HIGH Fantastic art direction and a horrifically surreal tone.
LOW Breaking "crates" and tracking down meaningless collectibles? So '90s.
WTF Are players really supposed to be able to hear the hidden snouts oinking?
I admit it. I've got a bit of a weak spot for Alice in Wonderland. Something about the concept of being lost in a hallucinogenic, psycho-spawned landscape clicks with me, and whenever someone has a new interpretation of the original material, my interest never fails to pique. As such, it was a foregone conclusion that I would find myself playing American McGee's Alice: Madness Returns at one point or another.
This third-person platformer comes to players ten years after McGee's original Alice, and starts off with our heroine speaking to a therapist. Terrible events from her past are revisited for the player to see, and the developers make clear from the outset that the adventure to come is taking place within a troubled, damaged mind—of that there is no doubt. What follows is a disturbingly surreal quest to cleanse a broken psyche of internal strife and restore what's left of little Alice Liddell's sanity.
When things get rolling and transition from the dismally grey "real" world to the fantastic inner landscape of Alice's imagination, I was immediately taken with how beautiful, and even magical Wonderland was. Each area is wonderfully realized with rich palettes of color, and unbelievable detail work that explodes with creativity. Bottomless vistas fade out like lost memories, bloodied machinery grinds ominously and without mercy, castles made of playing cards float in pure blue skies, and twisted dolls in distorted proportions come together to create a world that is both awe-inspiring and deeply unsettling. The tone, mood, and art direction in Alice: Madness Returns are unassailable.
Just as stunning as the environments? Alice herself.
A master class in elegant character design, Miss Liddell's constantly-shifting dresses and heavily-lined eyes are simple, yet defining—a perfect complement to the deceptive ease of controlling her.
As enhanced as the world she explores, Alice can evade enemies by dissolving into a cloud of butterflies, her ability to triple jump and glide is almost angelic in nature, and the full complement of weapons she wields (from the snicker-snack Vorpal Blade to the shield-shattering Hobby Horse) are smartly mapped and effortless to implement. Within just a few moments, her entire range of abilities feel like second nature. Easily approachable yet pleasantly complex, finding this level of balance in a character is rare, and I have great appreciation for the way Alice exists in a comfortable space between combo overkill and simple navigation.
My fondness for Alice aside, examination of the play formula reveals a design sensibility that I never would have expected. For players old enough to remember, a shorthand way of describing it is to say that Spicy Horse has created the greatest N64 game that never was. Although it may sound like an insult (and really, it's not) Alice would have been absolutely mindblowing back in the late nineties.
At that time, designing games in all three dimensions was a brand-new thing, and the standards to come were still being set. While this new ground was constantly being broken, a large number of character-action platform games appeared. The bulk of these placed heavy emphasis on making difficult jumps in 3D space and offered plentiful item collection as a central component. Alice faithfully follows in that same tradition, and honestly, it would have blown most of the competition out of the water back then.
Unfortunately, now is not back then.
The lion's share of time in Wonderland will be spent piloting Alice from floating object to floating object, the nature of which will vary. In one place, it's airborne mah-jongg titles; in another, it's cages suspended in space or jellyfish buoyantly bobbing under water. Regardless of what these platforms look like, there is little variation or depth. Jumping is just jumping, and there's a lot of it. Don't get me wrong though—platforming is always a welcome component in my book as long as it's done well (and it's done well enough here) but there's too much of it, and not enough of anything else.
In fact, the most significant problem with Alice: Madness Returns is that each area is about three times longer than it needs to be, and jumping places only gets a game so far. Leaping a challenging series of gaps high above a bizarre landscape is fresh and exciting the first time, but each level tends to repeat that first round of thrills at least two more times with little or no variation before the player can move on to the next world. Gameplay doesn't begin to truly shine until the fourth chapter, but that point will be at least eight or ten hours in for most players. Instead of somehow "adding value," the game's insanely bloated length only highlights how little there is to it.
In a weak attempt to add some meat to the bones, Spicy Horse again reinforces the N64 flavor of Madness Returns is by stuffing its worlds full of worthless collectibles and items that have no real importance.
There's nothing interesting about breaking crates in empty rooms to collect money, and the appeal of combing mostly-linear paths for hidden nooks and crannies quickly wears thin when there's little benefit to doing so. Spending time picking up "memories" that aren't relevant to the task at hand or bottles which have no function whatsoever may keep completionists occupied, but I had no use for this kind of design ten years ago, and I have no use for it now. In fact, if I wasn't concerned about affording Alice's weapon upgrades, I wouldn't have wasted a moment on this sidetracking frippery at all.
At this point readers might be wondering why I've said little about the plot, and that's because there's not much to say. The trail of narrative breadcrumbs starts well, but the choice bits are spaced hours apart, and there's little urgency to the events. In fact, I had been playing for several hours before someone asked me if I'd been spoiled on who was behind "the mystery." Quite honestly, I hadn't been aware of any mystery at all. While there are some intriguing moments, the plot isn't nearly as compelling as the virtuoso aesthetics, and the end definitely left me wanting.
On one hand, I'm utterly in love with the artistic side of Alice: Madness Returns. It hits many of the right notes and displays several strokes of brilliance. The later levels are especially stunning, and not likely to be forgotten soon. The work here is so thematically rich and opulently gorgeous, I can't do anything but love it. On the other hand, my resolve to keep playing began to die off just a few hours past the starting point. The lack of variation in jumping and collecting could have been forgiven if the adventure was more concisely told, but it was deeply disappointing to find that the developers had taken an utterly amazing eight-hour adventure and diluted it into fifteen or more.
Alice: Madness Returns is still a mad ride worth taking, but from start to finish, I never stopped thinking how much better it could have been with help from a strong editor's hand.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 15 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, sexual themes, strong language and violence. Despite being based on a franchise that's generally seen as being "for kids", this interpretation is most definitely not for the young ones. Many of the areas are extremely creepy and would probably induce nightmares in young ones, and while the combat takes place against fanciful creatures, it does have a brutal edge to it. The cut-scenes are definitely slanted towards older viewers as well. Keep the little ones away.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be aware that music cues and some sound effects often signal the approach of enemies or "dangerous" areas. However, combat does not depend on these cues very much, and most enemies are clearly introduced visually. The game also (apparently) uses an oinking sound to signal hidden pig snouts that lead to collectibles, but I could never hear them. For dialogue, the game does offer subtitles. There were a very small number of instances when I noticed that subtitles were not included, but those occurrences were few and far between.