Jeremy Jastrzab
17 May, 2011

Alice: Madness Returns Preview

PS3 Preview | Take a look at what madness has brought on return.
While he mightn’t be John Carmack or John Romero, American McGee has tried his best to spruik his experiences with some of the biggest gaming names ever created – including several important roles with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. While American McGee’s Bad Day L.A. was famous for being a total failure, and Scrapland didn’t make use of some good ideas, it was his first title, American McGee’s Alice, that set tongues wagging. Taking the timeless piece of classic children’s literature from Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, McGee drew attention by turning the seemingly joyful ‘Wonderland’ into an insane, twisted and macabre wasteland, as a mentally deteriorating Alice gets sent to a mental asylum following the accidental death of her family in a house fire.

This was back in 2000, and American McGee’s Alice was a PC exclusive. In the 11 proceeding years, EA has since picked things up and recruited American McGee’s latest development house, Spicy Horse, to get a sequel into gear. In Alice: Madness Returns, McGee returns to take on key roles in the development. Set 11 years later, Alice has been living with a psychiatrist, following the ‘episodes’ in the asylum, and had been stable for this period. However, things start unravelling one day, as the memories of the fire that she’s being trying to suppress keep pointing to homicide, and not an accident as first thought. As her mind begins to unravel once more, a trip back to the twisted and broken Wonderland is on the cards.

Following a chance to get some hands-on time with the first chapter of Madness Returns, it’s clear that in concept, both this game and the original ought to be applauded for taking such an audacious approach to the source material. And to an extent, it works remarkably well. In terms of the visuals and the settings, it’s something that’s virtually incomparably, highly stylised and conceivable to anyone familiar with the source material that this could be what the Wonderland of someone with a broken mind would look like. This was clearly evident in the first two areas of the game – primarily the ‘Hatter’s Domain’. Incidentally, the menagerie of dilapidated and warped coal-powered industry sets a wonderfully confronting scenario and tone for the rest of the game.

I found myself, in Wonderland.

I found myself, in Wonderland.
But something that stands out very early on is the demand for knowledge of the previous game, and the source material. Admittedly, if you know nothing about the Alice in Wonderland source material (particularly the 1951 Disney rendition, and no, the 2010 Tim Burton atrocity doesn’t count) then you need to crawl out from that cave. Soon. You will definitely miss a lot of the setting without knowing the source. And as the first chapter indicates, if you haven’t played the original, you’re going to miss a lot of the continuity. Thankfully though, new copies of Madness Return will come with a download code for a remastered digital version of the original. However, it will only be playable with the sequel in the disc tray, and the achievement/trophy list points to it being just ‘locked away’ on the disc. Hmm...

The gameplay itself has a distinct pre-HD flavour to it, as it plays like the Zelda/platforming action-adventure hybrids that were so common on the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube. So you’ll get around some relatively large environments, packed with platforms, secrets and discoveries, while fighting off a variety of enemies using the targeting mechanics pioneered in the first 3D Zelda game. Aside from Darksiders, there haven’t been many titles using this style of gameplay, so it’s good to that developers are still interested in applying it. From the play time in the first chapter, it was refreshing to play a game that was constantly throwing up platforming environmental puzzles, and despite the linearity, it felt as if you’re working your way through a maze of sorts. The Hatter’s Domain itself felt like a mix between Bioshock and Psychonauts, so in the least, it has some big name relatable pedigree.

But then everything went to hell...

But then everything went to hell...
The combat was split between the vorpal blade, an insidious looking knife that covered melee, a pepper grinder that was an interesting choice as a ranged weapon and a clockwork bomb that was also used for solving puzzles. There is one more weapon, according to the control scheme, but it wasn’t made available yet. The platforming worked well – loose enough to be open, but not too loose to be frustrating. The most interesting addition was ‘Shrink mode’. Holding the left trigger/button would literally shrink Alice to a much smaller size, which would be useful for getting into inaccessible nooks and would also trigger the sight of clues and directions that aren’t visible at normal size. And early indications point to a game could encroach on 15 hour play time. Still, there were a lot of niggles that stood out in Alice: Madness Returns.

