Alice: Madness Returns Review

by Stefano Terry

Genre: Action/Adventure

Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC

Developer: Spicy Horse

Price: $29.99 (USD)

I never played American McGee’s original Alice, but I found myself drawn to the sequel due to it’s intriguing concept and atmospheric art design. I didn’t know much about the title beyond it being a dark tale inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Ironically, Alice in Wonderland isn’t exactly one of my favorite stories to begin with. It never quite grabbed me like other fairy tales.

With that said, I dove into Alice: Madness Returns with pretty moderate expectations. I often find that going into new things with moderate expectations helps to avoid the disappointment that often comes with hype. Although, by the time I had got my hands on Returns, I had heard many negative things about the game. I shrugged them off, preferring to make up my own mind when it comes to what I should and shouldn’t enjoy (and then write a review for others to read, of course!)

First things first, however. For the uninitiated, Madness Returns continues the adventures of Alice Liddel, a young woman driven insane by the suspicion that she has murdered her family in a horrible fire. To deal with this trauma, Alice’s subconscious whisks her away to Wonderland, which, while beautiful, is also full of danger, and problems of it’s own. At the start of Returns, it is a year after the events of “Alice,” and she has been released from the Rutledge Asylum and is living in an orphanage in what looks to be Victorian London.

Despite undergoing treatments and coming to terms with her doubts about the truth of her parent’s death, Alice is still haunted by visions of Wonderland. I won’t ruin too much of the narrative, but it isn’t long before Alice finds herself transported into Wonderland once more, and is forced to dive deeper into her darker secrets while saving Wonderland as well.

The narrative is, for the most part, well told, although occasionally disjointed. The story is told through well animated 2-dimensional cutscenes, but often, bridges between the various scenes seem to be missing, and the story can be hard to follow. Which is a shame, because it is rather interesting, and strives to touch upon the complexities of a damaged mind, but most of it seems like random events barely held together by the plot. Then again, that’s very much like Alice’s brain, so perhaps it’s brilliant storytelling. In either case, I sometimes found myself wondering exactly what the hell was going on, but in the end, had my head wrapped around it.

On the graphical front, Alice: Madness Returns is a rather nice looking game. Alice in particular, especially in Wonderland, looks wonderful, and has some amazingly lifelike hair physics that causes her dark locks to dance and sway with each movement.

The environments in Wonderland are vibrant and detailed, which is a stark contrast to the drab and dreary streets of London, which serves as small bridges/hubs in between chapters. Enemy designs are interesting, and sometimes genuinely frightening. Human NPC characters are kind of freakishly grotesque on the aesthetic level, but are pretty low detail and are a visual low point on a graphical level. Overall though, Madness Return’s look is cohesive and pleasing, and one of the driving motivations of the game beyond narrative is simply seeing what fantastical environment Alice will find herself in next.

Gameplay is refreshingly straightforward and simple. While many games strive to be more cinematic in their presentation, Alice simply feels like a video game. No pomp and show here. It’s a third person adventure game through and through, with easy to grasp game play mechanics.

Each chapter pretty much has you getting from one end of an elaborate level to the next, with combat interspersed between light puzzle solving and some, to be honest, frustrating platforming. The combat and puzzle solving were the most enjoyable parts of the game, as Alice gets some fun weapons/skills to utilize against foes. These weapons can be upgraded by spending teeth you collect  scattered throughout the levels. The puzzles are nice and simple diversions. There are also a lot of secrets to uncover, either through utilizing Alice’s shrinking ability, or finding floating pig snouts hidden throughout the world that will open up secret passages. The use of Alice’s shrinking skill are a source of both some clever game design, and some frustrating game design. Which brings me to the platforming…

The platforming sections are simple and forgiving at first, and Alice is blessed with the rare ability to triple jump, and glide her way across gaps. Unfortunately, the latter half of the game features some excruciatingly frustrating sections in which the controls, which clearly weren’t designed for platforming, and the bothersome camera, led to many an untimely death and checkpoint restart. These sections soured what was otherwise a rather pleasant and enjoyable trip to wonderland, and by the end of the game, I was so angry that I couldn’t really revel in my completion of the game.

VERDICT: RENT – Which is a shame, because, in the end, Alice is a visually interesting, conceptually compelling, and refreshingly old school gaming experience. I struggled with my final verdict on this game, because I initially rented the game, and enjoyed it so much that I bought it, only to kind of regret the choice after experiencing the frustration of the last two chapters of the game. Because of this, I can’t help but recommend it as a Rent. It’s a game of decent length, with many satisfying moments and game play, but the frustrating platforming segments hampers what could have been a sleeper hit of 2011.

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