Eleven years is a long time in gaming, but apparently it's never too late for a sequel to a well-received game. American McGee's Alice showed gamers a twisted interpretation of Lewis Carroll's books 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking Glass'. With an eye for the macabre even more melancholy than Tim Burton's recent adaptation, Alice stuck in our minds for its visual design and strange story. Now, Alice: Madness Returns has appeared to take us back to Wonderland, but has young Alice moved with the times, or is her head stuck in the memories of the past?
The Wonderland of American McGee's Alice is a psychological one - Alice Liddell's entire family was killed in a house fire, which caused her to retreat into a world inside her own psyche as she was institutionalised. Alice: Madness Returns takes place after Alice has been released and she is in the care of psychiatrist Dr. Bumby. While Bumby tries to make Alice forget her past, others in London take advantage of Alice's condition, and at certain points, she slips out of consciousness and sanity and into Wonderland. Here, the land is flooded with a ruinous black ooze that spreads as a demonic train destroys both Wonderland and her memory, and Alice must traverse this landscape with the help of some old, albeit decrepit or deformed, allies and save it.
The story is revealed in a variety of ways, including in-game cutscenes, 2D cutscenes that are highly reminiscent of Tenniel's original illustrations (you know, the ones they have at Pancake Parlour) and through memories recovered as items, hidden away in every level. Even with all of these elements, the story does feel a little disjointed and fractured, especially if you haven't played the original Alice. In terms of the story's progression, you're always chasing a particular character for information, who in turn sends you to another, and another, which fits in with the madness of Wonderland, but this can make for a bit of eye rolling after completing a chapter.
Alice: Madness Returns certainly retains American McGee's distinctive style, mixing dark fantasy with surreal gore. Just when you think you've seen how twisted some of the realms Alice visits can get, they'll become even darker or fleshier in some cases. Expect to see plenty of blood, creepy dolls and assorted body parts in your journey through Wonderland. At times, the levels can seem over-designed in a way, and by that we mean there's just way too much crammed into some of the locations. The underwater chapter has a lot of areas that are chock full of shipwrecks, stonework and other assorted sea-related stuff that is kind of hard to appreciate, since it's all on top of each other. Nevertheless, it's all a very surreal experience, which is par for the course with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The gameplay feels strangely mired in the past, although this is not necessarily a bad thing. Madness Returns has a heavy focus on platforming, which at first feels a little weird. Alice can do several double jumps in the air, as well as having the ability to glide, and it takes a while to get used to just how far she can actually travel since combining these double jumps and glides is a bit of an art in itself. It doesn't help that the camera decides to go dutch when you glide either. There are also sliding sections taken straight out of Super Mario 64, although without the catchy music. Size-changing abilities are also a part of Alice's repertoire, as Alice can shrink to get through small spaces and find (many) hidden areas. Shrinking will also allow Alice to see previously invisible graffiti and pathways, that mostly disappear when you transform back to regular size.
Combat in Madness Returns feels very much like The Legend of Zelda. Pulling the left trigger down will bring down the letterbox, and allow you to focus on one enemy to slash away at with your Vorpal Blade. You're also given a pepper shaker and tea cannon for long distance attacks, and a hobby horse for strong, slow, close range attacks. The Zelda comparison even continues with your own rabbit bombs as well. The way you can switch between all of these weapons is very fluid, and combat feels fun due to the addictive slashing mechanics of the Vorpal Blade. Enemies come in several types that require different tactics, and you're often faced with several different types at a time. This makes combat challenging and occasionally frustrating if you haven't cottoned on exactly what the fastest way to take out some enemies can be (the Ghost Sailors had us stumped), but it all works quite well.
Years of the internet have taught me that one of the card soldiers down there is probably digging the giant Alice.
There are also several puzzles, challenges and mini-games that break up Madness Returns. The 2D platforming sections are the best of these, offering small fun breaks, while sliding puzzles seem too easy and out of place in Madness Returns. Redula Rooms can be found around Wonderland that offer specific challenges for Alice, with the reward of rose quarters (just think the Pieces of Heart from Zelda). Speaking of collectibles, the currency of Wonderland is strangely teeth, which can be used to upgrade your weapons by speaking to a skull that lives in the ribbon on your back. 'Kay.
All of this is well and good so far, but the real problem with Alice: Madness Returns, and it's a big one, is pacing. The game lasts about 15-20 hours, but only has five levels. Now, granted that these levels develop and alter as you play through them, but that doesn't keep them from feeling like a long slog of platforming sections and fighting. For too long do you go from similar room to similar room, solving similar puzzles and fighting similar enemies. Even the mini-games recycle, wearing out their welcome rather than providing the relief from the main game they should. It can take you three to four hours to get through a single level, and you hardly ever know when it's all going to end as there are no boss battles, except at the end of the game (the lack of boss battles, we have to admit, is humorously lampshaded near the start of the game). In any case, this is a weird situation where a game would have benefited from being half as long, as right now it just feels too padded out with busy work and mindless repetitive tasks.
We've talked about the design of Wonderland already, but the actual quality of the visuals are quite good as well. Alice has some great animation, environmental effects are nifty and the game runs relatively bug free (aside from the occasional invisible wall or barrier around an object). Sound design ranges from atmospheric to barely noticeable, and while most of the characters are well voiced, some like the bottle fish are kind of ear-splittingly annoying.
Alice: Madness Returns has a lot of enjoyable elements, as the platforming feels fluid and the combat is fun. However, when the pacing of the game has you doing nearly the same tasks over and over again in levels that stretch out far too long, the magic can get lost, which is the game's biggest sin. Madness Returns is nonetheless a cool experience for those looking for a dark take on Lewis Carroll's tales, but it's an experience that unfortunately outstays its welcome.