her descent into madness. What occurs in Whitechapel impacts Alice’s hallucinations and descents into Wonderland. Without wanting to spoil much, while I enjoyed the plot, I felt it the narrative was a bit scattered and erratic, yet haunting and engrossing. This may have been intentional on the part of the creators, to reflect Alice’s own insanity, which I can respect. The Cheshire Cat’s cryptic bread crumb trail of hints is present in this game too, and works nicely in tandem with the memories you discover. Some parts of it are deliberately vague, and while each character you encountered in the original game seemed to represent something, it’s difficult to discern what some of them symbolize now, yet some of these figures also tie in nicely with details we already know.
Game play feels similar to a Zelda title, which is enjoyable in most regards. Alice’s Will meter is now gone (since weapons don’t rely on Will, and only the Pepper Grinder and Teapot Cannon have cool down restrictions) and her HP is now represented by red roses, not unlike heart containers. Combat is centered around finding enemies weakness’, striking at the correct time and dodging with your extremely pretty butterfly teleport. The combat is built on EA’s Unreal 3 Engine, which makes it pretty solid to play overall. The combos are fairly basic, you can transition from your Vorpal Blade and chain into your Hobby Horse. But if you were expecting a combo system on par with games like Bayonetta, you won’t find that here. Alice is also unable to attack while in air; a decision I felt could have made the game more strategic if included. And while its predecessor was more tailored for playing with a mouse, Madness Returns seems geared for a controller, and I felt maybe a little more development in combat could have supported the newer control type too. There are also quite a few mini games, primarily puzzles scattered throughout Wonderland as well. A lot of these are actually optional, but some of them are pretty fun and provide a nice reprieve from the denizens of Alice’s mind. The Oriental Grove chapter features a fun 2D side-scrolling mini-game that feels like a throwback to older adventuring titles, with a very interesting water color art style.
The talented Chris Vrenna of Nine Inch Nails, who composed the soundtrack for the first game has also returned. I felt the music in the previous installment was better than this one, but still enjoyable and supported the atmosphere and tone of the game nicely (Especially in the House of Cards area in the Queensland.) Most of the [appropriately talented] original voice actors have returned as well. What really makes the game a solid package for me is the free copy of the original American McGee’s Alice. Exclusively available on the PC when it was released, gamers like myself can finally enjoy it on a home console (either PS3 or 360, each version of the game will come with a voucher.) I will admit, the controls don’t compliment a basic controller too well, but the game is still very fun to play, and completes the experience for those of us who didn’t have gaming PC’s in the early millennium.
Overall, I feel Alice: Madness Returns, while lacking in certain departments is still a quality title. I feel that some of the issues present don’t detract from the unique experience the game offers you; a very solid platformer with some interesting weapons and a variety of game play mechanics, complete with mini-games. There’s even a set of DLC dresses and weapons available for the game as well. I definitely enjoyed the game, but it’s source material offers so much creative freedom, I felt they could have done even more with it. It has some brilliant ideas and concepts, but could have executed them in a more polished, refined fashion in some departments as well. I would still highly recommend this game to any gamer looking for something to shake up the monotony of current generation games that are afraid to try anything new, or fresh.