Oh Alice. You’re a childhood memory to all. The splendors of Wonderland and its inhabitants are staples of the imagination. The colloquial collection of colors and the spontaneous sentiments of the strange denizens of this domain are now common characters that are a part of fairytale folklore. The popular Disney film gave us a visual representation of Wonderland first hand and its beauty was now interpreted for us all to see.
It’s true that all things come to an end and what goes up must come down. Later as adults, we learn of the drug overtones and more perverse aspects of the tale. The famous Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit” is now a classic looking glass view of the counter culture’s idea of Wonderland. Disney has a new film now showcasing an older Alice and a distressed Wonderland. The once benevolent Queen of Hearts is now a clear antagonist and threat to Wonderland. “Down with the bloody, red queen” as it were. Alice becomes more adult as the whimsy is replace by cold, harsh truth. Will truth destroy Wonderland? Will Alice’s adult life and tribulations shattered the beautiful imaginative land? What used to be colorful and fantastically has become hellish and depraved. The fun adventure has turned into an arduous journey. The dream is now a nightmare. Oh Alice. What have you done?
Alice: Madness Returns starts after the end of the first game, American McGee’s Alice. Alice’s parents and sister died after a fire burned down their home and Alice was institutionalized after being unable to mentally handle the traumatic experience. She has been released from the Asylum but is still in the care of Dr. Bumby who is continuing her treatment. Alice’s memory of her family’s death still troubles her and before long, she’s back in Wonderland where her mind’s fragile state seems to have manifest itself as a demonic train. Although the story may seem a bit farfetched at first, it’s actually one of the strongest aspects of the game. As Alice attempts to piece together her mind and Wonderland, she also is able to figure out the truth about the fire. The plot ends abruptly and that’s disappointing but if you’re not about the destination, you’ll enjoy the journey.
If the plot isn’t your cup of tea (snicker), then maybe the visuals will be. This probably isn’t a surprise but Wonderland is gorgeous. Everything is incredibly detailed and thought out. From a technical standpoint, the graphics are not the most impressive you’ve seen. However, the beauty comes from the art direction. Each area is magical and ominous at the same time. Chapter 1 and chapter 4 are stand outs in my opinion, as they are beautiful sights to behold. Even the storyboard-esque cut scenes are well done and interesting to watch. Not everything is well laid out, however. At times, textures pop in late. There’s a lot of invisible walls and areas where it seems you jump onto but you can’t. This disrupts the experience and immersion. In this way, Alice: Madness Returns suffers from some of the problems older 3D platformers suffer from. Most of the levels result in a lot of empty areas for you to fall into, leaving some of the level designs to feel hollow. Also, the level design sometimes feels as if it’s repeating itself. This is most prevalent in the second chapter. While the art direction is beautiful, level design is lacking and inconsistent.
The music is atmospheric and helps set the mood for many of the different locals you’ll be at. However, none of the music actually stands out on its own and is only effective in conjunction with the other elements of the game. Sound effects on the other hand are similar but are much more effective on their own accord. The slices of the Vorpal Blade are clean and satisfying to hear. The enemies gurgle and screech with great effect. The Hobby Horse, especially when upgraded, slams down with a thunderous boom and is extremely gratifying. The greatest aspect of the audio though is the voice acting. The dialogue is an assortment of British idioms and quick witted lines. The actors give a good performance with my favorites being the Mock Turtle, the nurse Pris and Alice herself. The script gives the game a lot of character and cut scenes are a thrill to listen to.