In short, the game seems quite easy, quite simple and quite archaic in a number of design aspects. The puzzles and platforming, while more than adequately functional, come across as dated and rudimentary. The combat is fine, as you need to learn the right tactics for each opponent, but the camera around the lock-on hasn’t evolved since the last generation and mechanically, it can feel loose and sloppy. The lock-on change feels loose and random and you don’t always dodge in the direction that you point. But there are a bunch of little design issues that stand out too. For example, after upgrading your weapon, you’re only told that it’s new level and not what its upgrade brings. There seems to be little scope for gaining new abilities. While in shrink mode, you can’t jump… even though many platforming situations seem to demand a need for it. The final game has left a lot of questions unanswered.

Look at this evil *****.

Look at this evil *****.
From the first chapter so far, the story telling was hit-and-miss. It often felt that the unparalleled source material and unique premise weren’t being utilised or delivered as well as it should be, leaving the player either confused or unfulfilled. In terms of style and art direction, both in the game and the animated cut-scenes, Alice: Madness Returns is profoundly amazing, with a completely unique flavour. It’s quite shocking at times, but it feels like it’s meant to be like that. Technically though, there are issues such as screen tearing and aspects such as the animations are very poor and dated. Voicing and dialogue violently oscillates from brilliantly succinct and sharp, to confusingly cryptic, to just plain dumb. But some of the character realisations are quite amazing, like the Cheshire Cat who seems to epitomise the delightfully ambiguous yet morally murky setting that is on show.

Despite having 11 years to make something of it, American McGee leaves Alice: Madness Returns in a precarious position. It has made creative use of amazing source materialm while the style and premise has something that has the potential to be totally mind-blowing. However, had it not been for the inclusion of a digital version of the original (albeit locked on the disc), many would have been alienated by the direct sequel. And despite a refreshing return to the action platforming genre, there are several areas of questionable and deficient design that could hamper the overall final experience. You’ll come for the style and premise, but whether you stay and see it through will depend on how these aspects outweigh the others.
Will an amazing style, fascinating premise, unique setting and Cheshire Cat be enough to outweigh a potentially archaic design template? The answers will be know upon the release of Alice: Madness Returns.

Related Alice: Madness Returns Content

Alice: Madness Returns story trailer
18 May, 2011 TFU has never been more appropriate.
Alice: Madness Returns Review
21 Jun, 2011 We're all mad here.
Alice: Madness Returns to include original Alice
19 Apr, 2011 Delightfully delirious.
2 years ago
This is saddening icon_sad.gif
2 years ago
Sounds very much like the art has been updated, as one would expect, but it mechanically remains in the same realm as the original. That was fine for then, but not so much now.

I expect this will be an enjoyable game for those who really dig the style and want to see the craziness around each corner. Others might get a bit bored of the gameplay.
2 years ago
It'll probably depend on the price for me, I adore the first game, but after having a crack at it again the gameplay doesn't really hold up, although I still think the "feet" system is a genius idea.
2 years ago
"feet" system?
2 years ago
A pair of spinning feet marks the spot where if you jump, that's where you'll jump to. It meant that there was no chance of poorly calculated jumps in the first game and you'd never get narky that it wasn't doing what you were telling it to.

I much preferred it to other platformers at the time where I often found myself miscalculating jumps.
2 years ago
It was a great way of overcoming the depth perception problem in 3D platforming games.
2 years ago
I'm really enjoying the art direction/style of this title. I never played the first but always heard good things, and am a fan of the source material. Hoping it turns out OK, will probably base everything on reviews and hopefully a demo I can download.

Seems the only other thing Spicy Horse have done is American McGee's Grimm? Did anyone play that?
2 years ago
theory wrote
Seems the only other thing Spicy Horse have done is American McGee's Grimm? Did anyone play that?
I wanted to but I think it was only available through GameTap, which isn't (or wasn't) available in Australia.
2 years ago
theory wrote
Seems the only other thing Spicy Horse have done is American McGee's Grimm? Did anyone play that?
I only played the first couple of chapters.
As I recall the game play was a combination of katamari damarcy (increasing Grimm'ness rather than size) and de blob (painting Grimm'ness on the terrain) but not as fun a either.
The story lines were "naughty" fairytale... think farting dwarves or fat fairys etc.

In short not as much fun as I hoped.
However it may have picked up in quality, its been going for 23 episodes now.
2 years ago
23 episodes... hmm... it would have to be half decent to keep going that long... which I guess is a good sign...
2 years ago
Decent, or simply part of a contract... icon_wink.gif
2 years ago
Good point.

Wiki says "Season one had an average IGN score of 6.1"
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Australian Release Date:
  16/06/2011 (Confirmed)
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