Admittedly, I’ve never played American McGee’s Alice. I’d heard of it, but never actually played it. Seeing as Alice: Madness Returns is a direct sequel to its predecessor and picks up ten years after the events in the first game, I’m not sure what intrigued me to give it a play. Perhaps it’s the macabre imagery that it gives us, or maybe the dark and mature take on Lewis Carroll’s classic tale. Whatever it was that pushed me to pick this game up, I must say, I’m thankful for it. While not without issues, Alice: Madness Returns is a neat game that I thoroughly enjoyed playing.
In Alice: Madness Returns, our young heroine is an impoverished orphan who is haunted by the traumatic events that took the lives of her parents. The memories of these harrowing events start to induce Alice’s Wonderland hallucinations and so she returns to the twisted world in search of answers and a chance to retain her sanity.
When she arrives though, she finds out that a wicked evil has taken over the world and Wonderland is in peril. Now she must venture through this hellish world to try and save it from the imposing threat and to put the pieces together of what really happened on that fateful day when her parents died.
Story wise, the game is a bit messy. Granted, I haven’t played the original but as hard as I tried I honestly had no idea what was ever going on. The story is told in an odd fashion as well and literally comes off as pure nonsense. I couldn’t figure out a thing. It’s incredibly difficult to follow and by the second level I had given up all hope. Even if you have played the first game you’ll be at a loss here. While playing, you often forget what your objective is and where you’re supposed to be heading. With such a heavy focus on the combat/gameplay, it seems like the story was almost an afterthought for the dev team.
Luckily though, the rest of the game is fairly good. One of the first things you’ll notice once you set foot in Wonderland is how incredibly beautiful the world is. The design here is stunning and every single little detail has been painstakingly created to enhance this mystifying fantasy land.
As you travel throughout Wonderland, each area has a different theme and each one is as impressive as the last. There are winter levels, forest levels, lava levels, underwater levels etc. Each one looks fantastic and the art design here is an absolute triumph. It’s hard not to stop and stare every once in a while and just take it all in. The Wonderland we get here is like Pixar on acid. It’s twisted, messed up and dark but it’s absolutely captivating and truly breathtaking.
The complex, unique and fascinating design makes Wonderland a pleasure to explore. Most of the macabre imagery here is inspired by the classic fairy tale but there’s still a ton of originality. It’s a massivley impressive game in terms or art and design and it’s probably worth playing for that aspect alone.
That being said, this is a platformer and the most important part of any platformer is the gameplay. Luckily, with Alice: Madness Returns, it mostly delivers in this area. The gameplay holds up very well and is both addicting and fun. Among other things, Alice can triple jump, float and shrink herself. All three of these abilities come in handy when playing and all of them are balanced pretty well.
The shrinking ability is especially helpful as it allows you to fit into smaller spaces, see otherwise invisible platforms and view helpful hints that are painted throughout the environment. There are a lot of hidden nooks and crannies here and quite a few collectibles. If you’re into that sort of thing, make sure you make good use of the shrink ability. There is a solid exploration aspect to this world, it’s not just straightforward platforming.
Aiding Alice in her platforming are the environments themselves which feature slippery slopes, bouncy mushrooms, steam vents, moving platforms and other envrionmental aspects that assist in your platforming. Most of your time will be spent traversing through the gorgeous environments in platforming fashion and it’s honestly a ton of fun.
Admittedly, it can border on being repetitive but it never really gets that bad. Whether it’s partly due to the new environments and enemies that are constantly thrown at us or whether it’s due to the jaw dropping imagery that surrounds you, I truly don’t know. Whatever it is though, there was rarely a moment here that I wasn’t having fun.
Along with the platforming elements there are some puzzles to solve (mainly envrionment puzzles) and of course we also get some combat. While the fighting handles alright, it is the weakest area of the game. The team at Spicy Horse razzles and dazzles a bit by giving the weapons a unique look but essentially, it comes down to gatling guns, explosives, knives, melee objects etc. There’s nothing that really stands out here and as per usual, you can upgrade each one by collecting teeth which are dropped by enemies after you kill them.
Certain weapons are more effective against certain enemies but in all reality, combat is anything but challenging and most enemies go down pretty easily, making most of the battles feel like filler. I’m not that disappointed with this seeing as the game is primarily a platformer but I’m just saying that combat is far from satisfying and the weapons all feel more or less the same. The design of the weapons does infuse them with a bit of creativity but at their core, they’re just your standard set of death dispatching tools.
Another issue that stems from combat is that, while there is a lock on system, the camera powering it isn’t great and will sometimes give you a poor view of your target. It’s never a huge issue and only happened a handful of times but when it does occur, the awkward viewpoint can lead to an unnecessary death. Overall, there is just a lack of fluidity and polish in the combat.
As for the enemies, while they may not be challenging, they certainly are well designed. Each level has its own enemies and most of them have clear strengths and weaknesses, leaving you with set strategies for each. We get a good handful of different enemy types and their design and characteristics are all unique and perfectly represent the game’s tone and overall look.
Also adding a bit of diversity to the borderline repetitive platforming is a couple 2D sections. Certain scenes take on a 2D appearance and give you a break from the platforming, offering you neat little sections like a 2D submarine shooter sequence. The execution of these sections isn’t always perfect, but their inclusion in the game is appreciated.
While most of the gameplay is pretty strong, the major problem is that it never evolves. Later levels aren’t much harder than where you started off and it seems like most sections have you doing the same routine in order to progress. Like I mentioned before, this leads to some monotonous gameplay and repetition.
You always feel like you’re pulling another lever, floating on another smoke stack or double jumping across another gap. Sure, the levels are gorgeous to look at and their design is fantastic, but it still doesn’t help the fact that each one feels the same while playing it.
On the technical side, the game isn’t perfect either. A couple of awkward loading scenes and jarring transitions from gameplay to cutscenes may frustrate gamers as well as a camera that isn’t totally ideal, providing for more than a few unfair deaths. It should also be noted that although the design and imagery deserve praise, the graphics themselves leave a lot to be desired. They’re simply not up to par.
At 5 levels long and 2-3 hours per level Alice: Madness Returns gives us a lot value. There is no multiplayer but to make up for it, included in new copies of the game is the console version of the original American McGee’s Alice, which is a nice addition.
Despite the game’s issues, there is so much imagination and creativity involved that it’s hard not to admire the game. The twisted world of Wonderland is an intriguing playground to flex your platforming skills in and I really did have a good time playing this one. The problem is, when you strip away all the paint, Alice: Madness Returns is like any other platformer, just set in a far more captivating and unique world.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh though. Alice: Madness Returns is definitely a tea party you’d be foolish to miss. The breathtaking design and imagery mixed with some exciting and fun platforming makes for a really solid gaming experience. Flaws poke up here and there and it’s not exactly game of the year material but it is an overall strong effort from the team at Spicy Horse. If you’re looking for a bit of a change of pace and something a little different than your standard shooter fare that is currently littering the market then maybe this is just the game for you.
Alice: Madness Returns was released on June 15th, 2011.