At the heart of this game is a platformer with strong third person fighting mechanics and they’re both well implemented. Combat especially is great and is a highlight of the game. It’s easy to switch to different weapons in the middle of combat as all weapons are mapped to their own individual button. However, you have to switch between the pepper grinder and the teapot weapons when it could’ve been mapped to their own buttons. You gather teeth throughout the levels and use them as currency to upgrade your weapons. The changes are noticeable and you’ll strive to get to the next weapon. The fights are always action packed and you do need to be on your guard. Enemies are varied and will attack you simultaneously and gang up on you. Some say it’s a hard game but I personally felt it to be challenging but not difficult. Alice moves fluidly and easily. However, the dodging is, well, dodgy. Many times I found myself moving towards my opponent or into his attack instead of away from it. Maybe a fixed camera with dodging mapped to the second analog stick ala God of War could’ve fixed this but maybe not, as the camera can at times get caught behind some of the scenery, blocking your view. Even with these small complaints, the combat is the most enjoyable part of the gameplay.
The platforming is a different matter. First, the good. The actual mechanics of jumping are great. Alice jumps and twirls and floats with ease and you’ll be crossing great distances quickly and there is a thrill of how far you can actually go. However, this doesn’t last as this aspect never evolves and within the first chapter, you’ve seen everything the platforming aspects of the game is going to show you. Eventually, traversing each area becomes boring, which is odd because you’ll want to see every level due to the aforementioned beautiful art design. In the end, it’s just jump around till you get here, hit a switch and continue on. Sometimes you’ll use Alice’s ability to shrink to see hidden platforms and hidden signs or to fit into small keyhole doors to access hidden areas. However, this becomes tedious since you need to hold down the shrink button in order to see these things and you can’t jump while shrunken. I realize this is to make it harder to see these platforms but it gets old and is more taxing than challenging. In all honesty, the platforming isn’t bad. It’s the level design that gets to you. Each chapter is so long and it doesn’t vary often enough, with chapters 2 and 5 being particularly annoying. The game would’ve benefited from more chapters that were smaller in length and had other level designs.
Alice also has small mini-games she’ll do and they vary level to level. You’ll pilot a ship and shoot at enemies in a faux side scrolling shooter mode, you’ll walk through a stylized 2-D level, and control a doll head through pachinko like mazes. However, none of these are anything more than dull distractions that attempt to break up the platforming monotony. The doll head mini game is particularly awful. If this wasn’t enough, for some reason, the developers included scenes where you slide down an incline, collecting teeth and avoiding patches of corruption that burn and damage you. I honestly don’t know what the point is to these segments. They don’t need to be here, they aren’t fun and they’re just a waste of time. There are also segments where you are not in Wonderland at all and you’ll play as Alice in real life in the slums of London. All you do during these parts is walk until you get to a cut scene. No action, no platforming, these are there to merely move the story along. While it is interesting to control Alice in these segments, I can’t help but feel that this could’ve been done in cut scenes and would’ve been more engaging. I wouldn’t take them completely out, as it does support the plot, one of the best aspects of the game.
Alice: Madness Returns is not a perfect game. Far from it. There’s little strange things like the fact that you can’t replay a chapter without erasing your current progress and you can’t switch unlocked outfits in game. There’s some features that are nice like the fact that you get the original game, and there is bottles, memories, snouts and rose petals to collect. Also, the Red Queen is a cool reveal but the Chester Cat is annoying. However, the game’s shortcomings are leveled out by its strengths with end results being…eh. Gameplay isn’t broken, it just can be uninteresting at times. Wonderland is stunning if maybe unimportant. If you like games with strong narratives and interesting locals, you’ll enjoy this game. I would give this game a try and some of you will enjoy it and some will not and that’s okay. It is a task to get through this game. I had to force myself to play this game and being a completist didn’t help. However, I did get every collectable and I did finish the game and I’m glad I did. I don’t regret playing this through and I felt accomplished. Alice: Madness Returns is worth a rent and to its credit is different from most games out today.
Oh Alice. You’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, into the abyss. A grueling journey of disgusting ruin corruption and abysmal platforming layouts. The Mad Hatter in shambles, the Chester Cat of no help, the Red Queen a stubborn opponent and your mind torn asunder. Your quest may end but to whom will it matter? Alice, you’ve got mad. But then again, we’re all mad here…
3 out of 5
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