The Legend of Alice: A Link to the Past
Alice: Madness Returns is a bit of an odd duck – in more ways than one. Of course, as is to be expected, it’s a trippy, out-of-this-world game experience, which offers a fairly unique experience. But much more importantly, it shoehorns itself into a certain market space due to its predecessor, American McGee’s Alice. How much you loved the first entry will likely be a deciding factor in whether or not you invest time and money into this follow-up, and those that weren’t interested in the original game ten years ago will likely not consider purchasing the sequel. Having the deck stacked against it in this way is a real detriments to this game, as it is rather an enjoyable escape into an alternate headspace.
It’s impossible to review this game without making an occasional reference to its prequel. While the two games do share some connections story-wise, it is entirely feasible to play Madness Returns without any prior knowledge of Alice. Moreover, Madness is an improvement to the original in virtually every way – exactly what a sequel should be!
The Beauty of Ruin and Decay
The most immediately noticeable improvement is in this game’s graphics. But is it really surprising that the graphics stack up favorably against a game that came out over a decade earlier? So let’s toss aside the notion of “the graphics are so much better!”. But even standing on its own two proverbial feet, the graphics in Madness are quite lovely. The vistas of Wonderland look vibrant and beautiful; even the grimy, rusty, and just plain nasty areas are a joy to see. Of special note is the look of the newly introduced “Real World” and its human inhabitants; the ultra-stylized look of Alice’s waking world is off-putting at the first instant due to its unfamiliarity. Within a matter of moments though, the gritty, sepia/monochrome look and feel of London’s East End and Whitechapel districts comes to resemble a graphic novel, and stands in beautiful contrast to the colorful world of Wonderland.
Cutscenes are also stylishly represented, with cardboard cutout images of characters and settings, like a child’s popsicle stick theatre. Overall, the graphics don’t disappoint, and there is a good bit of stylized variety on display. The developers have also paid attention to many small details, such as Alice wearing different outfits matching the world she finds herself in.
Cuttin’ the Deck of Cards
The next big – giant – improvement is to the battle system, in that there actually is a battle system this time around! One of the frustrating things about the original game was the fact that it was difficult to combat enemies effectively, as battle and movement were basically one and the same system, and shared the same camera controls. This time around, there are several features that make combat easy to handle. Alice is able to lock on to enemies in combat, even while moving. No more manual aiming required. The number of weapons has also been reduced; the Vorpal Blade makes a return, and during the course of her adventure, Alice will pick up a few other inventive pieces of weaponry/household objects, like the Hobby Horse for bashing through enemy defenses and the Pepper Grinder for distance machine gun-style shooting. The weapons can be upgraded in speed and power multiple times, rather than cycling through weapons one at a time, they are now mapped to separate buttons. This means that players can switch from weapon to weapon on the fly, even mid-combo, making multi-weapon combos possible.
Enemies require different tactics and strategies, and often players have to employ a bit of trial-and-error to find the right combination of weapons that work best for individual enemies. When Alice’s health runs dangerously low, she is able to enter a rage-like state in which she takes no damage and is able to dole out significantly more punishment to her adversaries.
Even though battle controls are much more streamlined and accessible, combat is far from easy. Enemies rarely show up alone, and often Alice will have to defend, move, and block her way about the field while lining up enemies of different sorts in her sights, all of whom require separate strategies to defeat.
It’s the World We Live In
Even though it incorporates much combat, the game is essentially a 3D platformer. The competent camera allows players to jump, float, and generally maneuver Alice across wide expanses, pools of lava, and deadly pitfalls. Divided up into six chapters (which are, to say the least, massively long and will each require multiple hours to complete!), a large part of the game focuses on Alice’s efforts to help the denizens of Wonderland by fixing the world that is crumbling around them, much as she did in the original game. However, where the original game lacked any motivation on Alice’s part to do so, this time around Alice is out to recover her memories of the tragic death of her family years ago, who expired in a mysterious house fire, leaving her the sole survivor. Essentially, she is on a search for answers, and as the story unfolds, players will help Alice make some surprising revelations, and ultimately fight for her sanity and peace of mind.
Along the way, plenty of familiar Wonderland faces return, along with some new ones. But good and evil are not aligned as they once were, and characters who once hunted Alice down will now become steadfast supporters (and vice versa). An early example of this is in the Mad Hatter’s realm, in which Alice has to help reassemble the Hatter’s scattered body parts so he can help her defeat March Hare and Dormy the Dormouse (who had been tortured and brutalized by the Mad Hatter in the first game). Much as the Mad Hatter’s factories and mechanized world make up the first chapter of the game, individual chapters are individually themed. During chapter two Alice tracks down the Mock Turtle, the Carpenter, and the Walrus in an underwater world (wisely designed without any actual swimming!). Meanwhile, the third chapter uses feudal Japanese design elements, from its environments to its enemies, as Alice searches for Caterpillar. The level begins in what is essentially a Japanese Zen Garden, complete with koi swimming and jumping in the water, teapots, samurai wasps, and floating Mah-Jongg tiles. The other-worldliness of it all was quite reminiscent of some of Tim Schafer’s works, like Psychonauts and Brütal Legend.
As much as the Wonderland chapters are themed worlds with their own sensibilities, Alice’s waking moments in the real world are depicted in an unapologetically harsh manner. The game makes no bones about how menacing the poverty-ridden alleys and shanties were to an orphaned adolescent recently released from an insane asylum – or for any youths in general. Violence, prostitution, child abuse, corruption, etc were all a part of that part of society, and Alice’s world is desinged accordingly, to the point that she cannot even make her way to the chemist’s store without being accosted and propositioned by the seedy and unsavory inhabitants of her neighborhood. As dark as it comes across, the addition of these real world moments are a twisted yet nice touch, providing an anchor to the fantastical regions where the plot unfolds. Of course, Wonderland itself is often no less extreme, with extreme violence and mutilation happening to the fantastical creatures everywhere.
The Final Verdict
Despite the fact that players who weren’t familiar with or didn’t care for the original title will likely pass this game up, it’s an enjoyable and competent platformer with very unique design and a darkly pleasing aesthetic. While the levels themselves, despite hidden areas and collectible items and memory fragments, are very linear, it’s the game’s surprising variety that spurns the player on; at any moment, Alice may be sliding down a slalom-style slip ‘n’ slide, 2D side-scrolling in a Chinese wall scroll, completing (sadly simple and easy) block puzzles, or solving music/rhythm mini-games. Some of these elements may be simplistic, but they do keep the game from being bogged down in unending jumping and combat scenarios.
Bonus: American McGee’s Alice Review
Those who preordered a copy of Alice: Madness Returns got with it a code to download the original American McGee’s Alice, previously only available on the PC. Even those without preorder status could purchase a copy of the first game after purchasing the sequel. But how does this game stack up, now eleven years after its initial release? Is it worth investing in?
It’s important, when taking on this game, to be very aware of its PC-only heritage. Since it was designed from the ground up to be played with keyboard and mouse, its entire control scheme had to be refigured and placed into a console controller. This brings with it some of the biggest flaws of this re-release. Alice doesn’t so much run, but instead seems to glide across the floor like a hockey puck across the ice. Not to mention that camera control takes quite a bit of getting used to – not in its design (analog stick, like many games) but in the fact that it feels way to loose. Since we’re dealing with a platformer that oftentimes requires precise movement and jumping, this becomes a problem.
Combat is likewise hampered by the controls: targeting is imprecise, and the attacks themselves are at times ill-timed or unresponsive. Not to mention that there is no way to lock on to an enemy; players need to physically move the camera to keep the target in their sights – which takes away your ability to see where you’re moving! Overall, the controls have been translated to controllers imprecisely at best, sloppily at worst.
The game’s design is a mixed bag: levels are colorful and generally interesting (especially in the latter part of the game), and the game has a lot of dark and twisted personality, at times bordering on sadistic. However, many of the game’s puzzles seem to have no rhyme or reason to them, and the inclusion of several underwater areas will make its players cringe with terror.
I can’t help but feel that this game might have made a better adventure game than a combat-heavy platformer, especially given its macabre twisting of the already acid-trippy source material. Unfortunately, the translation came off more flat than anything. With its token story not even being much of a prerequisite for players of the superior Madness Returns, there is little reason to go back and revisit this title.